Some say history repeats. Others say it’s always the same. Whichever, there are things we can surmise about the future, based on past experience. And, as George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That’s why we like to take the long view here. Let’s look at presidential re-election bids.
Politico has a story warning Democrats that they don’t have an easy task.
For the past 3½ decades, a glaring paradox has infected the quest for the American presidency. In an age when citizens on both left and right have soured on politics and treated incumbents with thinly veiled contempt, sitting presidents have rarely been booted out of office before their eight years were up. They have survived, despite the raging animus toward incumbents. The only president since 1984 to have failed to win a second term has been George H.W. Bush in 1992.
That’s the short view. It overlooks that, prior to 1984, Carter, Ford, Nixon, Johnson, and Kennedy all, consecutively, failed to serve a second term. But let’s get back to the Politico premise of why the last three presidents have served two terms.
Why? One significant reason is that opposition parties have generally nominated bad candidates to challenge presidents running for second terms. . .
Consider the failed presidential challengers since 1984: Walter Mondale, Bob Dole, John Kerry and Mitt Romney. This list shows that, in the modern era, Republicans and Democrats alike have tended to prioritize decades of government experience or deep party ties ahead of far more salient characteristics and considerations like youthful energy and fresh ideas. Rather than selecting future-oriented/anti-establishment candidates to carry their party’s banner, opposition parties have tended to nominate politicians next in the queue—leaders who have paid their dues by raising gobs of money for other partisans, building chits among activists and elected officials, and incubating relationships with Iowa and New Hampshire political operatives.
Especially in the old days, parties wanted to pay back party stalwarts to whom the party owed loyalty. Tom Dewey ran twice, losing, as did Adlai Stevenson. Richard Nixon got the nod in 1968, due mostly to his work in 1964 to promote Republican candidates across the country. That same year, Hubert Humphrey got the nod for the same reason, even though Eugene McCarthy was clearly “the people’s choice.”
Walter Mondale ran as former vice president and lost to Reagan. To add insult to injury, Mondale later lost a bid for the Senate, to fill the seat of Paul Wellstone. Both of those runs were because the party was looking for a long-time loyal partisan.
Then, there was Bob Dole—the disabled war hero who had run several times for president. Even at the time, it appeared that the GOP was just giving him one last chance. As a favor. Of all the Republican candidates that year, he seemed to be the least interesting.
And that leads us to Hillary Clinton, the long-suffering First Lady. She was well respected in the Senate. As a “carpetbagger” in New York, little was expected from her, yet she proved effective at working with both Democrats and Republicans. After that, she served as the well-traveled Secretary of State. In 2016, she was sort of seen as the Queen Mother of the party, and almost no one dared insult her by running against her.
Ironically, the Republicans in 2016 picked a nobody, in political terms. Bypassing a huge field of experienced partisans, who had worked for many years for the party, they chose a candidate who had been a Democrat just a few years before.
Romney was a weak candidate more for his economic status, rather than his political status.
Although Trump has tweaked Romney for having failed to work hard enough in that campaign (a “choke artist,” he called him), Romney’s far deeper problem was that he became the personification of the age of economic inequality—the greedy, win-at-all-costs corporate raider who grew super-rich on the backs of struggling families.
What about this year?
Running against Washington may not be as easy for Trump as he wishes it to be. His norm-shattering presidency has squandered one of the advantages incumbents traditionally have enjoyed, as he has failed in his first term to convince a majority of the public that the president is actually presidential.
So, who would be the right Democratic candidate? Maybe not the most qualified.
Democrats will need someone skilled at tapping people’s frustration with politics, someone credible on the central question of income inequality, someone who can speak to the party’s future rather than someone beholden to its past. Sadly, nominating the most qualified person to be president may squander a chance—perhaps the biggest since 1992—to oust an incumbent president.
Speaking of unpresidential, we reported yesterday that Trump is already working on nicknames for opponents, rather than policy.
So, according to the Politico article, Democrats face the risk of picking a weak candidate, based on recent examples of Mondale, Dole, Kerry, and Romney. But what is a “weak” candidate? No party picks a loser on purpose.
Despite conservative ridicule, the New Left has caused more excitement among Democrats than any time since Kennedy. Since Johnson, the party hasn’t had a positive self-image. The only wins they had for more than 40 years were with Southern candidates, yet it wasn’t a “southern” party. Bernie Sanders struck excitement, but he lost to the old-line party candidate.
That is not likely to happen again. The New Left has given the party energy, in the way that the Tea Party gave Republicans a boost. Yet, it could also cost the party the presidency.
There’s another phenomenon the Politico article doesn’t cover. That’s going extreme. With the anger the Democrats feel this year, they may want to pick someone who personifies all the issues they like. But we’ve seen what happens then.
In 1964, Republicans picked Barry Goldwater, the darling of the John Birch Society. His slogan was, “In Your Heart, You Know He’s Right,” suggesting that his far-right ideas were really not so out-there. But Democrats quickly quipped, “Yeah, FAR Right.”
In the 1964 election, Johnson took 44 States. Goldwater took six. Of course, it was significant that due to Democratic Civil Rights policies, Goldwater took the anti-Civil Rights “Solid South” (other than Texas) from the Democrats, and the “Solid South” has been primarily Republican ever since, although Nixon usually gets credit, with his “Southern Strategy.”
Speaking of Nixon, anger over the war and domestic policies, caused Democrats to pick a very liberal George McGovern as their standard bearer in 1972. Although his campaign was immediately rocked by having to replace Tom Eagleton on the ticket, McGovern was doomed from the start.
In the 1972 election, McGovern won only ONE state, and it wasn’t even his own, South Dakota. It was Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts. If it had not been for Watergate, Democrats may have wandered the desert for 40 years.
So what should Democrats do? Well, don’t pick someone extremely liberal. Don’t pick someone with a lot of government experience. Don’t pick someone who has been too loyal in the party. And don’t pick someone like Hillary, who is both centrist and boring. It may be too soon to pick another African American, and maybe America’s not ready for a woman president. Considering the border fight, maybe a Latino may be a bad choice, too. At 79 on election day, Bernie’s probably too old, and at 38 then, Pete Buttigieg is probably too young. Is there anyone left?