Too Good for Politics
Is Barack Obama just another high-toned liberal doomed to failure?
This tradition, of course, predates Stevenson. Its roots go back to the classical or civic republicanism that permeated American thought in the revolutionary era. But the real precursors of Obama and Stevenson are the educated, middle-class reformers of the Gilded Age known as the Mugwumps. (George Packer and Casey Nelson Blake have both cited the Mugwumps, in passing, as influences on Obama.)
The Mugwumps were liberal professionals and gentlemen of the late 19th century who tried to transform both the economic arrangements of the industrial age, with their deepening social inequities, and the machine-dominated political system, with its patronage and corruption. They were the forebears of the Progressives of the next generation with whom they shared many qualities—both generations were, in the main, comfortable, noble-minded, often moralistic, usually sensible in their policy prescriptions (the civil service system, clean elections), but also elitist, given to condescension toward lower classes and minorities, and often blind to those virtues that the parties and their machines did possess.
Mugwump-style reformism went into eclipse during the New Deal. Franklin Roosevelt and his circle preferred a strategy of coalition building that had roots in Democratic urban machine politics. In their policies, they focused unsentimentally on economics—passing programs that would put food on people's tables. They dispensed with the Mugwumps' and Progressives' moral uplift in favor of a pragmatic approach.
With Stevenson, though, Mugwump liberalism reasserted itself—launching an era in which it would reside almost exclusively within the Democratic Party. The original Mugwumps had been Republicans, and the Progressives included at least as many Republicans as Democrats; even Calvin Coolidge displayed Mugwump tendencies. But after Stevenson, the Democratic Party furnished most of the presidential candidates and national figures who spoke the language of civic obligation, of suppressing group interest for the common good, of restoring an elevated political discourse. From Eugene McCarthy in 1968 to Paul Tsongas in 1992 to Bill Bradley in 2000, these figures typically commanded strong followings among students and upscale liberals, while generating comparatively less enthusiasm among labor and African-Americans, among other core Democratic voters. (John Anderson, the moderate Republican congressman who ran for president as an independent in 1980, might also fit the tradition.)
No one would deny the admirable side of the Mugwump inheritance: the policies it helped to implement, the idealism it represents, the commitment to principles like clean campaigning and good government that lie at its core. Yet the failures of Stevenson and his heirs pose a warning as well to those like Obama who would adopt this ideology, rhetoric, and style. For it was no coincidence that Stevenson and others failed as campaigners; his failure was rooted in his attitude toward politics. In 1952 and again in 1956, Stevenson tried to avoid negative campaigning at first, considering it undignified and an insult to voters. (He felt the same way about TV ads.) And so when he finally, of necessity, resorted to attacking Eisenhower—mainly by going after his running mate, Richard Nixon—Stevenson came off as desperate and hypocritical. The same was true for Tsongas and Bradley when they flailed haplessly at Bill Clinton and Al Gore.
Today, Barack Obama finds himself in a similar bind to those men. If he continues to heed the advice of friendly pundits to attack Hillary Clinton more forcefully, he risks undermining the very premise of his campaign, tainting his image as a new kind of politician while failing to land his punches, because in the end he's not really a street fighter. What he doesn't seem to understand—as Stevenson did not—is that democratic politics fairly demands a measure of thrust and parry, of appeals to self-interest, and of playing the political game. And so does being a good president.
David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.
Photograph of Sen. Barack Obama by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.