Presidential Electioneering in the Senate

WHATEVER may be said against presidential third terms, there is no question that many strong arguments may be urged in favor of having all presidents elected twice. One of the strongest of these is that the practice would save an enormous amount of excitement and anxiety, an economy which, in the case of a nervous and excitable people like ourselves, is a matter of importance. It has been often pointed out that the political crisis through which the United States passes once in every four years has not its parallel in any other civilized country. In Europe they have no doubt frequent ministerial crises; but these, as they do not involve a popular election, do not as a general thing arouse popular passions; indeed, as they frequently assume a theatrical or spectacular character, a certain number of well-known politicians acting their part on the stage, the people looking on as the audience, they often furnish a healthy sort of political amusement to large masses of citizens, who derive all the pleasure from it which a well-acted play would give, without being obliged to pay anything to the government except their regular taxes for their admission. In the United States, on the other hand, every four years the whole country is convulsed over a struggle in which the fiercest passions of our common nature are stirred to their depths, and the voting population is divided into two hostile parties, each of which gradually persuades itself that the salvation not merely of the United States, but of the world at large, depends upon its success. There is no doubt that a great deal of the rage and fury of presidential campaigns would be saved by the practice of electing all presidents for a second term by means of an effectively corrupted civil service in connection with a subsidized press, and if done two or three times it could hardly fail to ripen into a permanent practice. No doubt moralists and reformers will say that such a practice is one of the most frightful evils that can threaten a free government, that it entails dangers to the very existence of democracy; but then moralists and reformers are always grumbling and uttering warnings of this sort, in order that they may be able to take advantage of anything that goes wrong, and claim the credit of having predicted it. Of course, so long as the party in opposition refused to adapt itself to the practice, there would be a good deal of nervousness and anxiety in its ranks as the time for reelection came round; but even then the party in power would be saved a great deal of wear and tear, while as soon as it became an understood thing, the process of reëlection would become merely formal, and it would only be at the end of eight years that the opposition would really feel bound to bring on an oldfashioned presidential campaign. The principal difficulty in carrying on the government of free countries has long been recognized by publicists as being the fact that there are always at least two parties, and it has been the aim of some of the greatest practical politicians the world has ever seen, from Cæsar to Jefferson Davis, and even later, to reduce this number to one. Just so far as they have succeeded, peace and quiet have followed; and just so far as the attempt is successful in this country, peace and quiet will follow. Some persons may think it is utopian to hope for such a change in public sentiment as will allow the habitual reëlection of presidents for a second term, in the interest of political quiet, but there are some striking instances of a similar sort of acquiescence. In Massachusetts,in ordinary times, the democratic party goes through the form of nominating state officers, but without any expectation of electing them; and it is only once in about twenty years that a political crisis occurs there. In the Southern States, for several years after the war, the practice of reëlecting the republican ticket was brought to a state of perfection equaled only by the regularity with which the democratic ticket is now reëlected; and between reëlecting a ticket and reëlecting a man there is very little difference in principle.

But the approaching campaign of 1880 will not allow us to indulge in such dreams of a perfect state for the present. During the campaign of 1876 both presidential candidates pledged themselves not to run for a second term, and so we are confronted already with the certainty that within a year we shall be plunged in a crisis of most unexampled magnitude, in which father will be pitted against son, and husband against wife, throughout the land, over the merits of two candidates for the presidency, who will respectively represent all that is vile, wicked, and hideous, or pure, lovely, and of good report, as the case may be. Mr. Hayes’s term is regarded by the leading politicians as a sort of interregnum, during which all that it is necessary for statesmen to do is to be preparing for the struggle over the succession. Already in Washington they have begun this preparation, and it is not too much to say that the campaign of 1880 has already opened there.

The place in which it has begun is the senate; for though it has often been observed that no eminent senator ever made the step from the senate chamber to the White House, this has not in the least diminished the interest taken in the attempt, and for obvious reasons. During the year before the formal opening of a campaign, the senate offers an excellent field for presidential electioneering. It offers this through the senatorial control of patronage, and also through the debates, the reasoning of statesmen on the subject being of this sort: presidents are elected by the States, but they are nominated by conventions; the first step to an election is, consequently, a nomination by the convention. This convention is made up of delegates from the States, and the States tell in the convention very much as they do in the election; that is, the largest States count very heavily, and the smallest States not at all. Therefore, it is very clear that the statesman who desires to secure the presidency must start either by securing the delegation from some large State, or by making his name so well known and popular that when it is brought before the convention there will be a spontaneous movement (common enough in such bodies) to support him. The first is the safest method; the second is the most interesting. To make use of the first is easier for a senator of the party in power than for any one else, because delegations to conventions are largely composed of, or closely connected with, the office-holding class, and the officeholders in any State derive their official being and opportunities of political usefulness to an enormous extent from senatorial patronage. By its skillful use, the officers in a State may be, in the course of a few years, packed so thoroughly that the state delegation to the presidential convention will with mathematical accuracy represent the views of the senator to whose exertions and activity its members owe their positions.

