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Presidential Transition Day: Some Interesting Stories

by Rich Rubino on January 11, 2017

Protocol dictates that the outgoing President leaves a note to be read by his successor upon taking office. This practice began when Ronald Reagan left a note for his successor George H.W. Bush, admonishing him: “Don’t let the turkey’s get you down.” The President then welcomes his successor to the White House. The outgoing and incoming Presidents sip coffee together in the Blue Room before entering a limousine, which will take both Presidents to the Inauguration ceremonies.

Once noon strikes on January 20 (The date was March 4 until 1937), the Chief Justice of the United States swears in the new President. The new President then observes the Inaugural Parade.

About 100 White House employees under the tutelage of the Chief Usher then rush to move out the outgoing President’s belongings and supplant them with the new President’s belongings. During the Inauguration, the Inaugural Parade and Inaugural Ball, the expectation is that the President’s residence will be transformed from the carpeting in the Oval Office to the clothing in the closets.

It is worth noting that there have been times when the outgoing President refused to attend the Inauguration of the new President. In 1801, John Adams, who lost a vituperative campaign to Thomas Jefferson, traveled directly home to Massachusetts without meeting Jefferson. Adams was livid at Jefferson, who had hired political pamphleteer James Callender to destroy Adams’ reputation during the Presidential campaign. Callender successfully spread a mendacious story that Adams’ ambition was to invade France if elected.

His son John Quincy Adams followed suit in 1829. He did not even welcome his successor to the Executive Mansion (now called the White House). The two electoral combatants had been engaged in a political battle royale. Adams’ supporters called Jackson’s wife Rachel an “adulteress” because she had not completed her divorce from her first husband. Mrs. Jackson died days before the election. An inflamed Jackson put the blame on Adams for his wife’s death, averring: “May God Almighty forgive her murderers as I know she forgave them. I never can.”

This day was also historical in that Jackson was the first commoner to assume the Presidency. Many of the “common folk” who elected him traveled to the nation’s Capital, some arriving at the Executive Mansion even before the President arrived. The crowd became increasingly inebriated on the orange rum punch, causing the event to devolve quickly into an unruly mob of obnoxious drunkards. As the large crowd pressed toward the new President, Jackson feared that he might be suffocated from the disorderly and unruly mob, and subsequently fled the Mansion through a first floor window, seeking refuge in a nearby hotel.

Inauguration Day in 1889 was a rainy day, forcing outgoing President Grover Cleveland, who Benjamin Harrison had just defeated, the indignity of holding an umbrella over Harrison during the downpour. Earlier that day, as the Cleveland’s were leaving the Executive Mansion, First Lady Frances Cleveland eerily told the White House Staff to “Take care of the place. We’ll be back.” Sure enough, after beating Harrison in 1892, the Cleveland’s were back in power for a non-consecutive four-year term.

Sometimes Presidents continue to work on the last day of their Presidency. In 1845, outgoing President John Tyler signed legislation declaring Florida the twenty-seventh state in the Union. However, Tyler also suffered a setback that day when Congress achieved the requisite 2/3 vote of both houses of the U.S. Congress to override his veto of proposed legislation to eliminate the President’s plenary Executive authority to purchase revenue-cutter ships. This was the first Presidential veto to be overridden in U.S. History.

In 1913, on his last day in office, William Howard Taft signed legislation creating the Federal Department of Labor as a Cabinet Department. The department today employs over 17,000 people.

In 2001, Transition Day came on a Saturday, the day when the President traditionally delivers his weekly radio address. Bill Clinton did not cancel the address, instead using the occasion to actuate a pledge he made “to work until the last hour of the last day.” Clinton announced that his administration is “awarding more than $100 million to fund 1,400 more police officers in communities throughout our land.”

More controversial, Clinton used his last day in office to issue 140 Presidential pardons, including a pardon for financier Mark Rich, a fugitive living in Switzerland who was charged with 51 counts of tax evasion in the U.S. Rich’s wife, Denise Rich, was a major donor to the Bill Clinton Presidential Library and Museum and to the U.S. Senate campaign of Clinton’s wife Hillary. This pardon led to a federal investigation. Federal prosecutors ruled that Clinton had not operated illegally.

