How to Rate Presidents According to Beltway Priorities

This Chris Cillizza produced list at the Washington Post of the most underrated and overrated presidents is good for a laugh because it so reflects Beltway priorities. I know that these choices were sent in by readers, but they were of course picked by editors. While not all are terrible, there are some choice howlers. Here’s a couple:

*James Monroe: From “HistoryJonah” – ”His average standing in opinion and scholar polls is 14th. However, Monroe deserves a much higher ranking than that: He created a bipartisan cabinet, with pro-slavery Southerner Calhoun as Secretary of War, and the Northern anti-slavery diplomatic genius John Q. Adams as Secretary of State. Monroe acquired Florida, and admitted five states to the Union. In addition, his actions following the Panic of 1819 stopped the economy from completely spiraling and his Missouri Compromise helped stave off disunion for decades”

Ah bipartisanship. Does that even have any meaning in 1817? No. After the Hartford Convention, the United States was essentially a 1-party state with multiple factions. Plus, this analysis fails on its own terms. When Monroe put that cabinet together, Calhoun was still a nationalist who was not obsessing about slavery. That wouldn’t happen until his slow response to his state’s growing radicalism in the 1820s threatened his political career. Moreover, in 1817, slavery was a non-issue in American politics. It wasn’t until the Missouri crisis in 1819 that things got crazy all of a sudden. And while Adams was always anti-slavery, it wasn’t until his post-presidency return to Congress that he became a leader on it.

But bipartisanship! Yay! Why can’t Obama be like James Monroe?

* James Polk: From “mountainwestBob” — ”He said he’d do four things when he came to office, he accomplished them, left office after a single term, retired and died within about 6 months. His four things? Extended the southwestern U.S. to the coast (New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada), ‘fixed’ the northwestern boundary of the lower 48 with Canada (without war), ‘fixed’ the question or Florida’s status, and established a new national bank that stood until the 20th century.”

The old “We love presidents who do stuff, regardless of their horrible consequences.” “Fixed” the northwestern boundary without war. “Fixed” the southwestern boundary by lying to Congress to get a declaration of war against Mexico and then stealing half the nation. It’s all good if it leads to American domination.

* William McKinley: From “Greg Tatro” — “The country had been hashing and rehashing fights over currency (Greenbacks! Silver!) and the Tariff. William Jennings Bryan was nominated on a silver platform to run against McKinley’s gold standard platform. The early 1890’s are filled with riots, Coxey’s March on Washington, and depression. Many people have lost hope, especially the farmers in the West.

Four years after his election however, the economy that he campaigned to fix was booming. The currency question that defined politics of the past has been left behind in the hustle and bustle of this new era.”

Another favorite pundit fallacy–giving presidents credit for policies they had no control over. William McKinley had nothing to do with the end of the Panic of 1893 and subsequent depression. That ended because gold discoveries in Alaska and South Africa increased the world’s gold supply.

* John Tyler: From “SpyralJD” : “His actions helped ensure an orderly transition of power upon the death of President Harrison and set the precedent for similar transfers of power in the future. He governed in (what he perceived to be) the national interest and refused to be beholden to special interests or the Whig Party (i.e. Henry Clay). He may not have achieved as much as some other presidents but he prevented a damaging free-for-all following Harrison’s death.”

The mind boggles with this one. Tyler governed in the national interest–making aggressive pro-slavery expansion the policy of the United States without an electoral mandate to do so and naming John C. Calhoun Secretary of State! Calhoun proceeded to outrage the British with the Pakenham Letter, where Calhoun warned Britain that the US would not tolerate them getting involved in Texas to end slavery there. There was probably not a more hated president in his own lifetime than John Tyler. National interest indeed!!!

The overrated side is more predictable and somewhat less irritating, although including Washington makes no sense. But then there is the real laugher:

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