The proceedings of the senate this winter have already furnished instances of the two methods in the great “ outrage debate ” by which the present session was opened, and the manoeuvring with regard to the New York customhouse appointments, which has taken place in the secrecy of executive session, and of which the newspapers have taken care to furnish careful reports. The connection between outrage debates and presidential electioneering is not very far to seek. The great value of such a debate to a presidential candidate lies in the fact that it furnishes a noble opportunity for oratory, without entailing any disagreeable responsibility. You may take any view of outrages that you please, but there is one thing which you cannot persuade yourself or anybody else, and that is that an outrage debate will lead to any practical legislation or actual interference with the domestic affairs of the South. The reasoning of the leading statesmen who from time to time take part in outrage debates may be stated somewhat in this way: —

The Southern question is practically settled by the restoration of all the Southern States to the Union. They wall all unquestionably manage their affairs in the future for themselves, and among the rest they will deal with the negro question. This is a proposition capable of almost mathematical demonstration. There are some things in politics about which prediction is possible. It is perfectly safe, for instance, to predict that neither the present Congress nor the next one will impeach the president, for the simple reason that the requisite majority could not be found in the senate. It is perfectly safe to predict that the next Congress will not pass a bill recognizing rebel war claims, for if it did the president would veto it, and there would not be a sufficient majority in either house to pass it over the veto. For somewhat analogous reasons, it is perfectly safe to predict that the negro question will be left where Mr. Hayes’s administration has wisely preferred to leave it; at least as long as the present generation is on the stage. It is quite clear that no more laws or constitutional amendments on the subject can be passed, because the parties in both houses, and in the country at large, are too evenly divided. Again, the proposal that in congressional elections the United States may interfere to see that the voting is fair and the returns correct, though theoretically perfectly proper, can never be made to help negro suffrage much, because these elections are few and far between, only relate to the choice of congressmen, and therefore are a small part of the electoral machinery in any State. The negro derives his political education from the ordinary local elections for town, or city, or state officers, and if in these he is systematically defrauded of his right to vote, or made to vote in a particular way, it will make very little difference whether, in the comparatively infrequent congressional elections, the federal government interferes to protect him.

For these reasons it will be seen that to a statesman outrages present a rare opportunity for activity. On most questions the danger of taking a decided stand is very great: if you are unsuccessful in carrying your ideas into effect, you are not regarded with favor by those who are interested in seeing them carried out; if you are successful, you make many enemies, and are held responsible for the consequences. But with regard to outrages there are no consequences. No legislation is possible, and consequently the debate generally turns on the abstract question whether there are or are not outrages. This question has been investigated ever since the close of the war, and the investigation has led to a general belief throughout the North that there are outrages, and to the steadfast assertion throughout the South that there are none. The negro, who after all is principally interested, has, while the discussion has been going on, practically lost his power as a holder of the right of suffrage, and accordingly his opinion as to whether he is a victim of outrages or not has ceased to be of much importance in the view taken of the matter at Washington. On the whole, there can be no safer subject for a presidential candidate to take a stand upon than outrages.

The Washington public understand this perfectly well, and the attentive crowd which fills the senate galleries on such an occasion as that which marked the opening of the present session is not brought together by an interest in the negro, or by the old war feeling, but by a desire to see and hear a number of the most prominent presidential candidates of both parties get into a heated argument. A debate in the senate on the eve of a presidential campaign brings out the leading contestants for the prize, and gives them an opportunity to prove their prowess. None of them may ever get into the White House, but many of them will come at least very near it, and until the struggle is over it. is the competition, not the result, that is interesting.

