If Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is looking for examples of what happens to presidential candidates who try to make everybody happy, he doesn’t have to sort among the obscure also-rans of American political history.
He need look no further than Henry Clay.
Clay is considered a great man. In many ways he was. His accomplishments were many, including three times helping to negotiate compromises — in 1820, 1833 and 1850 —that staved off sectional crises. His outsized reputation owes much to these legislative barters and to the fondness of many modern historians for men who favor compromise over principle.
But Clay was also a three-time loser in the presidential sweepstakes. In 1824, he was too junior to more senior men. In 1832, he was swept away by the incumbent hero, Andrew Jackson. But in 1844, many felt Clay’s moment had finally come, especially when the man considered the Democrats’ strongest candidate — former President Martin Van Buren — self-destructed over the issue of Texas annexation, opposing the acquisition in the face of overwhelming support for it in his party.
But in 1844, Clay’s penchant for trying to split every difference and keep every possible constituency happy proved his undoing.
Clay, too, opposed the annexation of Texas, assuming (correctly, as it turned out) that it would lead to war with Mexico. That did not prove to be a problem in gaining the nomination of the Whig Party — many Whigs opposed annexation.
But it created a problem for the general election against the expansionist James K. Polk. So, just as is often the case today, the candidate began trying to move away from his stated view toward a more nuanced, centrist position.
What Clay learned was that people actually cared about the issue and had strong feelings, for and against. Time after time, in letters written for publication, Clay attempted to trim.
In his original Raleigh Letter, written in April 1844, Clay wrote that annexation threatened dissolution of the union and that “Annexation and war with Mexico are identical. Now, for one, I certainly am not willing to involve this country in a foreign war for the object of acquiring Texas.”
Just over two months later, after negative Southern reaction to the Raleigh Letter, Clay wrote what came to be known as the First Alabama Letter, in which he wrote that “Personally I could have no objection to the annexation of Texas, but I certainly would be unwilling to see the existing Union dissolved … for the sake of acquiring Texas.”
Much the same point, but a different emphasis. When this failed to appease Southerners, who sensed Clay was playing to a Northern audience, less than a month later he wrote the Second Alabama Letter, in which he explained that his position on Texas was a matter of avoiding war and not aimed at trying to please abolitionists.
Further attempts at clarification failed as well.
By mid-October 1844, Democrats were using his indecisiveness against him.
“Clay … has at last determined he will write no more letters, the wisest step he has taken since his nomination,” wrote William Taylor, a former Democratic congressman from New York.
Daniel Webster, Clay’s great Whig rival, attributed his loss in November in part to the pandering nature of the Alabama letters.
Walker’s achievements are not on par with Clay’s, but they’ll do for a 21st-century governor: winning three elections in a blue state, reducing the power of public-sector unions and signing a right-to-work measure into law. He also has a well-earned reputation as a small-government conservative willing to confront what he sees as wasteful spending.
In 2006, he called the renewable fuel standard “a big government mandate.”
Two weeks ago, speaking to Iowa farmers, he said, “It’s something I’m willing to go forward on.”
Clay, at least, was playing to type on Texas. His fame rested on difference-splitting. Walker’s reputation rests on the opposite — the willingness to stand firm in the face of the opposition’s bullying tactics, defending policies on which others in his party have time and again given way. That’s why conservatives who had begun to move toward Walker’s candidacy were stopped short by his reversal on the Renewable Fuel Standard’s mandate that ethanol be used in gasoline.
Voters will forgive a policy flip here and there, such as Walker’s shift on immigration. But they’re much less likely to forgive serial indecisiveness. A man as renowned as Clay could not overcome the perception that vacillation was a defining trait.
Walker, a good man but much less renowned, would seem well served to avoid actions that might leave voters with that impression.
John Bicknell is a former editor for CQ-Roll Call.