Is Mitt Romney the new James Polk?

According to a reporter at the Huffington Post, as reported by Politico, Mitt Romney’s campaign manager says that a Romney presidency might resemble the tenure of James K. Polk. What does Team Romney find appealing about our 11th President?

Polk, who served from 1845 to 1849, presided over the expansion of the U.S. into a coast-to-coast nation, annexing Texas and winning the Mexican-American war for territories that also included New Mexico and California. He reduced trade barriers and strengthened the Treasury system. And he was a one-term president. Polk is an allegory for Rhoades [the Romney campaign director]: He did great things, and then exited the scene, and few remember him. That, Rhoades suggested, could be Romney’s legacy as well.

The notion is that, like Polk, Romney will focus on a few big projects — most notably entitlement reform — and if this makes him a one-term Presidnt, so be it.

Actually, Polk’s presidency is quite well remembered compared to nearly all others from the 19th century. In a way, he’s like a baseball player, say Joe Rudi, who is so frequently described as underrated that he becomes somewhat overrated. But that’s a potential subject for another post.

For now, I’ll note that Polk didn’t decide to serve just one term as a matter or principle or to free himself up to tackle difficult challenges in the face of public opposition. Indeed, Polk’s position on expansion was very much in harmony with the prevailing popular mood of the day — one that older, more prominent presidential hopefuls like Henry Clay and Martin Van Buren failed to read. And Polk’s positions on tariffs and finances were standard Democratic Party fare.

As I understand it, Polk declared at the time of his nomination that he would serve just one term for reasons of political expediency. His nomination had been a compromise between, to oversimplify, the Northern and Southern wings of the Democratic Party, whose delegates had been unable to nominate either Van Buren (champion of the Northern wing) or Lewis Cass (mildly favored by the Southern wing). Polk was a southerner (from Tennessee), but as a protege of Andrew Jackson, he had decent relations with Van Buren (another Jackson protege) and his key northern supporters.

As the Democratic nominee, Polk knew that he faced huge difficulties in holding his fractured Party together during the campaign, particularly given the presidential ambitions of leading Democrats like Van Buren, Cass, John Calhoun, Thomas Hart Benton, and James Buchanan. To maximize his prospects of obtaining strong support from these key figures in 1844, Polk decided to announce when he accepted the nomination that he would not be a candidate for President in 1848; in other words, he would not stand in their way.

This gambit worked, although Polk had to make plenty of additional promises (not all of them kept) before he gained the reasonably enthusiastic support of the key players in his Party.

Will Romney follow in Polk’s footsteps? I don’t expect him to declare this year that he will only serve one term. And enacting Paul Ryan’s controversial budget and entitlement reforms may prove more difficult than anything Polk accomplished during his arduous presidency.

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