Today, we commence the NCAA Bracket-style competition meant to identify the greatest political blunder in American history. We thank the 600+ readers who sent in over 3,000 suggestions (including roughly 250 distinct suggestions; many of the 3,000 were repeated, of course). We must also correct an oversight; we never recognized reader J.S. in Wheaton, IL, who suggested this theme in the first place.
As we sorted through the suggestions (and added a few of our own), we had to make some decisions. To wit:
As those who follow the actual NCAA Tournament know, the competition begins with a "First Four" slate of contests between the teams that just barely made the cut. So, that is the plan for today. We are going to introduce the four bracket themes, and a First Four contest for each bracket, effectively pitting the 16th and 17th-seeded blunders in those brackets against each other. (We realize that this is not exactly how the NCAA Tournament works, but it's close enough.)
Thereafter, we'll have four items per week (on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays) as we work through the competition. There is, of course, zero chance we can adhere to the same schedule as the actual NCAA Tournament (which will be over next week), and we're not going to try.
And, without further ado:
Imagery Region: In this region, the blunder involved at least some forethought. The victim did not expect their words or actions to work out poorly, and yet those words or actions ended up doing significant damage to their public image, permanently painting them (with at least some voters) as stupid, or dishonest, or mean-spirited, or out-of-touch, or...
FIRST FOUR MATCHUP
Jeb!: As a former governor of the supposed "swing" state of Florida and a member of the Bush dynasty, Jeb Bush was presumed to be a shoo-in for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, with a solid chance to be elected president. That would have made him the third president in five to be a Bush.
So, what went wrong? Maybe Jeb wasn't the politician that his father and brother were. Maybe nobody checked with the American people, who tend to be leery of political dynasties (see Revolution, American). Maybe Jeb represented a brand of politics that went obsolete around the same time that dot-matrix printers and pay phones did. Certainly, he never found an answer to the direct assaults launched upon him by Donald Trump, who slurred Bush as "low energy." Adopting the slogan "Jeb!" was supposed to be an answer, and the slogan had worked just fine during Bush's second gubernatorial campaign. In 2016, however, it made Bush appear ridiculous, while also affirming that he was squarely under Trump's thumb. The slogan did not kill the presidential bid all by itself, of course, it was more like the last nail in a coffin that was already nearly complete.
Malaise: Voters say they are annoyed by the politicians who are being dishonest. And that is probably true. But the presidency of Jimmy Carter shows that they are also annoyed by politicians who are being honest.
In 1979, the United States was beset by the sort of problems that voters pay close attention to. There was the hostage crisis in Iran, and on the domestic front there was inflation and runaway gas prices. In the two weeks prior to Independence Day that year, Carter was invisible, leading to conspiracy theories that he was ill, or perhaps even that he'd fled the country. Why he would flee was never explained.
It turns out that the President was hard at work on a speech, which he delivered live on national TV on the evening of July 4, 1979. Taking a very clear cue from the Gettysburg Address, not to mention Franklin D. Roosevelt, Carter acknowledged that the country was facing serious problems, but argued that if Americans looked deep within themselves, and pulled together as a country, those problems could be overcome. The passage that was supposed to be the highlight of the speech:The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.
Rather than a "highlight," however, the quote ended up as an anchor around Carter's neck. The address was quickly dubbed the "Malaise Speech," despite the fact that Carter never actually used that word. Americans, it would seem, wanted a "rah-rah" speech rather than a "hard truths" speech. The whole thing conspired to make Carter appear to be out of touch with reality, someone with his head too far in the clouds to understand the troubles of ordinary Americans. Since he left office, there's been a reappraisal of the speech and what Carter was trying to do. But that reappraisal did not come in time to help him in the presidential election of 1980, where he was soundly beaten by Ronald Reagan.
The Matchup: Both of these blunders were made by politicians who were already in a bad place with voters by the time the blunder was made. Jeb! was probably the dumber blunder, since no right-thinking political strategist should have expected that to miraculously fix what was wrong with his campaign. The thinking behind the "malaise" speech was much more sound, even if the gamble didn't work out. On the other hand, "malaise" was probably the more damaging blunder, since Carter might plausibly have won reelection in 1980, whereas Bush was all but a lost cause by the time he pulled Jeb! out of... well, wherever it is that the Bush family pulls things from.