The senate, for several reasons, offers a much better field for such a display than the house ever can. The oratory of the senate and that of the house are different, both from physical and moral causes. In the house, the noise and confusion, even under the most favorable circumstances, are so great that the first requisite in a good speaker is a good pair of lungs. The mere fact that a member of Congress speaking on one side of the house can make himself heard on the other puts him forward at once as an important person. A loud, far-reaching voice in such a body commands respect, just as magnitude of intellect or eminence in virtue does elsewhere. Inasmuch as nine tenths of the members cannot be heard at all, and speak under the disadvantage of relying for an audience on the circulation of an official record which does not circulate, a member with a loud voice is at once felt to be by so much better than his fellows that while they can obtain leave to print he can actually make them listen to what he says. It is not necessary that the substance of what he utters should be either wise or true; if he merely knows what he wants, it is enough. The natural tendency of the human mind is to credulity, and the congressman who really hears an argument (in cases where he has no antecedent bias) is apt to believe it, at least until some opposing speaker, with an equally loud voice, succeeds in making him aware that there are also arguments on the other side. So in any evenly divided debate, the decision of the house may very likely turn upon the relative strength of lung of the leaders of the two sides. This, however, is not by any means true of the senate. The chamber of that body being much smaller than the representatives’ hall, the carrying power of the voice becomes of less importance, and moral or intellectual force of greater consequence. It is almost possible for everybody to hear Mr. Conkling and Mr. Blaine, even when they speak in an ordinary tone; and therefore they have an opportunity of applying oratorical skill to other purposes than those of making it apparent to their fellow-senators that some one is speaking. There is another reason for the greater interest of the senate debates, and that is that the parliamentary law of the latter body is much the less complicated of the two. The rules of the house are so difficult of acquirement or ready application that some of the greatest men in it spend six or eight years in making themselves thoroughly familiar with them; and having devoted all their time to this, when they finally secure their position as leaders, they find that their mastery of the rules has precluded their making themselves masters of the subjects to which the rules relate; and so it is not uncommon to see a “ leader ” in the house, while readily keeping control of a bill, or fastening an amendment to one against the wishes of its supporters, and so defeating it, sadly deficient in a rudimentary knowledge of law or political economy, and in consequence failing as an orator, from the difficulty of “conveying to others ideas of which he is not himself possessed.” In the senate the comparative simplicity of the rules makes it practicable for statesmen to devote a portion of their time to the consideration of public questions; and also to the art of oratory, as a means of presenting the views on public questions which they may happen to hold.

There are four or five members of the senate who are recognized as the effective speakers of the body, Messrs. Blaine, Conkling, Thurman, Bayard, and Edmunds. Of these the last cannot properly be considered an orator, since his speaking is totally without ornament, and derives its weight solely from a judicial manner, and from the knowledge and keenness which he behind it. He has indeed carried indifference of his audience to an extreme, for in the galleries of the senate it is almost impossible to hear him. He is, however, always listened to carefully on the floor; among other reasons, because he has a considerable power of sarcasm, and has earned the reputation of “saying unpleasant things in an unpleasant way. ” Mr. Bayard also avoids rhetorical artifice almost entirely, and relies greatly upon the inherent strength of his arguments. He seldom discusses a subject without thorough preparation, and his speeches, whether on financial or constitutional topics, are always worth careful study, while his high character lends an additional weight to his reasoning. Mr. Thurman’s strength lies in his passionate conviction for the moment that he is right. Whatever view may be taken of his opinions or his consistency, there can be no doubt in the mind of any one who hears him that at the time he firmly believes in them. He is also a thoroughly good lawyer, and quick at repartee. Repartee, it must be observed, plays a great part in the debates of the senate and house, and is a doubly effective weapon in Washington, because it not only may turn the tables on an opponent at the time, but it alone, of all parts of a debate, is published the next morning in every newspaper throughout the country, and is read and remembered by the public, even when the subject of the discussion itself is consigned to general oblivion. In the house this is carried so far that even the most elementary forms of repartee are considered admissible, as being at least better than nothing at all, and when repartee fails, abuse not infrequently passes muster as a substitute. In the senate, of course, abuse is rare, but repartee is often indulged in to good purpose. Sometimes it takes a rather refined and subtle form, as when Senator Conkling studiously read proofs during Mr. Blaine’s great speech on outrages. But it corroborates what has just been said that this act was noted as one of the most important parts of the debate, and was telegraphed to all the newspapers that night.

