Mitt Romney, left; Barack Obama

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama appear to agree about at least one thing on this tense Election Day: They are standing on mutually exclusive party platforms, offering Americans what Obama called “the clearest choice of any time in a generation.” The candidates – and their partisans – insist voters are deciding today between a country that will be prospering or bankrupt, with a foreign policy that is firm or flaccid, and with abortion either remaining legal or abruptly outlawed. Nevertheless, after Inauguration Day, the challenges of governance, unexpected events, and the strong, confining American center will probably blur these differences.

The president, whoever he is, will frequently disregard party principles. These White House deviations will occur despite the black-and-white rhetoric inflaming our blue-vs.-red politics, in which shades of gray — once the big tent party pol’s favorite color — only seem welcome on best-seller lists.

The president, whoever he is, will frequently disregard party principles.

Successful presidents must be nimble not doctrinaire. They should prefer center-seeking to partisan drum-beating, respecting many Americans’ historic desire for consensus and the office’s constitutionally limited powers. Most foreign crises are unpredictable. Many social issues are beyond presidential reach. Five Republican presidents, from Richard Nixon through George W. Bush, failed to shake the American consensus that abortions should be safe, legal and rare — half the population  might embrace the “pro-life” label but three-quarters want most abortions legal. And many of the chief executive’s economic, diplomatic and military decisions and maneuvers are so complex and so constrained by other forces, that presidents sometimes even enact policies they campaigned against to become president.

In their sexist parlance, nineteenth-century Americans debated which was more important, “The Man or the Platform.” By mid-twentieth-century, cynics defined the platform as “what you start by running on and end by running from.” Today, the person clearly eclipses the policy positions. Political pronouncements are more postures than promises, more feints than faits accomplis. Candidates first woo the party base in primaries, then swing toward the center seeking centrist swing voters. “Issues are only a means to establish personal qualities with voters,” the pollster Robert Teeter told Gerald Ford’s staffers in 1976. “Personalities,” he added, are “far more important.”

When George Washington first stood passively for the presidency, the election nevertheless pivoted around his virtuous character.  He had neither party nor platform. Awaiting the people’s call in dignified silence, he feared any statement could be “construed into a vain-glorious desire of pushing myself into notice as a candidate.” Once the spread of democracy produced strong parties and active candidates, the debates revolved around whether a nominee even stood by the party platform when campaigning. In 1880, the New York World claimed that most voters did not “hold a candidate responsible” for fatuous party compromises; candidates defined themselves. Today, we wonder whether the winner even stands on the platform when governing, as ideologues from the ruling party then grumble privately about their independent, pragmatic presidents.

As parties evolved from extra-constitutional improvisations that the framers feared to dominant vehicles for recruiting candidates and mobilizing voters, nominees sought independence. Increasingly parties wanted their candidates standing on platforms – originally a French term referring to a building’s foundation that Americans first used to describe a church’s principles. The abolitionist crusader William Lloyd Garrison then popularized the term to mean one’s political foundations; so standing on the platform was a more stable and communal act, while stumping — from standing on a tree stump while campaigning – was individualistic.

The Democrats enacted America’s first real party platform in 1840. Four years later, James Knox Polk, possibly America’s most efficient president, articulated three goals and met them – to reestablish the Independent Treasury system, lower tariffs and acquire Oregon, California and New Mexico. But these were Polk’s personal goals. The Democrats’ 1844 platform never mentioned the words treasury, tariff, California, or New Mexico – an inauspicious beginning for these party manifestos.

At the time, rivals mocked candidates who were too deferential to the platform. In 1856, Republican newspapers called James Buchanan’s devotion to the Democratic platform “meek and submissive demagoguism.” The Republican zealot Thaddeus Stevens sneered, “There is no such person running as James Buchanan. He is dead of lockjaw. Nothing remains but a platform and a bloated mass of political putridity.” Three years later, the Republican journalist E.L. Godkin observed that the failures of Buchanan and his ineffectual predecessors “convinced everybody that the man is of far greater importance than his creed.”

Two Democratic debacles particularly infuriated party bosses. In 1864, General George B. McClellan reversed the Democratic platform’s priorities, choosing the preservation of  the union over achieving peace – prompting the New York Daily News to demand a new convention “either to remodel the platform to suit the nominee or nominate a candidate to suit the platform.” Eight years later, the Democrats nominated Horace Greeley, who was already representing the renegade Liberal Republican Party trying to reform the Republican Party he helped found. But Greeley’s decades of Democrat-bashing embarrassed the nominee and his new allies. As the campaign ended, Greeley moaned: “I have been assailed so bitterly that I hardly knew whether I was running for the presidency or the penitentiary.”

During the Gilded Age, strengthened parties – learning from the corporations then emerging how to be more centralized — demanded more loyal candidates. Elaborate notification ceremonies, ritualized offers of the nomination by a delegation representing the convention, who were greeted with an increasingly detailed acceptance letter read publicly, bonded the nominee, the party and its platform.  Politicians debated whether they preferred a Samuel Tilden, the 1876 Democratic candidate whose 4400-word acceptance letter promoted himself not the platform, or the less eloquent, less prolix, and less feisty 1880 Democratic candidate, General Winfield Scott Hancock, who preferred to “let well enough alone.” Turgidly Hancock explained: “I have no right to mar the present situation of the party by a set of expressions, superfluous to its adopted platform of principles, with which I am in full accord.”

