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2016 Hopefuls Should Keep Kansas-Nebraska Act in Mind as Shutdown Continues

October 3, 2013 - 6:00pm

As the federal shutdown drags on, Democrats and Republicans alike who are thinking about running for the presidency in 2016 would do well to hit the books and study up on the political fallout from the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

After the Compromise of 1850, the tensions between the North and the South over slavery and other issues cooled down until political leaders in Washington ripped off the bandages by passing the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. By allowing residents of the Kansas territory to determine whether they would have slavery or not when it became a state, the politicians sped the nation along the path toward the Civil War.

Two years later during the 1856 presidential election, the Democrats wanted nothing to do with the Kansas-Nebraska Act despite the fact that they passed it and a president from their party, Franklin Pierce, signed it into law. When Democrats met to nominate a candidate, they refused to turn to Pierce again, making him the first elected president to be denied renomination by his own party. They also rejected members of Pierces strong Cabinet which included the likes of William Marcy, Caleb Cushing and Jefferson Davis. The Democrats also refused to nominate Stephen Douglas who had been one of the chief champions of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the Senate.

Instead the Democrats turned to James Buchanan, a veteran politician who had served in both chambers of Congress and as James K. Polks secretary of State. Buchanan came close to winning the nomination in 1852 and had four decades of political experience. But what made Buchanan politically viable in 1856 was the fact that he was one of the few Democrats at the national level who had not been tarred by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. While Pierce frittered away his presidency by signing the bill into law, Buchanan served as ambassador to England, far removed from political turmoil.

There could be lessons for the current crop of presidential candidates as the likes of Vice President Joe Biden; U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas; U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.; U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.; U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y.; and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., become ensnared in the shutdown fight.

Voters across the nation are up in arms over the government shutdown and few politicians in Washington have emerged with any credit from it. Cruz may have won points with Republican primary voters but, if he ends up with the GOP nomination, voters in the general election wont forget his role leading to the shutdown. King may have won some notice by blasting the GOP leadership as he readies his dark-horse presidential bid. But Republican presidential hopefuls who base their campaigns on attacking conservatives have flopped in recent election cycles. Just ask John Anderson, Arlen Specter and Jon Huntsman.

Still, like Buchanan in 1856, some presidential candidates could emerge stronger by not being directly involved in the issue. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is waiting in the wings as the heavy favorite for the Democratic nomination and she hasnt been touched by this mess in Washington. Republican governors have divided over the issue with the likes of Jan Brewer of Arizona and Chris Christie of New Jersey bashing the GOP leadership in Washington for helping craft the shutdown, while Bobby Jindal of Louisiana has defended Republicans on the shutdown. Of course, governors like them, Rick Perry of Texas and Scott Walker of Wisconsin, havent been on the front lines on the shutdown.

Three years is a long time in politics but Americans are livid about the shutdown and angry at politicians in Washington. The last time the federal government closed its doors in 1995, Republican congressional leaders like Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich couldnt get their presidential ambitions back on track while then-Gov. George W. Bush of Texas had no such problem as he styled himself an outsider to Washington despite his father serving in the White House.

Reach Kevin Derby at During his time studying history at Trinity College in Connecticut, Kevin focused on the coming of the Civil War and spent too much time thinking about the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Kevin has a master's thesis on Southern secessionist Edmund Ruffin collecting dust on his bookshelf though he sometimes uses it as a doorstop.

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