Party Politics

Fredrik Logevall

"A splendid little war," John Hay called the 1898 conflict between Spain and the United States. It was splendid, he told his fellow Republicans Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, because it had moved things "our way." In other words, military victory and overseas expansion were helping President William McKinley and his Republican administration against William Jennings Bryan's Democrats. "I do not see a ghost of a chance of Bryanism in the new few years," remarked Hay. At the time, the summer of 1898, John Hay was the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain. Before long he would be appointed secretary of state. Thus, his was no ivory tower statement pronounced far from the halls of power. Rather, his comments on the connection between party politics and foreign policy came from the highest level of American officialdom.

The ambassador was not claiming that McKinley had chosen war to help the Republican Party, although it was widely believed that the president would have suffered politically if he had not requested a declaration of hostilities against Spain. What Hay was saying was that the course of American foreign policy was inextricably tied to domestic politics in the United States, and that the party in power has partisan politics partly in mind when it acts on international developments. Hay saw nothing wrong with this. The developments in 1898 meshed with his own worldview; he had no objection to the use of force "when necessary," and he saw an imperial push into the Caribbean and Pacific as potentially helpful to his business friends. If the Republicans benefited as well, so much the better. Hay believed in the GOP, considering it the "party fit to govern," a bulwark against inflation, radicalism, and civil disorder. Bryan's Democratic-Populist rural alliance almost won the 1896 presidential election on free silver, a domestic issue. Hay now judged that the Republicans would pick up strength on foreign policy and could establish themselves in power for a decade or more.

This is by no means an unusual example in American history. If anything, John Hay represents less than the usual identification of domestic politics with U.S. foreign relations. He never ran for elective office, although other secretaries of state have, from Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams to William H. Seward and James G. Blaine on down to William Jennings Bryan, Charles Evans Hughes, James F. Byrnes, and John Foster Dulles. Nor did Hay depend on politics for his living after his early thirties. Hence, he was not forced to think of the next election in terms of personal financial survival.

In contrast, most of those who have shaped American foreign policy have been professional politicians, accustomed to thinking of individual recognition, career progress, and personal income in connection with party favor and victory at the polls. So it has been with presidents of the United States, the most important makers of foreign policy. So also with secretaries of state and defense, at least until the last few decades, when these offices have usually been held by nonpoliticians (who, of course, are bound to the president's political positions). So with a number of those who have headed American diplomatic missions abroad; now, as always, many of these assignments are handled under political patronage. So also with congressmen who specialize in international matters and with other leaders in both major parties, in and out of office.

Could these individuals, being practical party politicians, be expected to forget domestic politics when they weigh foreign policy alternatives? Hardly. And, as a general rule, they do not. No doubt some have obsessed about it more than others, but all, or virtually all, have operated from the assumption that if they do stop thinking of the next election or ignore the reaction of the other professional politicians in Congress and in the field, they are not likely to be able to put across their programs. In the words of the historian Fred Harvey Harrington, "Success in American foreign policy, like success on domestic issues, requires continuing success in domestic politics."

Which is not to say it is only about winning elections. As the Hay example illustrates, politicians often have had particular and deeply felt ideas about international matters, ideas that their party (or a large segment of their party) have shared or endorsed. Often the candidates of the opposing party have had different ideas. Foreign policy, therefore, is about choosing among real policy choices as well as getting partisan advantage from those choices.

That said, the argument here is that elections are particularly important in determining why the United States has followed the international course it has. In America the jockeying for political advantage never stops. Viewed from a president's perspective the next election (whether midterm or presidential) will arrive all too soon, and presidents are well aware that voters are capable of giving incumbent parties the boot (as they have done with regularity since 1945: in 1952, 1960, 1968, 1976, 1980, 1992, and 2000). Moreover, the overall state of a president's relations with Congress and his standing in public opinion deeply impact his ability to get things done and, in general, to lead effectively. As Ralph Levering reminds us, political campaigns are significant because they indicate which foreign policy issues each candidate believes his opponent is vulnerable on, and which issues each candidate believes are likely to strike a response chord in the voting public. "The interplay between candidates and voters, culminating in the voting first in the primaries and then in the general election in November, thus establishes (a) the winners who will have primary responsibility for shaping U.S. foreign policy, and (b) the broad parameters of acceptable political discourse on foreign policy for the foreseeable future."

It seems obvious, then, that those who analyze U.S. foreign policy decisions should carefully consider the role of domestic politics in those decisions and in what happened afterward. Analysis must, of course, also take into account geostrategic, economic, cultural, moral, and other influences. Sometimes these influences, rather than practical politics, have been decisive. More often than not, however, the nonpolitical factors have been interwoven with political considerations, which need to be identified and explained. Although students of the interplay between domestic politics and foreign policy often include within their purview—and properly so—a wide range of potential influences, including public opinion, the media, and ethnic groups and other special interest groups, the focus here is on party politics, in particular on the impact of partisan imperatives and election-year concerns on presidential decision making in foreign affairs.


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See also Congressional Power ; The National Interest ; Presidential Power ; Recognition ; Revisionism ; The Vietnam War and Its Impact .

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