The demise of the wise men — or some approximation of it — is an interesting tale about changes in our own political culture. It can find its roots in the political upheaval of the 1960s. Young political radicals challenged the Democratic establishment, particularly its decision-making. They derided decisions made by political veterans and chipped away at the influence of the wise men. In the name of democratic reforms, they sought to change our presidential selection process.
Following the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention, the Democratic National Committee formed a new presidential selection commission. To appease the anti-war wing, they appointed members from the the party’s left to its leadership. It was headed by a Senator from South Dakota named George McGovern, who pioneered the Democratic Party’s reforms.
McGovern mastered the intricacies of the new system, which became our present day primary system. And he emerged as the party’s presidential nominee. In spite of losing to Richard Nixon in a landslide, McGovern forever changed the American political landscape. This ended the special role of elder statesmen.
After the 1968 reforms, presidential primaries replaced state party conventions. At the time, two-thirds of all the convention delegates came from state nominating conventions where political veterans — elders — dominated the process. When they were liquidated by the Democratic Party, a new class — political consultants — replaced the titans of the party and its wise men.
The primary system forced Republicans to follow the Democrats with simultaneous primaries. The power of their own statesmen waned, although there are a number who still exist in the Republican Party.
At that moment, partisanship began to rule over statesmanship.
This brings us to the present and why Barack Obama will not be met by a group of wise men who will give him counsel. They are long gone. And even if they were here, it is doubtful they could convince Obama to voluntarily step down as the party’s nominee. Presidential historian Tevi Troy says that stepping down will make no sense to Obama.
Troy suspects if things get bad enough, it is possible Democratic leaders might approach the president: “From the party there might be advantages from Obama stepping down,” he told PJMedia.
However, from Obama’s perspective this would never be an option:
He would be derided as a quitter were he to leave. And let’s not forget he’s the most powerful person in the world.
Nessen agrees, saying Obama’s outsized ego would never permit this to be an option: “I can’t believe a person with a good healthy ego, which he has, is going to voluntarily step down.”
It’s also unlikely that Obama will listen to outsiders, including Senate or House Democrats. Sabato, who has followed the political fortunes of presidents for decades, calls Obama’s presidency “a very personalized presidency.” It’s one that does not seek frank advice from outsiders.
“They listen to their tested advisors,” he says. “The people who entered the fire with them personally.”
Troy, who is one of the few presidential historians to actually work in a White House (for George W. Bush), says there is a bubble that not only insulates them but puts them in denial when the polls go south.
“You can call it denial or you can call it undying belief in the possibility of your success. Yeah, when you’re in the White House you always think you can turn this around,” he recalls. “That’s how you feel when you’re inside the WH bubble.”
One of the few potential larger-than-life leaders left in the Democratic Party is Bill Clinton. Although Obama and Clinton have been seen together lately, including a September 24th round of golf at Andrews Air Force Base, Clinton doesn’t fit the mold of a detached, elder statesmen. Partisan politics is still in his blood.
“Let’s face it, they all remember the 2008 campaign which was long and divisive and bitter,” Sabato told PJMedia. “Bill Clinton said many nasty things about Obama. … Clinton remembers very well that Obama kept saying, telling his people that ‘the last thing I want to be is another Bill Clinton in the presidency.’”
Democrat Fenn agrees that people with skin in the game are not honest brokers: “One of the characteristics you would want to avoid is having someone who has a chip on their shoulder,” he says.
Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, also reveals Clinton’s own ambitions ten years after he left office. He’s no elder statesman: “They all compete with one another, too. You know Clinton is still upset that Obama got the Nobel Peace Prize. You know he’s been angling for it for years. He’s the only major Democrat who hasn’t gotten it.”
They take this stuff very personally. They are competing in history, to be considered one of the top 10 presidents. They are competing against one another.
So don’t expect any non-partisan “wise men” or Democratic Party elders to emerge and ask Obama to step aside for the good of the party — or for the good of the nation. And don’t expect Barack Obama to voluntarily walk away from his presidency even as he falls in the polls. It ain’t going to happen.