Bill Clinton is famously, and sometimes mockingly, remembered for biting his lip before he prepared to say something. At times, it seemed corny or even smarmy, and on Saturday Night Live, it became a staple of the great Phil Hartman’s impression of Clinton during the Clinton Administration. The mannerism was usually followed with a comment like, “I feel your pain.”
However, in Michael Takiff’s awesome oral history of Bill Clinton, A Complicated Man, it is revealed that there was much more to Clinton’s lip biting than a goofy quirk. In fact, it was a calculated action — a speed bump for the lightning quick thoughts of one of the most intellectually powerful and supremely gifted politicians in American history. Clinton’s longtime aide and one of the driving forces of his 1992 Presidential campaign, Paul Begala, says that Clinton was trained to do the lip biting because Clinton answered questions so quickly that it almost seemed unnatural.
According to Begala:
“He was so smart about so many things but also could connect. The whole thing about his biting his lip — that was coached. Because he would answer so fast. We’d say, ‘Take a beat. Pretend you’re thinking about it. Pretend you haven’t already got an answer.’ It was a studied thing to give himself a second to force himself to slow down.”
It certainly doesn’t hurt.
Listen, I certainly have my issues with George W. Bush, but stop and think about this for a second: Maybe the Bush family gets elected because they are the only Republican candidates capable of capturing some moderates and conservative Democrats in a national election because, to a lot of reasonable people, the GOP is frighteningly extremist and out-of-touch. Is that possible? This country hasn’t elected a Republican President not named “Bush” in THIRTY YEARS.
The idea that I should become President seems to me too visionary to require a serious answer. It has never entered my head, nor is it likely to enter the head of any other person.
Zachary Taylor, letter to Thurlow Weed, April 24, 1847.
Taylor was elected President the following year.
Well, I personally don’t consider Bill Clinton’s 1996 victory over Bob Dole to be a landslide. There is no official definition of a landslide, but in my opinion, winning 400 electoral votes or more is my idea of a landslide and Clinton came just short (379). But Clinton would have been in trouble in ‘96 if General Powell had sought the GOP nomination.
Of the other elections that you mentioned, 1988 is the one that could have conceivably ended differently. George H.W. Bush’s election was no sure thing. Martin Van Buren was the last sitting Vice President to win a Presidential election, so that was an obstacle — the Vice Presidency is actually a pretty tough position to run v for President from.
Bush had to deal with a pesky primary challenge from Pat Buchanan that he wasn’t going to lose, but it didn’t help his cause as the standard-bearer for the Republican Party despite his eight years as Ronald Reagan’s loyal VP. Plus, there were rumors and worries about whether Bush had been involved in the Iran-Contra scandal.
On top of that, there was a strong group of Democratic candidates — Michael Dukakis, Joe Biden, Gary Hart, Richard Gephardt, Al Gore, Paul Simon, Bruce Babbitt, and Jesse Jackson. Some of those candidates found no footing and dropped out quickly or quietly. Some of the went down spectacularly in flames. But several of the candidates — including the eventual nominee, Dukakis — matched up well against Bush. And Bush’s choice of a running mate, Dan Quayle, raised some eyebrows and could have easily torpedoed Bush in the final weeks if Quayle had been more Dan Quayle-ish on the campaign trail.
It took some gaffes and uninspired campaigning from Dukakis and some vicious attack ads from the GOP to really put Bush over the top in what was the nastiest, most expensive Presidential campaign in history up to that point.
"The best and decentest election I ever knew." — Rutherford B. Hayes, on the 1888 campaign between Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison, personal diary entry, Nov. 9, 1888
"The most lethargic canvass ever known in a Presidential contest." — Rutherford B. Hayes, exactly four years later, on the 1892 rematch between Cleveland and Harrison, personal diary entry, Nov. 9, 1892
John Quincy Adams famously spent the last 17 years (1831-1848) of his life — his “retirement” after turning the Presidency over to Andrew Jackson in 1829 — as a member of the United States House of Representatives. JQA remained so devoted to hard work and his lifelong service to the nation that he literally died on the job — Adams suffered a stroke while casting a vote in the House and died two days later in the Speaker’s Room of the U.S. Capitol building.
As for JQA’s political party affiliation, that was something that evolved throughout Adams’s life in a manner just as messy and confusing as the creation and evolution of American political parties themselves.
JQA was a Federalist early in his political career, but became a Democratic-Republican once he signaled his support for President Jefferson. Adams remained loyal to Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican successors, James Madison and James Monroe. JQA was particularly close to President Monroe, serving as Monroe’s Secretary of State for eight years.
Things got really confusing in 1824. During Monroe’s Presidency (1817-1825), the Federalist Party died, basically leaving the Democratic-Republican Party with no opposition. That led to the unique election of 1820 where Monroe, seeking a second term, was unopposed and breezed to victory.
Despite the Democratic-Republican Party still facing no opposition, the 1824 election was different. With President Monroe retiring after two terms, the race was wide-open. The Democratic-Republican Party didn’t nominate a candidate. Instead, regional factions of the party supported candidates, which resulted in a four-way race for the Presidency between four candidates who were all nominally Democratic-Republicans.
The messy 1824 campaign, unsurprisingly, was a disaster for the Democratic-Republican Party, which went from being the all-powerful, unopposed political monopoly of 1820 to splinter groups divided by sectional and ideological differences just four years later. It also resulted in the birth of the Whigs, Democrats, and, eventually, Republicans.