To describe Mr. Conkling’s oratory would require a good deal of space. He is by common consent one of the best speakers in the United States, and yet it is difficult to say in what the secret of his power consists. He is certainly not persuasive; nor is he passionate or vehement, nor is he graceful or elegant. Some one in Washington, being asked to explain where his strength lay, expressed the opinion that his forte was " prolixity and anti-climax;" but it is unnecessary to say that this was the description of an enemy. There is no doubt that he has considerable power of sarcasm, and can make any one he dislikes feel very uncomfortable; but this alone is not oratory. His manner is decidedly theatrical, and, if it is permissible to venture a suggestion of the kind, it may possibly be that his success is really due to the mistake which public bodies of all kinds, from juries to senates and senate galleries, make between theatrical and genuine speaking. Mr. Blaine is an orator of a very different sort. He is accused of having brought too much of the manner of the house into the senate; but this is altogether too great a compliment to the house. His manner is his own, and it is a wonderfully effective one. With all the readiness of any of his rivals, he has much greater resources than most of them in the way of reading and allusion, and he has a touch of that poetry of feeling which lies at the root of all permanent success in the art of persuasion, and the absence of which cannot be made good either by learning or sincerity, or perhaps by anything except wit. It is unquestionably the presence of this quality (and the sympathy which its display invariably produces) in Mr. Blaine, and the absence of it in Mr. Conkling, that explains their comparative “running” powers in such a convention as that held at Cincinnati in 1876, Mr. Blaine carrying with him by sheer force of sympathy State after State, in the teeth of a violent opposition, based on an exposure terribly damaging to his reputation, while Mr. Conkling, outside of his own State, could find no adherents or following. Mr. Blaine’s popularity and his oratory reënforce one another; the only wonder about Mr. Conkling is that his reputation as a speaker is not seriously impaired by his unpopularity.

So far, then, as oratorical electioneering goes, the campaign of 1880 may be said to have been formally opened by the outrage debate of last December, and in this, though the debate necessarily left the outrage question where it was before, regarded as a presidential tournament, Mr. Blaine got the best of it. The great lack of the Southerners in debates of this kind is their want of humor, and their inability to treat the attacks of an enemy with anything but seriousness. They are a serious people, and it must be added that they feel and show a certain weakness on the subject of the negro which stands their adversaries in good stead. When they are accused of keeping negroes away from the polls, or " bulldozing ” them in other ways, they are never able to maintain that calm indifference which is the only attitude that can possibly make such an attack fall flat. They immediately reply' that if anybody has been bulldozing it is at least not they, and this always opens the debate for a historical inquiry into the past behavior of the South, in which it is needless to say that the South never appears well. So in this, as in most of the preceding debates on the subject, Mr. Blaine got the best of it, and so, no doubt, he will continue to get the best of it in the future, until outrages (as all subjects must, in the course of time, even in Washington) cease to be a subject of debate altogether.

But presidential electioneering may be carried on in many ways, besides debate on the floor of the senate. Mr. Conkling’s present method is quite different from that of Mr. Blaine. Although Mr. Conkling is an orator, he seems to have forsworn debate altogether, and for a year or more past has allowed the negro question, the silver question, and many another topic which furnished a fine opportunity for oratory, to pass him by unnoticed. There is only one subject on which he speaks, and that is the appointments of the New York custom-house. Once already has he defeated the appointment of a collector, and now, a second time, it is understood that he has secured a preliminary victory which makes the confirmation of the president’s second appointment an impossibility. If any one thinks this is childish malice or spite, he is greatly mistaken. Mr. Conkling has, in his opening of the campaign of 1880, abandoned oratory, for he has a reputation for that already which he could not improve, while he is devoting himself to custom - house intrigue, because that is what is necessary to give him control of the New York delegation in 1880. Those who think that patronage cannot play a very important part in the government of a Country like ours would do well to recall the remarkable rise and progress of Mr. Conkling’s system of political management. At the beginning of General Grant’s first term, Mr. Conkling was not a powerful man. His rival, Mr. Fenton, then had three quarters of the power which he now enjoys himself, and possessed the confidence of General Grant, and every prospect of future advancement. The republican party of the State of New York was then divided into Fentonites and Conklingites, and so evenly, too, that it was difficult for enlightened politicians to know which faction it was best to belong to. Now, in spite of great unpopularity both in Washington and at home (the extent of this feeling it is difficult to measure, because it has no means of making itself felt), Mr. Conkling has complete control of the entire republican machinery of his State. He controls the state committee, and he controls the legislature; and provided he can regain control of the custom-house he is as sure of having his State “ behind him ” in the convention of 1880 as he is of being senator for six years more. But it is a painful fact that the uncertainty about the custom-house is a serious matter. If the management of that body were to pass permanently into the hands of the enemies of Mr. Conkling, the connection between it and the party machinery in New York is so close that the complexion of the state committee could not long remain what it is now; and as every student of politics knows, where the state committee is gone, all is lost. Hence Mr. Conkling’s recent abandonment of oratory to his rivals and his strict devotion to the New York civil service are probably the result of much thoughtful consideration. The old argument that an election can be carried by nobody without a candidate who can carry New York will unquestionably play a prominent part in the secret preliminary debates and consultations, which will very likely determine the result of the republican convention in 1880; and Mr. Conkling will, unless all signs fail, be in a position in that year to insist that New York cannot be carried by the party unless a candidate is nominated who has his approval, and so will be able either to secure or to dictate the nomination. But for this purpose, it is absolutely necessary either that Mr. Arthur shall return to his post in the custom-house, or that the present condition of neutrality, which is to a great extent the result of Mr. Conkling’s combative attitude, shall be maintained.

