To Biden or Not to Biden

The former vice president has run before, never successfully. Could 2020 be different?

By Kaleena Fraga

(To check out this piece in podcast form, click here)

Should Joe Biden run for president? That’s the question the former vice-president is asking himself, according to his allies. He wants a Democrat in the White House in 2020, but Biden doesn’t believe there is anyone capable of preventing a Trumpian second term. That is, except himself.

We’ve covered in depth the historic difficulties that vice presidents face when running for the presidency themselves. So out of the gate, Biden would face challenges vis-a-vis Obama’s legacy, and the fickle fatigue of Americans when it comes to prominent politicians. He might have the best name recognition–and early polls favor Biden ahead of other presidential hopefuls–but the road to the White House would be a rocky one.

Aside from the above, Joe Biden is simply not good at running for president. That could be different this year. Biden could have learned from past mistakes, or mellowed in old age (at 75, he would be amongst the oldest in the field. Elizabeth Warren, the only major Democrat so far to declare is 69). But if history is any indication, a Biden run in 2020 could be something to see. Let’s just say he may give the headline-producing Trump a run for his money.

Election of 1988

In 1987 Joe Biden became the second of two Democrats to drop out of the race due to scandal. The first was Gary Hart, who left the race after the press exposed an extramarital affair. Biden’s reasons were less salacious–they might have not even made waves, in today’s political climate–but they were serious enough for him to end his bid.

Biden withdrew only three months after announcing his candidacy, once charges of plagiarism derailed his campaign. Biden was accused of copying speeches of political figures like Bobby Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. When the press started digging, they found accusations of plagiarism dating back to his days at university. As he exited the race, Biden called out the “exaggerated shadow” of his past mistakes. In a piece about the end of Biden’s campaign the New York Times noted that “new video technology” made even “the most intimate living-room campaign gathering into a national political event.”

Election of 2008

When Joe Biden announced his candidacy for the second time, in 2007, it did not take long for him to stir up controversy. On the day Biden announced his intention to run, the New York Times ran the headline: “Biden Unwraps ’08 Bid With an Oops!” The controversy? Biden had described his opponent and future running mate, Barack Obama, as “the first mainstream African-American [to run] who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”

Biden spent the entire first 24 hours of his campaign trying to talk down his comments, to such an extent that political insiders wondered if his would be the “shortest-lived presidential campaign in the history of the Republic.”

The New York Times pointed out that Biden’s words had prompted reporters to look back at some of his other remarks, including a quip from the year before that “you cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I’m not joking.”

Once Biden was picked as Obama’s running mate, Ed Rogers, a staffer in the Reagan and H.W. Bush White Houses, mused in the Washington Post: “On any given day, there is a good chance that [Biden] will say something that could destroy the Democratic ticket or at least hurt its chances in November. The media will be on gaffe watch with fine-tuned antennae for Biden to be off-message. This should be interesting and fun to watch.”

Certainly, one needs only to Google “Biden gaffes” to find lists of them online.

***

Will Joe Biden run? That’s up to Joe Biden. He’s not wrong for thinking he may be the only Democrat who can defeat Trump–recent polling put him 5 points ahead of the president in a hypothetical match-up.

Then again, 2016 taught the country that polls are only a part of a much bigger picture.


Shifting Tides: The Midterms of 1966

By Kaleena Fraga

In terms of crazy presidential campaigns, 2016 has nothing on 1968. The election of 1968 saw horrifying violence, the shattering of the Democratic party along lines of civil rights and Vietnam, and the end of liberalism in the Republican party. The election of 1968 brought an incumbent president to his knees, and Richard Nixon to the White House. It changed everything, including how we think about presidential campaigns and state primaries.

Today, many Americans will cast a ballot. Midterm elections usually aren’t as attention-grabbing as presidential ones, yet this year Americans have been told that this is the most important election of their life. Certainly, given recent violence, the stakes feel high.

No, 2016 has nothing on 1968. But 2020 could be another wild-ride. As the country turns out to the polls, we look back at the midterm election of 1966, and the seeds planted that year that burst through the soil in 1968.

Two years earlier, Lyndon Johnson had won a landslide victory, winning the election in his own right after serving the rest of John F. Kennedy’s term. Meanwhile, the Republicans had suffered a terrible defeat under the banner of Barry Goldwater, who infamously declared at the Republican convention that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Johnson won a stunning 486 electoral votes to Goldwater’s 52. He took every state except for Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.

The Republican party, pundits declared, was done.

Controlling both houses of Congress and the White House, Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats seemed unstoppable. They passed Johnson’s Great Society programs, including Medicare, and legislation that strengthened civil rights and voting rights. But as Johnson’s Great Society expanded, so did the conflict in Vietnam.

