History Favors Trump

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2019/03/18/history-favors-trump/

The next election belongs to Trump.

Donald Trump will win the 2020 presidential election.

That’s not a prediction. That is a projection based upon history.

Beginning with the presidential contest of 1900, the party holding the White House has stood for its second term a total of 12 times. In 11 of those 12 campaigns, the incumbent party has triumphed. That’s about a 92 percent success rate. Those odds must look pretty good to a swashbuckling politician of the Trump stripe.

There is a single exception to the two-term incumbent party lock:  President Jimmy Carter. The Georgian lost his re-election battle in 1980. At that time, the Democrat Party had held the White House for only four years, following Carter’s victory over GOP President Gerald Ford in 1976.

Undermining Carter’s presidency was the widespread perception that his time in office was a period of “malaise.” The economy sputtered, inflation skyrocketed, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and the Iranians held hostages in the American embassy, a persistent sign of the administration’s weakness and ineffectiveness. In retrospect, it may be too easy to attribute Carter’s four-year loss to the greatness of his 1980 opponent, Ronald Reagan. But at the time, Reagan was viewed by Democrats and their mainstream media allies as an aging, warmongering, not-very-bright B-movie actor in the thrall of an extreme conservative ideology. He would, they thought, be the easiest Republican to defeat.

Boy, were they ever wrong.

Besides Carter’s own missteps and his underestimating Reagan, two other political factors contributed to that singular four-year Democrat loss. First, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, heir to the liberal halo of his assassinated brothers, challenged incumbent Carter in the 1980 primaries. Although Carter won a tough nomination fight, he failed to unite or inspire the liberal activists embittered by their Bay State hero’s defeat.

The 1980 election also witnessed the third-party candidacy of independent John Anderson. Anderson may have served as a Republican congressman, but his trajectory had moved steadily leftward over his two decades in the House. By 1980, Anderson came out of central casting as a RINO’s RINO. While he certainly took votes from both parties, his largest percentage came in the Kennedy home state of Massachusetts, where Anderson broke the 15 percent mark. This provided just the margin needed for Reagan to take the Commonwealth, a feat he repeated in his 1984 landslide. Astonishingly, Ronald Reagan, the most conservative president of the post-World War II epic, squeaked out presidential wins in the most liberal state in the nation.

The Carter four-year Democrat jinx has lessons for President Trump. One, avoid an economic downturn at all costs. Two, stay away from potential foreign policy quagmires in North Korea or the Mideast. Three, make every effort to prevent any viable primary challenge. Four, beware a third-party candidate who could siphon voters away from the GOP and then swing critical electoral votes to the Democrats.

If Carter is the one president in more than a century who failed to hold his party in the presidency for at least two terms, he is hardly the only incumbent to lose re-election in the 20th Century. Four times, an incumbent GOP president lost for re-election. Still, each loss followed from eight to 16 years of Republican dominance in the corner office. That’s quite a different scenario from a party losing after only four years in the White House; there is a certain inescapable logic to the eight-year cycle.

One time, the Great Depression cost the GOP the White House. Twice, third party candidates helped submarine Republican incumbents. In 1912 running as the third party “Bull Moose” candidate, former Republican President Teddy Roosevelt challenged his designated successor President William Howard Taft, providing the opening for Democrat Woodrow Wilson to serve two terms. Roosevelt proved the most potent third party candidate of the modern two-party era. One might fairly call him the second party candidate, as he tallied more popular and electoral votes than Republican standard bearer Taft.

In 1992, Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot sabotaged the re-election effort of fellow Lone Star Stater George H. W. Bush. Of course, Bush, himself, had already undermined his own campaign by inking a tax-hike deal with big-spending Democrats that simultaneously surrendered the anti-tax re-election issue and broke his word solemnly declared at the Republican convention: “Read my lips, no new taxes.”  

That Bush tax hike was inevitably linked to the Bush recession that fed Bill Clinton his campaign theme, “It’s the economy, stupid!”

Rarely in political history has a single poor decision caused as much self-inflicted political pain. In the third term of the Reagan-led Republican ascendancy, President Bush carelessly ruptured his political coalition, by giving into the Democrats on tax increases. This helped secure his uncertain, hand-wringing image as a pragmatist willing to work across the aisle, while tarnishing his personal credibility, an irreplaceable political asset. Then his tax hikes inevitably connected to a severe economic downturn presenting an almost insurmountable difficulty for an incumbent, at the same time it gave Clinton his surefire top-tier issue. 

Unless he’s willing to follow the four-year rule of Democrat Jimmy Carter or the single-term George H. W. Bush model, President Trump would be well-advised to learn from their mistakes. Lauded in some circles as centrists or moderates, their paper-thin political support crumbled in the face of economic problems and demonstrable weaknesses.

Since the Carter years, Americans have grown accustomed to two-term presidents. Beginning with Ronald Reagan’s White House years, political parties have routinely held the executive branch for eight years. For the first time since the earliest days of the Republic, we have witnessed three consecutive presidents serve out two full terms apiece:  Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. And going back to Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980, the United States has seen four out of five chief executives serve two full terms. The last time a similar pattern of consistency held in the presidency, illustrious figures roamed the White House corridors:  Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson, interrupted only by the single term of President John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts.

For all the media carping about turmoil and uncertainty, we live in the midst of a remarkable wave of presidential stability.

Will Donald J. Trump maintain that historic trend?

One cannot predict with absolute certainty. But those 11-to-1 odds look persuasive.


Joseph Tortelli is a freelancer writer. Read other articles by Mr. Tortelli here.