And can it be doubtful what Mr. Conkling would do, if, finding he could not secure the nomination, he was still able to dictate the succession ? Here is a republican leader with a national reputation, a man who has never failed in what he has undertaken, and who has twice led the party in a victorious campaign. These arguments in his favor are reinforced by others of a less important character. The efforts made by Mr. Hayes and his administration to reform the civil service, so far as they may have failed or succeeded, have made him numerous enemies among the republican leaders. That he has the mortal enmity of Mr. Conkling is of course no secret; but the feeling is not confined to Mr. Conkling. This hostility against Mr. Hayes is easily convertible into attachment to General Grant’s fortunes, because it is well understood that the return of General Grant to office would entail the abandonment of all efforts in the direction of reform, and a reinvestment of the old “ senatorial group ” with all their former powers and privileges. Another strong point in his favor is the ease with which Grant delegations from the Southern States can be got together for the national convention; for among the negroes, the name of Grant is almost as familiar now as that of Sumner and Lincoln was. As the “ second choice” of every one whose first choice is himself, General Grant is certain to have great strength in 1880, and in a certain sense the electioneering which Mr. Conkling is now doing for his own hand he is also doing secondarily for General Grant. It is difficult to realize this now, while General Grant is making his progress through Europe and the East; but the moment he lands on the shores of the United States it will become painfully evident.

It will not do, however, to confine our examination of the present condition of the campaign of 1880 to one party only. The democrats propose to make one more effort in that year, and they cannot now be said to have more than two candidates, Mr. Tilden and Mr. Bayard. Of the latter little need be said here, for he does not engage in manœuvres or intrigue to secure his nomination. If he is nominated, it will be because he is really the best man in his party, and his party is reduced to such straits that they are willing to nominate even a good man for the purpose of winning a victory. With regard to Mr. Tilden the case in different. He is now actively engaged in his campaign, and curiously enough has begun it in Washington by a demand for the investigation of the cipher dispatches. The investigation is to be made, of course, by a democratic committee, and although the publicity given to the unlucky telegrams a second time cannot be expected to strengthen Mr. Tilden’s reputation with the public at large, an exoneration by a committee of his own party would unquestionably strengthen him as a democratic candidate. It is with a view to the campaign within his own State that he wants this. He is endeavoring to do with the democratic organization in New York what Mr. Conkling has already accomplished, or nearly accomplished, with the republican organization. Tammany Hall is to him what the custom-house is to Mr. Conkling, and to regain the control of this is now his main object. Down to the time of the municipal election in New York last autumn, his chances appeared to be of the poorest. He was at that time very nearly out of the field. He had lost the control of two successive state conventions, and finally of the state committee which organizes state conventions. If the city election had turned out in favor of the “ Boss,” he would have been doomed. But, strange to say, Tammany Hall was defeated by a combination of republicans and the anti-Tammany factions, and this meant the control, in a great measure, of the politics of the city, and indirectly of the State, by politicians who are friendly to Mr. Tilden. In other words, as things look now (at least to Mr. Tilden), Tammany Hall and the state committee will gradually pass into Mr. Tilden’s control; with that, the state convention of 1879; this of course insures his coming into the presidential convention in 1880, with the powerful State of New York behind him. If Tammany Hall could be secured, the only thing which could defeat the success of this programme would be the appearance in the field of some candidate as strong morally as Mr. Tilden is politically. Whether even such a phenomenon would affect the result in New York may be doubted. It is a curious fact that the republican successes in the campaign of last fall have rather strengthened Mr. Tilden’s power, as they have demonstrated the weakness of the Western inflationist wing of the party, and created a sort of feeling that, hard as the dose is to swallow, they have more chance of succeeding with a hard-money democrat from an Eastern State than with the most persuasive Western “ expansionist.”

Such is the state of the “field” for 1880 as it at present stands. It is a strange commentary on our system of nominations that between now and the summer of 1880 all these candidates may have faded from sight, and the respective nominees of the two parties may turn out to be two new statesmen of whom nobody now dreams as candidates, and who have not even reached the point of considering the question for themselves.