It seems establishment Republicans can’t make up their mind. Those who believe that the 2016 Republican primary season has been the dirtiest campaign in American history need to think again.
The pro-Ted Cruz people recently took a shot at Donald Trump that mirrored the 1828 campaign between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams. The Adams camp accused Jackson’s wife, Rachel, of being a woman with loose morals. She, in fact, was still married when she and Andy tied the knot, so the accusation was true. But when Jackson found out who was behind the rumor, Henry Clay, he never forgave him and spent his eight years in office doing everything possible to thwart Clay’s political ambitions. Clay was public enemy number one.
Enter Melania Trump. A political ad circulating on social media before the Utah primary aimed to shame Trump voters by using a provocative picture of Mrs. Trump from a GQ magazine shoot to show her as a woman of questionable standards. “Would you want this naked woman in the White House?” Trump responded by taking a shot at Mrs. Cruz, and social media was set on fire.
There is a lesson here. The Cruz people need to remember that this tactic didn’t work in 1828. Jackson won. Still, the low blow by the Adams camp led to Rachel Jackson’s death. The stress of the campaign caused a heart attack. Dragging a candidate’s spouse through the mud is an old tactic, but one that can have terrible consequences. And it doesn’t work. No one likes these types of attacks.
Of course, Mr. Clinton should be fair game in the general election. That spouse is different, and we won’t have to worry about a provocative photo of Bill.
What about Aaron Burr? When Burr and Thomas Jefferson ended the 1800 election in a tie, the Federalist-controlled House of Representatives had to choose the winner. No one in that faction liked Jefferson, and Federalist leaders considered throwing the election to Burr. Some suggested that if Jefferson were to win, New England would secede (those who think secession was born in the South in 1860 need to read up on a push for New England secession as early as 1794). This was a real political crisis. The Union was in peril.
Burr was the outsider, the unknown quantity, and he wasn’t backing down. Alexander Hamilton urged his fellow Federalists to reconsider their support of Burr. Hamilton knew Jefferson well. They dined together often. He also knew Burr well. The two hailed from New York. Hamilton admitted that Jefferson was conniving, a backstabber, and opposed to virtually everything the Federalists stood for, but Burr was worse. He could not be trusted and he was a wildcard. Jefferson, Hamilton insisted, would not completely destroy what the Federalists had spent twelve years building. He was one of them, the establishment, and Jefferson should get their support.
The establishment has never trusted the outsider.
Jefferson won on the thirty-sixth ballot by one vote. In the long run, Hamilton was right, though he never lived to see it. Burr shot and killed Hamilton in 1803. That is violent political revenge.
Jefferson saved the executive branch from monarchy in his first term but then adopted policies that smacked of executive abuse in the second, including an economic program that was later embraced by the more nationalist wing of the Jeffersonian republicans like Henry Clay. Hamilton would have approved.
Ted Cruz is the 2016 version of J.Q. Adams and Jefferson’s second term. He is the known quantity, which is why the establishment has begrudgingly thrown their support behind him. This is not a badge of honor. The establishment fears what they cannot control. Cruz would not entirely follow the establishment playbook in office, but a President Cruz would be more susceptible to establishment manipulation. He does, after all, agree with the establishment on foreign policy, the most important and constitutional element of the modern president’s job description.
Jackson was not a great president, and Burr may not have been one either, but both shook up the political playbook and forced the establishment to react. We are witnessing history in 2016. How it will shake out is anyone’s guess. Every time the establishment reacts, Trump’s poll numbers go up. This will probably continue into November.
In the end, Americans must simply remember that dirty politics have been part of the game for a very long time. Trump is just better at responding than virtually anyone in American history.