For a political party that seems to derive its ideology from Ayn Rand’s embrace of heedless ambition, the Republicans are going through an unexpected Ferdinand the Bull phase. Many of the GOP’s top presidential prospects prefer smelling the flowers—or taking a New Jersey state helicopter to a son’s baseball game—to becoming Teddy Roosevelt’s man in the arena, scrapping for every vote in the Iowa caucuses. And while Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty long for the roar of the crowd, Republican voters are caught up in the allure of the non-combatant. Every time Chris Christie insists that he is “not ready” to be president, his hesitancy is hailed as beguiling modesty rather than troubling inexperience. Nothing in Mitch Daniels’ political life became him more than his departure from the presidential race on the grounds that his marriage mattered more than the White House. Even Rick Perry (aka George W. Bush Lite) takes on the aura of the real McCoy by playing it coy about 2012 until the end of the Texas legislative session.
Since the days when Mario Cuomo played Hamlet on the Hudson, political reporters have bristled with impatience whenever indecision stands in the way of presidential ambition. But there is scant evidence that voters share this enthusiasm for candidates who exude a lust for power that would make Richard Nixon envious. Dwight Eisenhower, the most reluctant elected president in more than a century, hit on an enduring truth when he told friends urging him to become an active candidate in 1952, “The seeker is never so popular as the sought. People want what they think they can’t have.”
Indeed, a chorus of Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Haley Barbour could not have said it better. While 60-year-old analogies are a dicey proposition, 1952 was the fantasy year for those besotted with the myth of Cincinnatus—the idea that humble statesman prefer to tend their fields unless called to service because the republic is in peril. In a triumph of self-abnegation rarely seen outside of an ashram, that year both presidential nominees (Ike and Adlai Stevenson) were drafted through an outpouring of citizen activism unmatched by anything the Facebook generation has yet mustered.
Eisenhower’s problem with seeking the presidency revolved around his distaste for politics, rather his distrust of power. As biographer Stephen Ambrose put it, “Eisenhower wanted to be nominated by acclamation, but his friends knew that was impossible.” Confronted with the allegiance of Old Guard Republicans to Bob Taft, Eisenhower returned to America from commanding NATO forces in Europe only a month before the convention and romanced enough delegates to win on the first ballot.
It was Stevenson (the egghead icon who made liberals and, yes, The New Republic swoon) who personified a stubborn refusal to stroll down the corridors of power. During the run-up to the Democratic convention, Stevenson acted as if his commitment to run for reelection as governor of Illinois was an unbreakable obligation on par with a pledge to donate a kidney. As Stevenson said in Oregon, after he refused to allow his name to be placed on that state’s primary ballot, “I don’t believe there has ever been a genuine draft of an unwilling man for the presidential nomination in either party.” His let-this-cup-pass-from-my-lips reluctance did little to prevent the delegates from going madly for Adlai as they put him over the top on the third ballot in Chicago.
This burst of 1952 nostalgia is not a prelude to ludicrously claiming that the Republicans will nominate Paul Ryan on the fourth ballot in Tampa after he gives a rousing speech imploring the delegates, “You shall not crucify America on a cross of rising Medicare costs.” But 1952 was a year when America’s normally bristling self-confidence was at a low ebb on account of the unwinnable Korean War, the hyperbolic fears of domestic Communism, and the waning energies of New Deal liberalism. In short, the political mood was a bit like today.
Moreover, GOP voters this year do radiate a sense that they are longing for something unavailable in the political free market—and it is not Sarah Palin. A national Pew Research Center poll released last week found that roughly half of Republicans with an opinion rate the party’s presidential field as only fair or poor. This whiff of dissatisfaction may signal an awareness that America’s problems (joblessness, the national debt, and war without end) do not lend themselves to the glib certainties of campaign-trail rhetoric. Especially from a Republican perspective, it is easy to recoil at any political leader who has the hubris to suggest—as Barack Obama did in 2008—that he is a transformative figure astride history.
In politics, the quest for the unattainable can prompt voters to stampede in unlikely directions. My favorite example: The opening-gun 1964 New Hampshire Republican primary was won by non-candidate Henry Cabot Lodge (serving, shades of Jon Huntsman, as LBJ’s ambassador to war-torn South Vietnam) on a write-in vote. As Theodore White gushed in his The Making of the President 1964, “The Lodge campaign as seen in the field was a madcap adventure, the gayest, the happiest, the most lighthearted enterprise of the entire year 1964.” The Lodge campaign remains an intriguing precedent—one which, early next year, just might beguile supporters of Christie or a former Florida governor named Bush. As write-in queen Lisa Murkowski can testify, social media can be serve as a powerful tool for organizing brigades of pencil-pushing voters willing to make electoral history.
Of course, the current none-of-the-above mood among many Republican loyalists could simply be viewed as a vote of no-confidence in the bizarre way that we choose presidential nominees (eight months devoted to wooing 120,000 Iowa GOP caucus-goers). It is as if the Republicans finally grasp the Catch-22 of contemporary campaigning: Anyone who runs for president in an era of cell-phone cameras and Tweet-deck reporters is too crazy ever to be allowed control over nuclear weapons.
In the end, American politics probably will never replicate anything like 1952’s march of the Reluctant Dragons. But looking back over the electoral choices in the television era, it does seem hard to equal the caliber of the two bald men—Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson—who had to be dragooned and drafted into running for the highest office in the land.
Walter Shapiro is a special correspondent for The New Republic. Follow him on Twitter (lucky you).
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