As this will be my last offering here until the Iowa caucuses are almost upon us, I will try to cobble together some election predictions. The Republicans should win. Since the big Republican series of victories through and after the Civil War, ending in Cleveland’s first election in 1884, a party has won three consecutive presidential elections only when the incumbent was very popular at the end of the second term or when there were unusual encumbrances to a change.
Theodore Roosevelt won a third Republican term in 1904, but was a very popular incumbent, having had almost a full term after the assassination of McKinley. Herbert Hoover won a third Republican term in 1928, but the incumbent Coolidge was popular and the opponent, Alfred E. Smith, was the first Roman Catholic major-party presidential nominee, a controversial issue in those times, and was an anti-Prohibitionist from the Bowery with a shiny nose, a heavy New York accent, and loud suits.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt broke a tradition as old as the Republic in taking a third term in 1940, but he was the all-time heavyweight political champion of the country in the midst of an extreme international crisis at the most critical point in World War II. President Eisenhower was very popular, and we will never know whether his vice president, Richard Nixon, or John F. Kennedy really won in 1960, but officially, Kennedy did. Nixon was back after the two Kennedy-Johnson terms in 1968, and the Democrats were back after the two Nixon-Ford terms in 1976.
Jimmy Carter had the doubtful distinction of having the only single term for his party since Benjamin Harrison (1889–93), Ronald Reagan was extremely popular and pulled George H. W. Bush in behind him for a third Republican term, but Bush’s party was splintered by Ross Perot and he became only the third elected president defeated seeking re-election in 80 years (after Hoover and Carter). Bill Clinton’s two terms were followed by the Republicans (though, as with 1960, we will never know who really won the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore). Again, the Democrats were back with Barack Obama after two terms and their two terms are up next year.
President Obama is not popular, so the Republicans have a clear starting advantage. The patterns of these elections have naturally evolved over the history of the Democratic–Republican rivalry. The Democrats won 13 of the 15 elections between 1800 and 1856, with the Jefferson-Jackson formula of protecting slavery for the South but selling themselves in the North as uniquely capable of keeping the South in the Union.
The opposition Whigs, despite such eminent leaders as Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and Abraham Lincoln, could win only with heroes of small wars, Generals William H. Harrison in 1840 (against Van Buren, over the depression produced by Jackson’s revocation of the charter of the Bank of the United States), and Zachary Taylor in 1848 (when Van Buren, out of sour grapes at not being nominated, ran as a third-party candidate and threw the election from General Lewis Cass to Taylor).
Once the Republicans fought and won the Civil War, they won 14 of 18 elections from 1860 to 1928. They stretched out the fading pieties of the Civil War by steadily expanding the ambit of veterans’ benefits, but the solidly resentful Democratic South and the huge numbers of arriving immigrants between the Civil War and World War I who rallied to the big-city Democratic machines made the elections very close.
The Democrats won the popular vote in four of the five elections from 1876 to 1892, and lost in 1880 by only 9,000 votes out of 9 million cast, but the Republicans won three of the five elections. In 1896, the Democrats were seduced by the 36-year-old populist spellbinder, William Jennings Bryan, with the false panacea of bimetallism. The Republicans won four straight elections (three against Bryan himself), but when Theodore Roosevelt fell out with his chosen successor, William Howard Taft, they fumbled the White House to the former president of Princeton University and the governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson.
Again, the Democrats had two terms, but the Republicans were back as isolationist, Prohibitionist, good-time Charlies for the Roaring Twenties with Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. The Great Depression brought the heavens down on the Republicans, and the Democrats won seven of the next nine elections, four by FDR, and interrupted only by a Washington-Jackson-Grant–level war hero — Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. The Roosevelt coalition included the solid South; the African Americans of the North (they couldn’t vote in the South), because they participated equally in his workfare programs; the urban working class; most of those who thought of themselves as religious or ethnic minorities, including 70 percent of Roman Catholics and Jews; and most of the intelligentsia, academia, the entertainment industry, and the working press.
Vietnam and the race riots sundered the great Democratic coalition and brought in the Republicans, who won seven of the next ten elections, cresting with Ronald Reagan’s great economic boom and the very satisfactory and almost bloodless end of the Cold War. Bill Clinton exploited George H. W. Bush’s political awkwardness (he never won a stand-alone election above a safe congressional seat before succeeding Reagan) and ran as an anti-pacifist, budget-balancing “New” Democrat who hired 100,000 more policemen for the country.
