At this moment, one of the hottest political questions is: Who will be the Democratic candidate for president? Right now, Howard Dean appears to be the frontrunner. But he is not necessarily the only candidate who could fare well in a contest with President Bush. Almost any one of the serious present aspirants has a good chance to win come Election Day 2004.
This is not to say that personality — charisma, character and clout — are unimportant. They do count. But much of American history — especially political history — tells us that the individual and his charm are less important than the condition of the country. Let’s consider a few cases:
In 1832, when the popular war hero Andrew Jackson was running for re-election, he chose Martin Van Buren of New York to be his running mate. Van Buren was known as “the little magician” because of his acknowledged skill in playing the political game. In 1836, Van Buren was elected president.
But when he ran for re-election four years later, he was defeated by the Whig candidate William Henry Harrison, known as “Tippecanoe” for his 1811 victory over Native Americans at Tippecanoe Creek — hardly a good reason to be elected against a man who carried the mantle of Andrew Jackson.
What decided that election, however, was not a matter of who but what. In 1837, the country was hit with a depression. The people who turned out to vote for Harrison and his running mate, John Tyler — a ticket known as “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” — were really voting against the incumbent president because of the financial disaster that took place on his watch.
Another case: In the election of 1896, the Republican candidate for president, William McKinley, had formidable opposition from the “silver-tongued orator” William Jennings Bryan, who was running on the merged tickets of the Democratic and the then-powerful Populist Party. Bryan lost.
The reason was the same as in the 1840 election. In 1893, the country slid into a profound depression. That misfortune happened when Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, was president.
In 1920, the Democratic Party under whose leadership the country had won the world war against the Central Powers was ousted by an ignominious unknown, Warren G. Harding, who was followed by Calvin “Silent Cal” Coolidge and then by Herbert Hoover — all Republicans. How come? People were not happy with the wartime experience — with its rationing, its draft, its loss of husbands, brothers and sons in battle. The GOP ran on a simple slogan: “Back to normalcy.”
A more memorable example: In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his race against Hoover, ran on a platform that called for “balancing the budget” — hardly a way to cope with The Great Depression. There was nothing he proposed that would even remotely solve the country’s distress. But he was elected anyhow. Why? Because the people who turned out to vote wanted to “dis-elect” the Republican Party.
There are 11 months between now and Election Day. The export of the American economy means rising unemployment. The spinsters around the White House will continue to doctor the figures as they have been doing. But what they allege will not convince the millions who, from personal experience, know the truth. And on Election Day they will turn out and “the truth will out” to make the 2004 election result much too close to call, no matter who the Democratic candidate may be.