In 1966, tides had shifted. The public paid more attention to Vietnam, where they could see scant evidence of American victories. The economy began to slow. Race riots erupted across the nation. Johnson saw his popularity drop to below 45%. Republicans saw their opportunity. And they fought. Hard.

Determined to help restore the party to power (and to set himself up as a presidential candidate in 1968) Richard Nixon leapt into the fray. Nixon had not won an election since 1956, as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president. After his failed bid for governor of California, he had bitterly told the press that they “would not have Nixon to kick around anymore.” And yet the former vice president had quietly been making moves behind the scenes. In the final months before the 1966 election, Nixon campaigned for 86 Republican candidates down the ballot. In the end, 59 of them won their elections.

“Tricky Dick”, thought to be politically dead, gained a lot of friends in 1966. Friends who would answer the phone when he called about running for president in 1968.

Although it was not enough to wrest control of the government from Johnson and the Democrats, Republicans won 47 seats in the House, 3 in the Senate, and 8 governorships. His majorities reduced, Newsweek wrote, “in the space of a single autumn day… the 1,000 day reign of Lyndon I came to an end: The Emperor of American politics became just a President again.”

In 1966, Ronald Reagan became governor of California. George H.W. Bush won a House seat in Texas. Gerald Ford won his reelection campaign and became House Minority Leader, increasing his prominence on the national stage. Republicans, wounded after 1964, suddenly believed they could win again. And they did–seven out of the next ten presidential elections were won by the GOP.

From 1966, Johnson became increasingly unpopular and unable to push legislation like he had in the first two years of his term. In 1968, he stunned the nation by announcing he would not “seek, nor accept” the nomination of the presidency.

The election of 1968 was the most dramatic of the 20th century, but it all started in 1966. Today, Americans vote. Who knows what seeds the nation will plant today, that may bloom in 2020 or beyond?

 

Will, We Hardly Knew Ye: the Legacy of William Henry Harrison

By Kaleena Fraga

William Henry Harrison holds the dubious honor of serving the shortest term in office; and being the first American president to die in office. In honor of the anniversary of his untimely death (April 4th, 1841), let’s review what WHH accomplished while still alive.

His presidency: William Henry Harrison was inaugurated on March 4th, 1841 and died exactly a month later. At the time he was the oldest person ever inaugurated–today he’s beat by Donald Trump, 70, and Ronald Reagan, 69. His death launched a mini constitutional crisis–no one was sure what to do if the president died in office. Harrison’s VP, John Tyler, insisted that it meant that he became president–not “acting president” as some argued at the time. The nation wouldn’t definitively solve the issue of succession until 1967 and the passing of the 25th amendment.

His nickname: Harrison went by the moniker Tippacanoe, a nod to the Battle of Tippacanoe against Native American forces in 1811 during the lead-up to the War of 1812. Although Harrison would later use this battle to his political advantage, James Madison’s Secretary of War originally interpreted the battle as a defeat for the Americans. The skirmish left 62 Americans dead and 126 wounded; thirty six Native Americans were likewise killed.

His legacy: Although Harrison died in office after one month, his grandson Benjamin Harrison was also elected to the presidency, and completed one full term in office. William Henry & Benjamin Harrison are the only grandfather-grandson to serve as president.

His campaign: In what would become known as the Log Cabin campaign, the 1840 battle for the White House pitted the Whig Harrison against Democrat Martin Van Buren, who was running for a second term in office. Democrats, mocking Harrison’s age, wrote in a party newspaper:

“Give him a barrel of hard (alcoholic) cider and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and take my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin.”

Whigs leapt on this, portraying Harrison as a man of the people–someone who, you know, you could grab a beer with. Van Buren, they claimed, was an elitist, out of touch with the common man. Ironically–and in a sign of campaigns to come–Harrison was the aristocrat, having been born to a wealthy family on a plantation. Van Buren’s father was a tavern keeper.

This was not a contest of the Founding Fathers’ day, when it was sacrilegious to campaign. Among other antics, a group of Whigs pushed a ten foot ball made of tin and paper slogans of Harrison’s for hundreds of miles (from this comes the phrase “get the ball rolling”). Other Whig supporters passed out whiskey in log cabin shaped bottles which came from the E.C. Booz distillery (from this comes the word “booze.” See, there are reasons to remember William Henry Harrison!).

It was, as John Dickerson points out in his podcast, Whistlestop, in many ways the first modern campaign.

His speech: At one hour and forty-five minutes, William Henry Harrison’s inaugural address is the longest in history. It’s 3,000 words longer than the runner up’s speech (William Howard Taft, 1909). Given on a cold Washington day, it’s also in all likelihood what killed him.

And so we’ll keep it short. Happy death-day, President Harrison.