A History of the Presidency - Political parties

Even before Washington's presidency ended, the rise of political parties had commenced to alter the workings of the office. Although Washington detested the idea of parties, two groups had arisen in response to the national problems his administration was addressing. One group, guided by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, was called the Democratic-Republicans. They had support in rural parts of the North and South and on the frontier. The other group, which had its strength among business and manufacturing interests, designated themselves the Federalists. They were generally pro-England and the Jeffersonians pro-France; at the time, the French Revolution was convulsing Europe. Washington in 1793 issued a neutrality proclamation stating that the United States would be impartial in foreign relations, that the nation would take no sides. This position set the basic policy for presidents in their conduct of international affairs for the next century.

When Washington's second term was coming to an end in 1796 he announced that he would not seek a third term. In tribute to Washington's decision, the next two-term presidents, Jefferson (1801–1809) and Madison (1809–1817) both forswore a third term. Ulysses S. Grant (1869–1877) sought a third term in 1880, and Theodore Roosevelt ran again in 1912, but the tradition was not actually broken until 1940. That year Franklin D. Roosevelt sought and won a third term—and in 1944 a fourth term. Today the Twenty-second Amendment to the Constitution forbids the president from serving more than two terms. Ratified in 1951, it was a kind of posthumous rebuke to FDR. Both Ronald Reagan (1981–1989) and William Jefferson Clinton (1993–2001) felt frustrated by the provisions of the amendment.

The early presidents had been chosen by congressional leaders of the emerging parties in party "caucuses." At first these decisions were made in secret meetings, then for a while openly. The supporters of Jackson, representing a new spirit in politics, railed against "King Caucus" as undemocratic. After the savage presidential contest of 1824, the day of the caucus system was over, to be succeeded by a unique American institution, the national nominating convention. It was first convened in 1831 by the Anti-Masons, a small, single-issue party that is remembered now only for that contribution. Today, delegates of the major parties gather quadrennially in June or July to select their standard-bearers. The Republican delegates that gathered in Philadelphia in 2000 were 2,066 strong, with an equal number of alternates. A few weeks later when the Democrats met in Los Angeles, they assembled 4,366 men and women and 610 alternates. Both parties had chosen their delegates in state primary elections, state conventions, and state committees of the parties.

The system has grown more complicated in our own time, owing to the fact that the choosing of the next presidential candidates begins almost as soon as Inauguration Day is over. Would-be presidents announce that they are throwing their hats in the ring: they establish what are called exploratory committees, which promptly metamorphose into fund-raising organizations.

The testing time is the primary season, which commences in January in Iowa and continues in other states until June. Invariably, however, most of the primary votes are cast before April, and the nominations are clinched long before the final primaries. The number of delegates that each state party sends to its convention depends on the party's performance in the previous election, bonuses being granted for the number of the party members elected to Congress, the state legislatures, and the governor-ships. The delegates whom the Republicans at present send to their convention are pledged to vote for a particular candidate.

The Democrats' delegates are divided in accordance to the way each state voted in the previous three elections. Seventy-five percent of them represent electoral districts; the rest are at-large. Party leaders and certain elected officeholders constitute an additional 15 percent of the total number. On top of this number, there are several hundred so-called superdelegates, chosen because they are high officials of the party or because of the importance of the elective office they hold. Superdelegates are un-pledged. The Republicans assign all the delegates of a particular state or congressional district to the candidate who wins the most votes in that region. The Democrats assign the delegates in proportion to the votes the candidates received in the primaries.

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