Editor's note: A version of this column appeared originally in THE DAILY BEAST.
In the last 100 years, every U.S. president who lost his bid for a second term did so because he abandoned his principal promise to the American people. If Republicans can persuade the public that Barack Obama similarly shattered the pledge at the very core of his presidency, they will succeed in denying him the new lease on the White House he insists he deserves.
Four elected chief executives in this century failed in their reelection campaigns—and each of them flopped by landslide margins. For William Howard Taft in 1912, Herbert Hoover in 1932, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and George H.W. Bush in 1992, broken promises doomed their chances for another four-year term.
Taft, Theodore Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor, based his first presidential campaign on guarantees that he would continue the popular policies of his ebullient predecessor, but voters in 1912 knew they’d been betrayed because TR himself came out of retirement to tell them so! Roosevelt not only challenged Taft for re-nomination but ultimately conducted his third-party “Bull Moose” campaign, handing victory to Democrat Woodrow Wilson and pushing the incumbent to a paltry 23 percent of the popular vote.
In 1928, Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover ran as the prosperity candidate, deploying the sonorous slogan, “A Chicken in Every Pot, a Car in Every Garage.” The Great Depression smashed his optimistic assurances and helped FDR carry 42 of 48 states.
After the sleaze and polarization of the Nixon administration, a nation weary of Watergate turned to a youthful, deeply religious Georgia governor who titled his campaign autobiography “Why Not the Best?” As a former officer on nuclear submarines, Jimmy Carter ran as a sure-handed technocrat who offered the explicit promise of “a government as good as its people.” After three years of economic meltdown, a seemingly endless hostage crisis, and self-defeating talk of malaise, that cheerful vow sounded laughably quaint, and Carter fell by 8.4 million votes to Ronald Reagan.
Finally, in 1988 Vice President George H.W. Bush escaped the nagging “wimp” factor and electrified the GOP convention with an unequivocal declaration meant to evoke the steely resolve of Clint Eastwood. “Read my lips,” he snarled. “No new taxes!” Violating that well-publicized oath with a sharp increase in marginal tax rates literally wrecked his presidency: producing a primary challenge from Pat Buchanan, a formidable third-party candidacy by Ross Perot, and a lopsided November win for the young governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton.