Early Returns

Former Leaders Could Be a Powerful Force

Jonathan Bernstein's morning links.

He could have had some good advice.

Photo: National Archive/Newsmakers

Kevin Drum asks why former presidents are expected to be silent about their successors, which reminds me of one of the quirks of Watergate -- and of the current period.

It's not clear how much influence former presidents can have on either public or elite opinion, but to the extent Drum is correct, one could suppose that these distinguished political leaders might be thought of as a kind of resource of democracy: That they hold off during normal events may give them more weight when they do speak up. Whether that's true or not, it's likely that former presidents might have at least some ability to exercise some opinion leadership for same-party citizens. 

That resource of democracy wasn't available during Watergate. The last living former president, Lyndon Johnson, died two days into Richard Nixon's second term and a few weeks before the initial Watergate coverup began to unravel. Both Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower died during Nixon's first term. So Watergate coincided with one of the rare periods in U.S. history with no living former presidents.

But there was more. Not counting Truman, Johnson and Nixon himself, the only living former vice president during Nixon's presidency was Democrat Hubert Humphrey, at least until Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace in fall 1973. 

And that's not all. By Nixon's second term, Barry Goldwater was the only other living former Republican presidential nominee (the Democrats had just Humphrey and George McGovern). There were a few former vice presidential nominees still around, but it's hard to believe they had much clout. Just to complete the set: There was no living former Republican speaker of the House, and the only surviving former Republican Senate majority leader, William Knowland, held that position for less than two years. He died in February 1974. 

It's well known that Goldwater was part of the group (with Republican House Minority Leader John Rhodes and Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott) that met with Nixon and told him the jig was up: Republicans no longer had the votes to prevent impeachment in the House or conviction in the Senate. But it's sort of amazing how few senior leaders beyond the reach of normal partisan politics that Republicans -- or even Democrats -- had in the early 1970s. 

Right now, the U.S. has five former living presidents (two Republicans), five former living vice presidents (also two Republicans, and not counting George H.W. Bush), and several other former living losing presidential nominees, speakers and Senate majority leaders. If they all wanted to get together on something, they would be an impressive group, and they almost certainly would get the attention of the nation. 

1. Jonathan Ladd at Mischiefs of Faction on negative partisanship

2. Donald Trump's foreign-policy team has finally driven Dan Drezner over the edge

3. My Bloomberg View colleague Meghan L. O'Sullivan on soft power and Trump's climate action

4. From Thursday: Kristian Coates Ulrichsen at the Monkey Cage on Qatar

5. Will Wilkinson has a post-Trump agenda for Republicans. I'm not really convinced that Trump's nomination says very much about where Republican voters are, but I do agree it is evidence that the mainstream conservative program isn't exactly healthy. 

6. Jamelle Bouie on bigoted violence in 2017

7. Jared Bernstein looks at the evidence and thinks it's time for the Federal Reserve to pause

8. And Adam Serwer on Robert E. Lee

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    To contact the author of this story:
    Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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