Venality Region: In this region, political figures made choices that they knew, or should have known, were illegal, immoral and/or unethical, and saw those choices work out badly.
FIRST FOUR MATCHUP
Clarence Thomas: When the ailing Thurgood Marshall was forced to resign due to ill health, it handed then-President George H.W. Bush an unexpected gift. That said, the needle had to be threaded carefully. On one hand, Marshall had vacated the "Black" seat on the Court, and so a Black replacement was needed. On the other hand, Bush needed to keep the conservative wing of his conservative political party happy. Black judges were something of a rarity on the federal judiciary back then (and they are still not as common as they should be, relative to the U.S. population). Conservative Black judges were even more scarce. The other places where a justice might be drawn from, like law school leadership teams and white shoe law firms, were no better stocked with conservative Black candidates. In Thomas, Bush thus chose one of a very small number of candidates (less than five) who checked the boxes that simply had to be checked.
This is not to say that Thomas was a good candidate, merely that he cleared the bar that needed to be cleared. He had just a bit more than a year's experience on the federal bench, and he was pretty obviously put onto the D.C. Court of Appeals by Bush in order to be available as a Supreme Court candidate, as Marshall's poor health was not a secret. During his confirmation hearings, of course, Thomas was credibly accused of sexual harassment and of creating a hostile workplace environment. The nomination should have been withdrawn, but it wasn't. The bending-over-backwards effort to put the "right" person on the Court rather than the best person (or even someone in the top 1,000 best people) is why we put this in the Venality bracket.
Would Thomas be confirmed today, if the same set of circumstances came to pass? Hard to say. On one hand, there is far less tolerance for sexual harassment today than there was in 1991. On the other hand, Republican fealty to the party line is much greater. Our guess is that, if a Thomas clone were to be nominated by a Republican president today, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) would express "concern" and then would vote to confirm the nomination.
U.S. Attorneys Fired: U.S. Attorneys, like many employees of the executive branch, serve at the pleasure of the president. That said, because of the general desire to maintain the appearance of impartiality, it is not common for presidents to be hands-on the management of the U.S. Attorney corps, unless one of them engages in some sort of deeply problematic behavior. So, it was big news when then-president George W. Bush and then-AG Alberto Gonzales held a press conference on December 7, 2006, and announced that seven U.S. Attorneys would be summarily dismissed.
The folks who lost their jobs had relatively little in common, other than having raised the ire of conservative activists in the Republican Party. To this day, it is not entirely clear what the primary motivation was for the move. Was Bush merely trying to keep the Republican Party unified? Did he want lieutenants that would vigorously implement his political agenda? Was he trying to give some promising young conservatives a chance to improve their résumés? It was probably all of these things.
The only thing that is certain is that the move was motivated by politics; several investigations into the matter reached that conclusion, including a Department of Justice investigation whose findings were published in July 2010. The DoJ also found that, while the firings were unethical, they weren't illegal. So, the only person to pay a price for this particular act of venality was Alberto Gonzales, who absorbed most of the blowback produced by the scheme, and was compelled to resign his post on September 17, 2007.
The Matchup: It's a Bush blunder versus a Bush blunder. Like father, like son, we suppose. The son's blunder did not hurt him electorally, as it was carefully timed to take place weeks after the final midterm election of his term-limited presidency. As to the father, his approval rating was 89% in January 1991. By October of 1992, it was down to 29%. This is customarily attributed to the downturn in the economy that took place during that time, but sticking with Thomas may well have been part of the problem, too. Surely, many women voters were not happy with what they heard during his confirmation hearings.
Meanwhile, both blunders have had some long-term consequences that, by all indications, would trouble even the two men who made them. Thomas has done more than any other person, save perhaps Mitch McConnell, to damage the reputation of the Supreme Court as a neutral arbiter of balls and strikes. And as to the U.S. Attorneys, do you know what the main complaint was of the conservative activists who wanted them fired? That they weren't doing enough to combat alleged "voter fraud."
Strategery Region: This region features blunderers who tried to play 3-D chess as best they knew how, but blew it and checkmated themselves with their unwise strategic choices.