Perhaps the most agonizing Presidential last day occurred in 1981. Outgoing President Jimmy Carter spent most of the last two days as President assiduously trying to win the release of the hostages seized by Iranian students in 1979. The next to last day in office the U.S. and Iranian governments agreed to The Algiers Accords. The U.S. agreed not to interfere in Iran’s internal affairs and in turn, Iran agreed to immediately release the 52 Americans it was holding hostage. However, Carter’s nemesis, Ayatollah Rudolph Khomeini, did not officially release the hostages until Carter’s term officially expired, allowing the new President, Ronald Reagan, not Carter, to announce the freeing of the hostages.

The limousine ride itself can be awkward when two Presidents from different political parties are forced to sit next to each other for the ride to the capitol. In 1953, outgoing President Harry S. Truman viewed Eisenhower with derision for his failure to condemn U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy (R-WI) after McCarthy suggested that Secretary of Defense George Marshall was enveloped in a Communist conspiracy. Truman branded Eisenhower “a coward.” Moreover, Truman thought little of Eisenhower’s political dexterity, deadpanning: “The General doesn’t know any more about politics than a pig knows about Sunday.”

Eisenhower returned the contempt, refusing to meet Truman in the White House for the traditional coffee. He instead waited in the limousine until Truman came out. The banter on the ride down Pennsylvania Avenue was contentious.

During the ride to the Inauguration, Eisenhower asked Truman who had ordered his son John to return form active duty in the Korean War to attend his father’s inauguration. Eisenhower feared that the public would view this as his son receiving preferential treatment. Truman testily retorted in the third person: “The President of the United States ordered your son to attend your inauguration. The President thought it was right and proper for your son to witness the swearing-in of his father to the Presidency. If you think somebody was trying to embarrass you by this order, then the President assumes full responsibility.” The two men had a rapprochement later in life, becoming good friends.

There is much planning that goes into Presidential Transition Day and into transforming the White House that day. Outgoing Presidents leave their thumbprint anywhere they can before leaving office. Although it is custom for the outgoing and incoming Presidents to at least be cordial to one another, this is sometimes a challenge, as the two Presidents may be bitter political rivals. While Presidential transitions usually appear seamless to the American people, they can be awkward and even contentious behind the scenes.

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Split Voter Syndrome

by Rich Rubino on January 4, 2017

The epitome of this phenomenon is Massachusetts. The state has had Republican Governors for 16 of the past 26 years. Yet less than 15% of the state’s voters are Republicans. In 1990, Republican Bill Weld won the Commonwealth’s Governorshipby calling himself “a fiscal conservative and social moderate.” He excoriated the outgoing Democratic Governor Michael Dukakis and the Democratic Legislature for actuating a sales tax hike, and blamed them for the state’s economic decline. Weld did not run as an activist movement conservative who would make the state a laboratory for rightwing governance. With the State Legislature so heavily Democratic, voters knew he would be halted if he tried. Weld averred: “I believe in keeping the priorities list short.”

Weld was also aided by a schism in the Democratic Party between liberals who had supported former Massachusetts Attorney General Francis Bellotti or Lieutenant Governor Evelyn Murphy in the primary and socially conservative Democrats who selected the eventual nominee, Boston University President John Silber. Silber’s temperamental personality benefited Weld. During an interview with WCVB’S Natalie Jacobson, Silber was asked what his greatest weakness was. He replied harshly:“You find a weakness.”

Many Democrats came to see Weld as less threatening. Weld captured nearly all Republican voters, a majority of Independents, and an impressive 30% of Democrats.

Weld’s fiscal conservative, socially moderate template led him to be re-elected with a record 71% of the vote. His Republican successor, Paul Cellucci, followed by winning with the same electoral blueprint in 1998. In 2002, Republican nominee Mitt Romney maintained: “I think people recognize that I’m not a partisan Republican, that I’m someone who is moderate, that my views are progressive and that I’m going to go to work for our senior citizens, for people that have been left behind by urban schools that are not doing the right job. So they’re going to vote for me regardless of the party label.”