Democrats and Republicans usually decided what kind of candidate they liked based on what kind of candidate they had, because partisans can tolerate almost anything except their rivals.

This person versus principle divide was not partisan. Democrats and Republicans usually decided what kind of candidate they liked based on what kind of candidate they had, because partisans can tolerate almost anything except their rivals. Traditionalists concerned with a candidate’s character opposed modernizers seeking an “educational campaign” pitched on principle. A more sophisticated nation demanded a more sophisticated campaign. In this “age of telegraphs and fast mails the people think, and know what they want,” Representative Charles A. Boutelle of Maine said.

Party platforms, filled with “platitudes,” generate political noise, no better than the “brass bands and torchlight processions which are expected to attract the citizens’ attention, although they may not affect his judgment,” said the Missouri Senator George Graham Vest in a symposium, “The Man or the Platform,” the North American Review published in 1892. Voters “prefer in the candidate courage and honesty to high-sounding declamation in the platform.” Representative J.C. Burrows of Michigan disagreed, arguing that the platform’s “party principles” were “stronger than the convictions and purposes of any one man, and in the end will surely prevail.”

Such debates rarely erupt today. The system seems shorn of ambiguity. Individuals run hard in primaries, detailing their policy stands – although critics mocked Richard Nixon’s flamboyantly earnest claim in 1968 that he had issued 167 position papers: they suggested he make it an even 170 by addressing the Vietnam War, the cities, and Civil Rights. Modern conventions now mark the nominee’s conquest of the party, which includes dictating the platform. Platform committees mix party ideologues trying to maintain doctrinal purity with the nominee’s loyalists, who want to win. But everyone knows the platform will be scrutinized. During the recent brouhaha after the Democrats dropped their Jerusalem and God platform planks, it was hard to believe that President Barack Obama and his people had not vetted the platform. It was, however, completely believable that Obama then insisted on fixing the problem, and the Democrats accommodated their party leader.

Yet pride of authorship rarely translates into ironclad commitments – presidents from both parties have failed to move America’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem despite both party’s rather consistent promises since 1972. Positions are ideological cufflinks not handcuffs.  Many presidents have defied their own mandates. In foreign policy, the clarity of convention calls frequently dissolves amid the moment’s messiness. That is how in 1916, Woodrow Wilson’s platform declaration, “He kept us out of war,” failed to keep America out of World War I. And that is why George W. Bush mocked Bill Clinton for nation-building during the 2000 campaign but after 9/11 began trying to nation-build.

The traditional American gravitational pull to the center has also reoriented many politicians once they viewed the world with Rose-Garden-shaded glasses. American presidents have succeeded best by leading from the center. Even radical sounding candidates like Ronald Reagan understood that moderates make the best presidents. The commander in chief must lead all the people not just one party, a point Obama emphasized in 2008, and which Romney followed once he started debating in 2012. This nurturing of consensus not fomenting faction explains how, running against the New Deal and promising an “economical administration” did not stop President Dwight D. Eisenhower from preserving “Democratic” programs like Social Security while building the gargantuan, National Highway System. The right-wing ideologue Russell Kirk scoffed that Eisenhower was no conservative: “He is a golfer.”

Seeking the American sweet spot in leadership, that mode of muscular moderation, sent Richard Nixon to China, had Ronald Reagan and George H.W Bush raising taxes to tame the deficit, and prompted Bill Clinton to declare the era of big government “over.”  Thanks to this presidential tropism toward the center, and with necessity trumping ideology, the small-government-advocating conservative George W. Bush and the big-government liberal Barack Obama stimulated the economy with hundreds of millions of government dollars. Similarly, Bush, the war-on-terror conservative, and Obama, the human-rights-advocating liberal, both maintained the prison at Guantanamo Bay while hunting down Islamist terrorists aggressively.

The world looks different from the president’s desk rather than from the candidates’ soapbox.

The world looks different from the president’s desk rather than from the candidates’ soapbox. These Oval Office conversions reflect the American political system’s strength. The nominee’s most ardent supporters resist this “etch-a-sketchism,” which the cowboy comedian Will Rogers once dismissed as “go in on promises, go out on alibis.”

Yet the story is about resilience and pragmatism not hypocrisy and betrayal. President George Washington consistently sought a “middle course,” fostering a “spirit of accommodation” and emphasizing “our common cause.” Thomas Jefferson agreed that “it is necessary to give as well as take in a government like ours.” And Abraham Lincoln stayed agile by insisting, “my policy is to have no policy.”

Of course, significant differences remain among candidates, and choosing one candidate or another changes history. But voters should realize that campaigning presents many red (and blue) herrings highlighting differences but governing frequently obscures them. Considering that only the hard questions reach the president’s desk, as Eisenhower warned his successor John F. Kennedy, the simple red-versus-blue decisions get made elsewhere — while many searing social issues like abortion appear on the Supreme Court’s docket not the president’s agenda.

Many of today’s winner’s toughest challenges, including Iran and the economy, mostly transcend ideology. So voters beware: presidential decisions rarely fit into the neat boxes ideologues and spinmeisters construct when building the party platform and campaigning. Best to learn from Will Rogers, in one of his grander moments: “We elect our presidents, be they Republican or Democrat, then start daring ’em to make good.”