FIRST FOUR MATCHUP
Court Packing: The story here is likely familiar to most readers. Franklin D. Roosevelt had enormous success at getting his legislative program, the New Deal, through Congress. And when Congress wouldn't play ball, he would sometimes do things through executive order. There's a good case to be made that he was the most powerful president in U.S. history.
The one brick wall that FDR kept running into was the Supreme Court, where the "Four Horsemen"—Justices Pierce Butler, James Clark McReynolds, George Sutherland, and Willis Van Devanter—were almost invariably hostile to New Deal programs. All they needed was one more vote, and they often got it from the moderately conservative Justice Owen J. Roberts or the moderately liberal Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes (the other three justices—Louis Brandeis, Benjamin Cardozo, and Harlan Stone, known as the "Three Musketeers"—were safe votes for FDR).
Roosevelt did not like to lose, in general. He did not like to lose key parts of the New Deal, in particular, as he regarded himself as being on something of a crusade to save the United States (this was not an unreasonable line of thinking). So, he proposed the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937, which would have allowed presidents to appoint an additional justice to the Court for every justice above the age of 70. The Four Horsemen, at that point, were 78 (Van Devanter), 75 (McReynolds and Sutherland), and 71 (Butler). Undoubtedly that is just a coincidence.
Though FDR tried hard to sell the legislation, devoting most of his March 1937 Fireside Chat to the subject, public reaction to the proposal was overall poor. Quite a few voters took it as a sign that the President had grown too big for his britches, and was looking to acquire near dictatorial power. The caption of the political cartoon to the left is: "Do we want a ventriloquist act in the Supreme Court?," and many Americans thought that sentiment was pretty on-point.
Congress, which had previously been fairly pliant clay to be molded by FDR's hands, pushed back against the proposed bill and ultimately torpedoed it. In particular Sen. Henry F. Ashurst (D-AZ), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, tied the bill up in hearings for more than 6 months. Meanwhile, the primary senatorial champion of the bill, Majority Leader Joseph Taylor Robinson (D-AR), died on July 14, 1937. FDR ultimately got what he wanted the normal way, as the Four Horsemen all retired between 1937 and 1941, leaving the President to pick their replacements.
Samuel Chase Impeachment: George Washington was a Federalist in all but name. John Adams was a Federalist in name. Between them, they stacked the judiciary with judges friendly to their political ideas. This did not please the Democratic-Republicans, particularly once they elected one of their own as president, namely Thomas Jefferson.
The most famous thing Jefferson (and his secretary of state, James Madison) did in order to try to solve this problem was refuse to deliver a bunch of last-minute commissions made by Adams (leading to Marbury v. Madison). However, the Democratic-Republicans also repealed the Judiciary Act of 1801, trying to end life tenure for federal judges. Jefferson & Co. also planned to use the impeachment power to kick a bunch of Federalist judges to the street. And the test case they chose was Associate Justice Samuel Chase.
Chase was an obvious target. The Democratic-Republicans wanted a big fish, and there were only six Supreme Court justices to choose from. Of those six, Chase had been far and away the most intemperate in keeping his political opinions to himself while sitting on the bench. He didn't actually pop off all that much while sitting as a Supreme Court justice, in part because SCOTUS didn't sit all that often back then. Where he did pop off was while sitting as a circuit judge in Baltimore (all Supremes did circuit work at that time). In particular, Chase did not approve of the repeal of the Judiciary Act, and did not hide his feelings on that subject.
The eight articles of impeachment against Chase were adopted on March 12, 1804. It was almost entirely a party-line vote, with 81 Democratic-Republicans and a sole Federalist voting for and 30 Federalists and a pair of Democratic-Republicans voting against. As to the Senate trial, it was held over to the next meeting of the upper chamber (at that time, Congress did not meet in summer or fall). Once the senators had returned to Washington, an inordinate amount of time was spent figuring out how to properly stage and decorate the Senate chamber. Chase's trial finally commenced February 4, 1805, and it was quite thorough, with more than 50 witnesses giving testimony. Chase's defense was that expressing political opinions, and even making bad rulings, did not rise to the level of "high crimes and misdemeanors."
