Next election may be first in 56 years without incumbent

Author: Robert Schmuhl

As White House aspirants and aficionados of presidential politics look ahead to Nov. 4, 2008, they’ll see (however dimly) an Election Day different from any since 1952.

If George W. Bush and Dick Cheney complete their second term — and the vice president keeps his promise not to make his own Oval Office run — the next national campaign will be the first in 56 years without either an incumbent president or vice president at the top of a major party ticket.

Incumbency doesn’t dictate the winner of a presidential contest, as three presidents (Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush) and three sitting vice presidents (Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey and Al Gore) learned in six of the 13 elections between 1956 and 2004. Yet occupying high office provides institutional advantages for campaigning and usually reduces intra-party challengers — the insurgent efforts of Ronald Reagan against Ford in 1976 and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s attempt to derail Carter in 1980 notwithstanding.

But continuity has been a hallmark for more than a half-century, making the political landscape for 2008 largely uncharted territory.

When Harry Truman decided not to seek a second full term as president in 1952, he opened the door for Illinois Gov. Adlai E. Stevenson and the first of his two unsuccessful races against World War II hero Dwight D. Eisenhower.

By choosing retirement over another campaign, Truman followed the practice of the two previous 20th century vice presidents who reached the White House because a president had either died or been assassinated. Both Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge won individual terms on their own — but elected not to run again (in 1908 and 1928, respectively).

The fourth presidential campaign of the 25 between 1908 and 2004 without an incumbent president or vice president as Democratic or Republican standard-bearer took place in 1920. Warren Harding, the first senator to go directly to the White House (the only other was John F. Kennedy), defeated Ohio Gov. John M. Cox.

That the ‘52 battle between Eisenhower and Stevenson is the only non-incumbent contest over eight decades from 1928 to 2008 is, in part, a reflection of Franklin Roosevelt’s democratic (and Democratic) dominion for a dozen years and, more recently, the elevation of the vice presidency to an office of governmental and political consequence.

The nation’s first vice president, John Adams, confided to wife Abigail in a letter that he occupied “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” Over a century later, John Nance Garner, FDR’s running mate in 1932 and 1936 (before, unsuccessfully, seeking the presidential nomination against his boss in 1940), characterized the second spot as not “worth a pitcher of warm spit” (or words to that effect). But times and responsibilities change.

Beginning with Walter Mondale’s policy involvement under Carter and especially with Cheney’s influential clout throughout the current administration, vice presidents (who, constitutionally, act as president of the Senate) now do more than cast the occasional tie-breaking senatorial vote or serve as “stand-by equipment” in case something happens to the president.

During recent decades and in stark contrast to historical precedent, being No. 2 has become a serious steppingstone in seeking the highest office. In fact, assuming Cheney completes his second term and declines to run, he’ll be the only elected vice president since Nixon to end his allotted time as understudy without seeking the principal role.

After Nixon lost to Kennedy in 1960, he came back in 1968 to defeat Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey. Mondale lost to Reagan in 1984, while Reagan’s vice president, George H. W. Bush, won the presidency in 1988. Dan Quayle, Bush’s veep, sought the 2000 Republican presidential nomination, but couldn’t stop George W. Bush, the winner over Bill Clinton’s vice president, Gore. (Spiro Agnew, of course, was elected twice as, in the popular phrase, “Nixon’s Nixon,” but he resigned in disgrace in 1974, never returning to elective politics.)

It’s possible, for whatever reason, Cheney will step down, permitting President Bush to select a new vice president, who could then run as an incumbent. Yet, barring health problems, this seems unlikely and would create the animosity of unelected favoritism within GOP ranks.

At this point, the election of 2008 is shaping up as the combination of an open-field marathon and an elbows-flying free-for-all. One Web site already lists nearly 40 potential candidates in each party as possible contenders for the Democratic and Republican nominations. Will the next four years be long enough for Americans to make up their minds?

  • Robert Schmuhl * is professor of American Studies and director of the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics&Democracy at the University of Notre Dame .


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