The recent self-characterization by President Donald Trump that he now is a “wartime president” boosts his chances of re-election and, if history is any guide, it might work.
The American electorate is loath to depose an incumbent president seeking re-election during a time of war. In fact, the public is so reluctant that it has never done so.
The practice dates back more than two centuries and has been consistently followed since then on a bipartisan basis through the destruction of the halls of government, disastrous military battles, broken promises of peace, precedent-shattering presidential durations, and misleading premises leading to conflict, among other indignities.
It began in 1812, when James Madison of the infant Democratic-Republican Party, one of the fathers of the Constitution, was re-elected to a second term as the nation’s fourth president six months into the War of 1812 with Great Britain, a conflict so muddled that they couldn’t even come up with a name for it.
The belligerence, which lasted three years, was a mixed success, with cessation of the practice of harassing American maritime traffic (and abducting seamen), some favorable territorial gains, and the creation of “The Star Spangled Banner,” notwithstanding the ignominy of seeing the British force the president and his administration to flee the nation’s capital and then burn the still incomplete U.S. Capitol and the White House before being routed by Andrew Jackson’s rag-tag band of warriors at the Battle of New Orleans.
A little more then two score later, Republican Abraham Lincoln overcame a coterie of bad military leaders and stunning setbacks in the early years of the Civil War to secure re-election in 1864 over one of those former wayward generals, George McClellan, despite the Great Emancipator’s well-founded fear months before the election that he would be defeated.
He attributed his ensuing resounding victory, following a number of major advances and triumphs by the Union army, to the aversion of the voters “to change horses in the middle of the stream.”
As much of the world was engulfed in war 50 years later, Democrat Woodrow Wilson framed his successful but narrow 1916 re-election on the slogan “He kept us out of war.” Within five weeks of his second inauguration, he sought and obtained a congressional declaration for the country to enter World War I.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the candidate for vice president on the unsuccessful Democratic ticket to succeed Wilson, 2½ decades later in the midst of World War II ran and won his bid in for a fourth term in 1944, following his precedent-shattering third term and preceding his death three months after his fourth inauguratio
Vietnam and beyond
Although it was still in its infancy, with fewer than 25,000 American troops in Vietnam in 1964, the American undertaking in that country to support the South Vietnamese government against insurgents from the Communist North was a backdrop for the election that year. The incumbent, Lyndon Johnson, clobbered Republican challenger Barry Goldwater, before he began escalating the undeclared war in a way that essentially drove him out of office, or from seeking another term four years later.
That war was in its final stages in 1972 when President Richard Nixon had an even easier time defeating Democratic challenger George McGovern, who, like McClellan before him, made ending the war the centerpiece of his unsuccessful quest for the White House.
During the undeclared but quite real war with Iraq in 2004, President George W. Bush narrowly secured re-election over Vietnam War medal winner John Kerry despite the revelation that the American invasion was based on misleading reports of weapons of mass destruction maintained by the Iraqi leadership. A major motif of the GOP incumbent’s campaign was the denigration of his opponent’s military service, despite a spotty and dubious one of his own.
In all instances in which a White House resident sought an extension of occupancy during a war, the voters renewed his lease, from Madison chased out of the blazing White House to the second Bush’s prevarications forming the basis for leading the country into war.
All were shooting wars
However, these precedents could be shattered this year. All of the prior instances involved shooting wars, distinct from the current equally serious, or more so, coronavirus pandemic. Unlike the current crisis, none of the wars overseen by past wartime incumbents was aggravated or instigated by a president’s belated, dithering pre-war incompetence. Nor was any of them characterized by the type of self-promotional ego-inflating boasts of the current occupant of the White House, coupled with a virtually total lack of empathy for the suffering incurred by the victims of the wars.
Despite these deficiencies, Trump’s titular “wartime” presidency increases the likelihood, from a historical perspective, that he will be re-elected, a prospect that encourages his supporters.
But his detractors might like to invoke the converse of the oft-quoted remark of philosopher George Santayana: Those who do remember the past are not condemned to repeat it.
Marshall H. Tanick is a Twin Cities constitutional law attorney and historian with the law firm of Meyer Njus Tanick.
WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?
If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, see our Submission Guidelines.)