On November 8, 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt followed the election returns coming in via telegraph to the White House. He was running for his own term, having succeeded William McKinley who had been assassinated in 1901, just six months into his presidency. Roosevelt was immensely popular – viewed by the Democrats as virtually unbeatable, with men like William Jennings Bryan and even former President Grover Cleveland refusing to run against him. It fell to one Alton B. Parker, a New York Court of Appeals Judge, to be the sacrificial Democratic lamb that year – his ticket balanced by an 81 year old millionaire from West Virginia. TR won by nearly twenty percentage points in the popular vote.
Sitting in the White House that evening with his wife, Edith, and a crowd of friends, he stunned his guests, not to mention his spouse, by announcing that he would not be running for reelection four years later. That was an odd way to celebrate a great victory – but it was far from impulsive. He kept his promise in 1908, leaving the White House on March 4, 1909 more popular than ever.
Of course, he was only 51 years old when he went into retirement, and he did struggle with just what to do with the rest of his life. Family members were fond of saying that Roosevelt “longed to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.” This seems to bear a striking resemblance to a current former occupant of the Oval Office.
Flash forward a century and think with me about a scenario that has possibilities, though I have no way to predict its probability. If John McCain turns out to be the Republican nominee, and then if he indeed wins the White House in November, he will be, at 72 years of age, the oldest president elected to a first term (Ronald Reagan was 73 when elected the second time).
Imagine with me that President-Elect John Sidney McCain III appears on television late in the evening on November 4, 2008 to claim victory, graciously congratulate his worthy opponent, and thank those who voted for him. Then he pauses, looks over to his wife and smiles, and turning back to the camera says the following:
“My fellow Americans – Thank you for the trust you have placed in me by electing me to be your President. I want to pledge to you this evening that I want to devote every moment of my administration and every ounce of my attention to the great and grave matters facing us. From the War on Terror, to our struggling economy, to the things that divide and polarize us – I want to start from DAY ONE to do all in my power to insure that I leave America better off when I leave office than it is today. Accordingly, I will not seek, nor will I accept, the nomination of my party for another term – after this one – as your President. What I am doing is certainly unprecedented, but I believe it is absolutely necessary. I refuse to be a President driven by polls and an undercurrent of reelection strategy.”
Can you imagine? Better yet – what if John McCain were to actually campaign on this as a strategy – promising that he would serve only four years?
Of course, the first objection to this is that it would make him a lame-duck from that proverbial DAY ONE, and it could. But, it could also play out quite differently. It’s a strategy only tried (sort of) twice before. In addition to Teddy Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge did essentially the same thing with respect to the election of 1928. In fact, it’s largely conceded that both men could very well have won new terms.
Of course, Lyndon Johnson withdrew from the presidential race in March of 1968, but this was after it became clear to him that he would be hard-pressed to win either his party’s nomination or reelection in the fall.
In my opinion, such a bold stroke might work well for Mr. McCain. First, it would neutralize the age issue – something that will become a subplot (if not an overt issue) in any campaign against a youthful Barack Obama. It would also place greater significance on the choice for Vice President on the GOP ticket. There would be politics as usual, of course, but an effective and popular sitting president (a more likely scenario in a first/single term than a second one) would provide a measure of stability to an otherwise wide-open process. Members of his party could run toward or away from him, but he would be harder to ignore.
The fact is that history has not been kind to reelected Presidents. Or is it that these men have not been kind to themselves and the rest of us?
Woodrow Wilson did not keep us out of war after his reelection in 1916 – and, in spite of all his professorial and statesman-like efforts, one day the cheering stopped and he left office a broken man.
Franklin Roosevelt interpreted his landslide victory in 1936 as a mandate to pack the Supreme Court. That was a New Deal bridge too far.
Harry S. Truman won an upset victory in 1948 – but he left office four years later with an approval rating number that has never been bested (or is that “worsted”?).
How about Richard Nixon? Need I really go there?
Even Ronald Reagan, whose mantle was sought by just about every would-be Republican candidate this year, had a rough 2nd term – remember Iran-Contra?
Only Dwight D. Eisenhower managed to avoid too much trouble during round two of his administration, leaving office with an approval rating of 59%. Of course, his war hero status, not to mention his “above the fray” approach to management, insulated him from excessive criticism. His would-be successor, Richard Nixon, was, however, beaten by the agent of change du jour.
It’s quite likely that HUBRIS plays a part in what happens to a man once reelected. He tends to see the results as an exaggerated mandate. The people tend to mean it as a “job well done” statement. It’s not necessarily a green light for reach to exceed grasp.
But, someone might ask – couldn’t a one-term president make similar pride-blinded mistakes (not to mention those born of incompetence)? Sure - ask Jimmy Carter, or George H.W. Bush, or Gerald Ford – or, for that matter – Millard Fillmore. These men, however, got what Winston Churchill once called “the order of the boot.” They weren’t single term presidents because that was what they really wanted.
John McCain’s strengths are those of courage, forthrightness, and an obvious sense of duty. A single-term presidency – on purpose – might just be the kind of thing that would resonate with people in these times of chronic campaigning and endless politics.
After four years he could exit the stage on a high note. And, unlike Teddy Roosevelt he couldn’t (and wouldn’t) come back in 2016.
By then, John McCain will be 80.