In reading Walter Borneman’s new biography of President James K. Polk this week, I was struck by the fact that such a presidential candidate as Polk is exactly what America, and the Conservative Movement, needs in this election year.
Polk’s presidency was extremely successful, probably more so than any other, and academic historians, though not in philosophical agreement with “Young Hickory” or his slaveholding, generally recognize his accomplishments, ranking him in the top ten or near-great category.
What made Polk successful?
First, he had an overwhelming amount of experience, which dispels the often-used title given him of “dark horse.” After a brief period in the Tennessee state legislature, he served 14 years in the U.S. House, with two terms as Speaker and chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee. After leaving, he won the governorship of Tennessee, giving him a wealth of executive experience. Though experience is not always an indicator of success, in Polk’s case it was.
Second, Polk did not try to do too much. He pledged to serve just one term, even before he was elected. Though critics of this strategy might argue that he was immediately lame-ducked, Borneman rightly concludes that this allowed Polk to “spend his political capital freely and he did so aggressively.” He simply did not have to worry about a second term.
For his campaign platform Polk did not overwhelm the voters, like modern politicians do with lengthy campaign books on every conceivable policy issue, but simply listed four goals he wanted to achieve:
1) Lower the tariff
2) Establish an independent treasury system (as opposed to a national bank)
3) Purchase of California
4) Acquire the Oregon Territory
He achieved all of his objectives, something no other president can rightly claim.
And third, Polk was a fiercely determined man who held passionately to his political ideals. After his first term as governor, he lost the next two elections for a second term. Most politicians would be dead politically. But Polk did not quit, making a remarkable comeback. As president, he stayed the course until his campaign promises were fulfilled. The idea of flip-flopping for political gain would have horrified him.
What if we had such a candidate today? A strong conservative who could articulate the ideals of the Right. Perhaps someone running as an independent who pledged to serve one term and, without any need to seek a historic legacy, worked with a list of five specific goals:
1) Energy Independence – This could very well be the biggest issue of 2008. America has blindly and stupidly followed the advice of environmental extremists who are bent on dismantling our economy to protect the planet from a catastrophe that many scientists believe does not exist. We don’t need a new Manhattan Project or Apollo Program, as some Democrats have suggested, to find a new alternative energy source, because we have all the energy we need right here at home. When you take into account the fact that the United States has several hundred trillion cubic feet of natural gas, a supply of coal that can last centuries, 1 to 2 trillion barrels of oil shale, and tens of billions of barrels of crude that we know about, why do we need to import anything? Not only do we possess more than the entire Middle East, some experts claim we have more energy than the rest of the world combined! We should use these resources, while investing in new technologies and new sources of energy in a comprehensive energy plan. There is no reason the American people should be paying $5 a gallon for gasoline with no end in sight.
2) A New Foreign Policy – America must get off this idea that we are the policeman of the world and that we must be engaged in every hot corner of the globe. The situation in Iraq has to be stabilized soon, to the point that we can begin a safe withdrawal. We simply cannot continue to fund overseas wars at the rate we are spending. Furthermore, American troops are stationed in more than 130 countries around the world, with new bases planned as we speak. The American taxpayer funds the defense of many of our allies. These forces should be brought home where they belong, to defend our homeland and our borders. This will save us hundreds of billions of dollars a year and will, perhaps, ease some of the resentment other nations feel toward us. Ask yourself this question: How would we feel if Russian, German, or Saudi troops were stationed in the United States? A more traditional foreign policy as envisioned by our Founders, to stay out of the quarrels of other nations, would serve us well in the future. It’s time to concentration on our mounting problems here at home.
3) Budget/Entitlement Reform – By the time George W. Bush leaves office, the national debt will have almost doubled during his eight years, rising to nearly $10 trillion. It’s time to cut up the credit cards and return to fiscal responsibility and fiscal sanity. We must balance the budget and seriously reform our bloating entitlement programs, to begin paying off the national debt. According to the former Comptroller General of the United States, David Walker, the United States is facing an enormous fiscal crisis if we don’t correct the problem now. Social Security and Medicare have unfunded mandates of over $54 trillion! And that’s a conservative estimate! This number expands $2 trillion to $3 trillion per year without doing anything. Inaction will eventually cause the implementation of huge tax increases or massive benefit cuts, but quite possibly both! Federal spending should be brought back under control, within its constitutional bounds, allowing the inevitable onset of crushing taxation to be eased. But as long as politicians continue to hide from this 800 pound gorilla in the room, and kick the ball down the field to the next administration or the next generation, it will not get fixed until it crashes. Neither major political party candidate has even so much as mentioned these issues. And the idea that we can afford nationalized health care is simply ridiculous.
4) Fair Trade – The United States has seen its trade deficit skyrocket in the last decade and a half, with the expansion of free trade. With increasing imports, our industrial base has been devastated in recent years, with more than 3 million manufacturing jobs lost under Bush. Even Alan Greenspan, before he left office as chairman of the Federal Reserve, spoke out against what he called our “unsustainable” trade imbalance. And who suffers most? The American working man. The Conservative Movement, whether centered in the GOP or elsewhere, must craft programs to aid America’s workers, by protecting jobs and increasing wages, or else face years out of power. As of now the Republican Party seems beholden to Big Business and this image must be destroyed. We should work to rebuild our industrial base, the great “arsenal of democracy,” both for economic strength and national security.
5) Immigration – The flood of illegal immigration across our Southern border with Mexico must be ended without delay. The problem of mass immigration has three basic implications. First, at a time when terrorists are determined to strike the U.S. homeland it makes no sense to have an unsecured border. It is in our national security interest to seal our borders, even with troops if necessary. Second, as more and more immigrants pour in, there are less and less resources for them. As our economy sputters, does it make any sense to allow millions of potential workers in to compete for jobs when the economy is not producing enough new ones for the workers we already have? And, as the law of supply and demand teach us, a flood of labor will drive down wages, as it is already doing. Third, as Pat Buchanan has written, a flood of immigrants are a threat to American culture. We need to be able to assimilate those already here, into the American Melting Pot, before allowing any more in. And then we should only allow those immigrants who possess skills and talents that we need. Failing to control our borders may one day destroy our country.
An independent conservative candidate would do well by subscribing to James K. Polk’s political tactics and adopting simple campaign platform on issues that most affect the American people. It could also help revive a sick and depressed Conservative Movement. For if we sit idly by and let the political pendulum continue its swing to the Left without a fight, it may never come back!