In the end, enough senators agreed with Chase to save his bacon. To convict, 23 votes would have been necessary. There were 25 Democratic-Republicans in the Senate at that time (against just 9 Federalists), so a party-line vote would have cost Chase his job. However, on each of the eight articles of impeachment, at least 6 Democratic-Republicans voted to acquit. This failure caused Jefferson to conclude, quite correctly, that he wasn't going to be able to use impeachment to reshape the federal judiciary. This was the only time a Supreme Court justice was subject to an impeachment trial, and it's the only time a federal judge has been impeached for offenses that were not criminal.
The Matchup: There are at least three rather important questions here. The first is: "How serious was FDR about court packing?" It's possible he really wanted to do it, or it's possible that he just wanted to send a warning to SCOTUS, and that he didn't work nearly as hard as he could have to whip votes for the legislation. Only Roosevelt knows for sure, and he isn't talking.
The second is: "How much damage did this do to Roosevelt?" He had his triumphs at the start of his time in office, and then he finished by triumphing in World War II. However, it is worth recalling that his second term (1937-41) was his worst; he took a beating in the 1938 midterm elections, and he also failed to pass any major legislation following the promulgation of the court packing scheme. But for a fellow named Hitler, it's possible we might remember Roosevelt's presidency somewhat differently.
The third question is about the Chase impeachment: "But for that trial, would the only real power Congress has when it comes to holding judges accountable be somewhat more useful?" There have been plenty of federal judges since 1805 who were incompetent. There have been plenty of federal judges since 1805 who behaved in unethical ways. But the overtly partisan Chase trial effectively drew a bright, red line between criminal conduct and all other conduct.
Parapraxery Region: Everyone knows that a Freudian Slip is an inadvertent error, but one that potentially reveals some larger truth about the blunderer. Over time, that particular term has acquired a connotation that the error has something to do with sex, since sex was kinda Freud's obsession. Parapraxery refers to the same basic phenomenon, except without the sexual connotation. This region is made up entirely of things that were expressed extemporaneously, without apparent forethought, and that turned disastrous.
FIRST FOUR MATCHUP
Covfefe: As we've already noted, we could have included an awful lot of Donald Trump in this competition. However, we chose to limit ourselves, at least some. That said, there had to be at least one tweet included, and this is the one.
It's been a few years, but recall that late on May 30, 2017, Trump tweeted: "Despite the constant negative press covfefe." That was it; the best guess is that he meant "coverage," though that doesn't explain what happened to the rest of the tweet. In any case, the tweet quickly took off, and within 24 hours the hashtag #Covfefe had been tweeted nearly 2 million times.
In true Trumpy fashion, he simply could not admit he'd made an error, despite deleting the tweet 6 hours after he sent it. He tweeted "Who can figure out the true meaning of 'covfefe' ??? Enjoy!" That day, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who never failed to tote whatever water he was told to tote, insisted that the tweet was intentional and said "I think the president and a small group of people know exactly what he meant."
Maybe it really was intentional, and Trump was performing some sort of demonstration of how easily he could create a major news story. Or maybe it really was intentional, and Trump was mocking his many and varied critics. Or maybe it was an accident, and Trump is a small, thin-skinned man with a fragile ego who insists that he's so perfect that he is incapable of making even so small an error as a typo. Who knows? In any event, the whole thing engendered much mockery, which is usually not good for one's ego or one's political prospects.
Jackie Walorski: On Sept. 28 of last year, Joe Biden was delivering the opening remarks at the White House conference on hunger, nutrition and health. This was a cause close to the heart of Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-IN), and so Biden decided to acknowledge her by name: "Jackie, are you here? Where's Jackie? She was going to be here." It's true, she probably was going to be there, but those plans came to an end when she died in a car wreck a month before the conference.
It's not clear exactly what happened here. A president knows and talks to a very large number of people, and it's certainly plausible that the President did not immediately recall Walorski's passing in that particular context. It's also possible that he really meant to say something like, "I had hoped to see Jackie here, and now that won't be possible," but he garbled his words. In any case, it wasn't a great moment for someone whose age is his greatest political liability, and whose opponents have consistently questioned his mental fitness.
The Matchup: It's not terribly surprising that the seeding committee put these at the bottom of the list. Either gaffe may have damaged the blunderer a bit, by contributing to an overall impression of them. It's hard to make the case, however, that either of these blunders led to specific consequences for the respective presidents.
And so it begins. The ballot for this round is here. If you have comments on any or all of these matchups, and why you voted as you did, send them here. (Z)