Romney would often campaign with three photographs behind him: one of his Democratic opponent, Shannon O’Brien, another photograph of the Democratic Speaker Tom Finneran, and another of the likely Senate President Robert Travelini. Romney tattooed the trio “The Gang Of Three.” He pledged to be a check on the overwhelming Democratic legislature. O’Brien had a hard time arguing why one party should control both legislative chambers and the Governorship. Romney won the election.

Romney governed largely as a moderate during his first two years in office, and remained popular. However, in his last two years in office, Romney moved to the right, as he became Chairman of the Republican Governors Association. He spent much time out of the state, and began calling himself a conservative. He would joketo national audiences that “being a conservative Republican in Massachusetts is a bit like being a cattle rancher at a vegetarian convention.” Romney also alienated moderates with his vociferous opposition to Gay Marriage.

With an eye on the White House, Romney did not seek re-election. Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey won the Republican nomination to succeed him. While she tried to run as a moderate, campaigning with the still popular Weld, disgruntled voters saw her as an extension of Romney, whose job approval rating languished in the thirties. Consequently, she lost to Democrat Daval Patrick who successfully tethered Healey to Romney.

In 2014, the Massachusetts GOP nominated Businessman Charlie Baker for Governor. Baker is a Weld protégée, who emphasized his moderation and non-ideological pragmatism. Baker was elected and stands today as the nation’s most popular Governor, even as the state voted for Hillary Clinton by over 27 points, winning all 14 counties in the state.

There is a plethora of examples of Republican states that elect Democrats as Governors. They win running as checks on the legislature. Their legislative agenda is usually modest.

Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming are arguably the three most Republican states in the nation. None has voted for a Democratic Presidential nominee since Lyndon B. Johnson’s electoral landslide victory in 1964. Yet all three states have recently had popular Democratic Governors.

Cecil Andrus was elected Governor of Idaho in 1970, and re-elected in 1974 with a resounding 70% of the vote. In 1977, Adrus relinquished the Governorship to become U.S. Secretary of the Interior. Democratic Lieutenant Governor John V. Evens succeeded him, and was elected twice in his own right. Andrus was elected again to the Governorship and served another two terms. Thus, from 1971-1995, the Republican citadel of Idaho had only Democratic Governors.

Utah had a string of Democrats for twenty years. Democrat Calvin Rampton was the chief magistrate of Utah from 1965-1977. He remains the only Beehive State Governor to serve three terms. Democrat Scott Matheson, who served for two terms, succeeded him.

Along those same lines, in Wyoming, where the Democratic Party has not held a majority in a legislative chamber since 1936, they have had popular Democratic Governors for all but eight years, from 1975 – 2011. The most recent Democrat, Dave Freudenthal, was re-elected with 70% of the vote in 2006, despite the fact that well over 60% of Cowboy State voters are Republicans.

While a moderate opposite party Gubernatorial nominee is often in the political catbird seat, the reverse is true for Congressional candidates. Congressional candidates can style themselves as being independent-minded, yet their opponent will invariably make the case that in voting for an opposite state candidate, they are voting to keep or put that candidate’s party in power.

For example, in 2006, Republican U.S. Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island sported a voting record to the left of his Republican colleagues, and mustered high job approval ratings. Yet he lost re-election. Chafee’s Democratic opponent, Sheldon Whitehouse, had few issues to bludgeon Chafee with, so he argued that a vote for Chafee would be a vote to keep Republicans in control of the U.S. Senate. Whitehouse ran against the “Republicans in Washington.” He called for “a Democratic majority in D.C.” Whitehouse won the election and the Democrats took the Senate majority that election.

This paradigm was also exhibited in the 2010 mid-term elections; the Republican Party won three of Arkansas’ four seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. In addition, the GOP dislodged Democratic U.S. Senator Blanche Lincoln. Despite these defeats, Democratic Governor Mike Beebe cruised to re-election, garnering 66% of the vote.

Quite ironically, if a candidate runs for Governor of a state where his/her party suffers from an electoral shellacking in national elections, they might actually be at an electoral advantage. The formula is simple. Run as a non-ideological moderate with a modest legislative agenda. Pledge to be a check on the excesses of the dominant party in the legislature, and if possible, exploit internecine conflicts within the opposing party.

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