George W. Bush upheld the two-term-per-party norm on the way into and out of office. He started well in responding to the 9/11 terror attacks, but did nothing as the housing bubble and current-account deficits reached unsustainable proportions and responded to the severe economic crisis of 2008 with the ungalvanizing tocsin “The sucker could go down.”
Barack Obama took the Clintons’ party away from them although Hillary Clinton won the overall popular vote in the primaries, and the Democrats, and then the country, went for the implicit formula that all the guilt and shame of slavery and segregation could be expiated and washed away by putting an African American in the White House. That act was certainly a great alleviation of concerns about the tolerant spirit of the majority of Americans, but he has been an unsuccessful president, as was his predecessor, and this is only the second time in American history that there have been three consecutive two-term presidents. (The other was Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, 1801–25.)
Hillary Clinton is the obvious nominee against Bernie Sanders, a camp resurrection of George McGovern in policy terms, an almost endearingly absurd Vermont socialist. But Mrs. Clinton will defy the rule against a third term for an incumbent president with a negative approval rating only if the Republicans run an unfeasible candidate. She will not separate herself so easily from the Obama record, having been its not particularly accomplished secretary of state.
Mrs. Clinton made an obsequious speech to the world’s Muslims as part of the Obama pretense that terrorism had been almost been stamped out, and described Bashar Assad of Syria as a “reformer” before his country blew up and he gassed his own people. She probably committed illegalities with official e-mails, and is almost compulsively untruthful, from claiming to have been named after Sir Edmund Hillary’s conquest of Mount Everest (four years after she was christened) to blaming her fabricated recollection of having dodged sniper fire in Bosnia on “jet-lag.”
If the former secretary of state tries to put much distance between herself and Obama, she will inspire the Obama loyalists to sit on their hands, and if she runs on the basis of any kind of continuity with this slapstick farce of an administration, she will sink without trace. Nor should anyone imagine that this debt-sodden economy is going to be a great Democratic re-election launch-pad. She has never won a seriously close election and while she is obviously an intelligent woman, would not be so relaxed about the endless humiliations America has endured under Obama and Kerry as they are, and would presumably try to do something half-plausible with the Republicans about the national debt that Obama has doubled in eight years, her campaign has been unexciting, accident-prone, and not sharpened by serious competition, such as she provided for Obama eight years ago.
Except for Hubert Humphrey, who ran against Richard Nixon in 1968, since FDR’s time and the rise of radio and news-film and more so with all the subsequent advances in the press, the election is always won by whoever is more popular personally. By this criterion, Mrs. Clinton would have a chance against Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and possibly Chris Christie; and would probably lose to Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. These would seem to be the only Republicans who now have a chance for the nomination, and they are a far cry from the procession of Bachmann, Perry, Gingrich, Cain, Santorum, and others who in 2012 briefly challenged Mitt Romney, a consultant who had faced in all four directions on every major issue.
For what it is worth, I think Cruz will win in Iowa, and Trump will win in New Hampshire. But then the race will narrow sharply and if Trump does not become more specific and more acceptable to the large group of moderates who find him offensive (but are about as irritated as I am by attempts to portray him as a Nazi), he will then start to slide, and I think that Mr. Rubio will win over Messrs. Trump, Bush, and Cruz in Florida and ease in ahead, even if the candidates who have won earlier contests before, such as Messrs. Bush and Cruz, have to deliver him blocs of delegates to put him across over Trump.
As most of Mr. Trump’s views, apart from a couple of areas of immigration and law enforcement, are quite moderate, there is plenty of room to adopt much of his platform on behalf of a largely united party. Mr. Trump would receive considerable deference, and the level of his support entitles him to it; he will not do anything that would assist Hillary back into the White House and the idea that he would spend a billion dollars of his own money to win the Ross Perot Prize as a useful idiot for the Clintons was a figment of the febrile and wishful imaginations of CNN and the New York Times.
The choice of the vice-presidential candidates could influence the election outcome for the first time since, of all people, Spiro Agnew (in 1968, to cut into the George Wallace vote), if not Lyndon Johnson (1960). The Bush-Clinton era has had its moments, but after the disasters of the last 20 years, I think the country wants a change, and if the Republicans nominate a worthy heir to the wide vote-attracting talents of Eisenhower, Reagan, and, at his best, Nixon, and not the foot-in-mouth disease of some of the blunderbuss candidates interspersed around and after them, it should be their year again.
[email protected] From the National Review.