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Why Mitt Romney Wants to Be Like James K. Polk

Karl Rove and George W. Bush looked at William McKinley as a model; Barack Obama at Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy. According to Huffington Post reporter Jon Ward, Mitt Romney and his advisors also have a favorite president: James K. Polk, who served one term from 1845 to 1849. Romney’s campaign manager Matt “Rhoades and the rest of the members of Romney’s inner circle think a Romney presidency could look much like the White House tenure of the 11th U.S. president,” Ward writes.

According to Ward, Rhoades explains that “Polk, who served from 1845 to 1849, presided over the expansion of the U.S. into a coast-to-coast nation, annexing Texas and winning the Mexican-American war for territories that also included New Mexico and California. He reduced trade barriers and strengthened the Treasury system. And he was a one-term president. Polk is an allegory for Rhoades: He did great things, and then exited the scene, and few remember him. That, Rhoades suggested, could be Romney’s legacy as well.”

This sounds fishy. Romney, who wrote a book, “Turnaround,”  about the few months he spent rescuing the Winter Olympics, has never appeared particularly self-effacing. If he won the presidency, he would not commit himself to serving only one term. And there are plenty of other presidents—Ronald Reagan, for one—who accomplished much of their agenda in their first term.  Why pick a relatively obscure Democratic president? What would draw Romney and his campaign team to Polk?

One obscure reason for singling out Polk is that while he is generally unknown to the public, he has some importance to Mormon history. When the Mormons decided to emigrate from Illinois, where their founder Joseph Smith had been murdered, across the Great Plains to Utah in 1846. In June, while they were in transit, Polk sent a representative to the Mormons asking for recruits to fight the Mexicans. Polk’s request amounted to a recognition of the Mormons as loyal Americans, and 500 Mormon men set off to fight the Mexican war.

But as Rhoades recounts, several aspects of Polk’s presidency resonated with Romney and his advisors. These can be boiled down to two. The first is that Polk, like his hero Andrew Jackson, was a proponent of laissez-faire capitalism. He helped lead the fight against the Bank of the United States; he opposed spending on internal improvements (what we would call “infrastructure”) and as president vetoed a river and harbor improvement bill. Polk also favored reducing tariffs, which at the time benefited Southern cotton growers and undermined infant American manufacturing companies, which had difficulty competing with British imports.

Polk’s program helped the development of agriculture in the frontier as well as in the plantation South, but it impeded the development of American industry, which would take off, finally, under Abraham Lincoln and his Republican successors who subsidized internal improvements and protected American firms against foreign competitors.

Romney is not for a pure laissez-faire. No one except a handful of libertarians favors such an extreme. But Romney, and his running mate Paul Ryan,  are proponents of a deregulated, publicly unsubsidized (as far as infrastructure is concerned),  and untaxed capitalism. That policy would not benefit cotton growers, but it is the favored agenda for extractive industries. In this respect, Romney’s economics, like Polk’s, belong to the past not the future.  They are reactionary. They reward backward industries and regions.

The second way in which Polk’s program may resonate is his nationalism. Polk was the son of a North Carolina slave-owner, and he sided with the Slave South in backing the annexation of Texas. Polk provoked a war with Mexico, resulting in Mexico’s defeat and the cession to the United States of  California, New Mexico, and the Rocky Mountain region, and negotiated an agreement with Britain that obtained the Northwest. But Polk didn’t pursue a policy of national expansion in order to promote the spread of slavery to the West. He thought that national expansion could transcend sectional divisions.

Polk was completely wrong. As Sean Wilentz writes in The Rise of American Democracy, Polk’s “efforts to eradicate sectionalism through expansion only inflamed sectional antagonisms.” Polk’s program led to a renewed debate over the expansion of slavery, and made a civil war more likely.

Romney, of course, isn’t planning to expand the continental United States, but there is an underlying similarity between Polk’s approach and his own.   There are two kinds of nationalism that American administrations have promoted. One kind, practiced by Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt, has stressed national unification through the elimination of invidious differences of wealth or power. The other kind, practiced by Polk, Reagan, and George W. Bush, has stressed national unity through patriotic achievements abroad. The latter kind of nationalism has either ignored or tolerated or even exacerbated internal differences among Americans. 

Romney is very much in the latter camp. His domestic policy tolerates and exacerbates internal differences—over illegal immigration, welfare, the distribution of income—but he seeks to unify Americans over the promise of a “next American Century.” Romney’s appeal is largely rhetorical rather than substantive. It serves to distract attention from the sheer divisiveness of his campaign. Indeed, Romney’s elevation of Polk, who is still hated by educated Mexicans, is itself a symptom of that very divisiveness.