Back to John Quincy Adams — he won the 1824 election, but since none of the four candidates won an Electoral College majority, the election was decided by the House of Representatives. Adams was the last Democratic-Republican elected President. Four years later, he was soundly defeated by one of his 1824 rivals, Andrew Jackson, the first nominee of the new Democratic Party.
Former President John Quincy Adams was elected to represent Massachusetts in the House of Representatives in 1830. Adams was elected as a member of the Anti-Masonic Party, a short-lived group that was largely a precursor to the Whigs. In 1834, JQA switched parties one last time — to the Whig Party. Adams spent the rest of his life as a Whig Party leader, vehement opponent of the Mexican-American War, and passionate critic of slavery.
It’s a confusing one, but Andrew Johnson was a Democrat.
The reason for the.confusion stems from the fact that Johnson was elected Vice President in 1864 alongside Abraham Lincoln, who was a Republican. Lincoln and Johnson ran in 1864 under a unified party ticket — they were nominated as the National Union candidates, in fact.
But Lincoln was a Republican, of course, and Johnson’s ties to the Democratic Party were no secret. Actually, that was the appeal. To balance the ticket better in 1864, Lincoln dumped his first term Vice President, Hannibal Hamlin, a Republican who came from about as far North as one could come from — Maine.
The Republicans, gathering under the National Union banner in 1864, wanted to balance the ticket better because there were worries about a strong challenge from the Democratic nominee, former General George B. McClellan, and McClellan’s running mate, George H. Pendleton of Ohio.
The National Unionists were made up of the Republicans who had supported Lincoln since 1860 and Democrats supportive of Lincoln’s leadership in prosecuting the Civil War and wary of what McClellan might do if he happened to be elected President. Johnson fit right in with the National Unionists — a Democrat who supported Lincoln and, better yet, a running mate who could balance the ticket politically and geographically.
Despite belonging to a different party, there was no doubt about Johnson’s loyalty to Lincoln and the Union. Johnson was the only Southern Senator to remain loyal to the Union and hold on to his seat after secession, the formation of the Confederacy, and the outbreak of Civil War. Johnson spent most of the war as Military Governor of Tennessee.
Johnson only served as Vice President for 42 days, succeeding to the Presidency upon Lincoln’s assassination. Once Johnson became President, the fact that he was actually a Democrat eventually caused him major problems. Johnson clashed with his Cabinet, most of whom were holdovers from the Lincoln Administration. His battles with Congress, particularly the Radical Republicans, helped contribute to his failures as President, and after the House of Representatives impeached him in 1868, Johnson was narrowly acquitted in his Senate trial. The Senate was just one vote short of the two-thirds necessary to convict him and remove him from office.
As President, Johnson wasn’t quite a “President without a party” like John Tyler, but his election alongside Lincoln in 1864 on the National Union ticket did put Johnson in an awkward position once he assumed the Presidency. After all, Lincoln and Johnson DID defeat opponents duly nominated by the Democratic Party. Johnson was also in a strange position because the Democratic Party was so weak following the Civil War and throughout Reconstruction.
But Johnson was indeed a Democrat. Before the.Civil War, Johnson won elections as a Democratic candidate to become Mayor of Greenville, Tennessee, a Member of the Tennessee House of Representatives, a Tennessee State Senator, a U.S. Representative, Governor of Tennessee, and a U.S. Senator. And, despite his disastrous Presidency, Johnson found some redemption shortly before his death as he once again won election (as a Democrat) to the U.S. Senate.
I don’t see that happening.
Kerry has taken to the State Department really well and even some of his longtime detractors have complimented his work as Secretary of State, but I can’t imagine him parlaying his Cabinet spot into another bid for the White House.
First of all, John Kerry was a terrible Presidential candidate. It’s not that he was unqualified or incapable of handling the actual job of President; it’s that he is literally a bad candidate — he doesn’t campaign well, he doesn’t inspire passion (or even a passing interest) in the rank-and-file members of his party that need to get out the vote in order for a Democrat to win a national election, and whether they respect him or not, Democrats don’t necessarily like him. That’s a recipe for a stillborn campaign.
There’s also the fact that electorates don’t respond well anymore to former nominees who already lost a national election. The days of a Thomas Dewey or Adlai Stevenson losing a Presidential election and running it back four years later are long gone. Candidates who lost a previous bid for their party’s nomination can still make a run in the top spot, but there’s not enough room, time, or money to give a proven national loser another chance at losing.
Even if Kerry did get another shot at the Democratic nomination (which he won’t), it would not be in 2016. Obviously, the Democratic nomination is Hillary Clinton’s in 2016 if she wants it. If not, it’s Vice President Biden’s Should Hillary and Biden both miraculously pass on the nomination in 2016, there are several Democratic Governors waiting in the wings who are just a handful of TV appearances away from being the country’s newest political rock stars (Governor O’Malley of Maryland and Governor Hickenlooper of Colorado, in particular).
Okay, you might say. What about 2020? Not going to happen. John Kerry is 70 years old now. He has no shot in 2016 and even less of a shot in 2020 when he’ll be 77 years old — right around the age President Reagan was AFTER eight years in the White House. Kerry’s window for the Presidency was 2004 and, despite being an awful candidate and making up one-half of one of the worst Presidential tickets in U.S. history, he actually almost won. But that is the closest he will ever be.
I don’t know if “difficult to understand” would be the right term because most re-elections of incumbents can be explained pretty easily.
Let’s just look at your three examples — Nixon, Clinton, and Bush 43. As you mentioned, all three had it pretty easy when it came to their opponents. I have a ton of respect for George McGovern and Bob Dole, but they were no match for Nixon in 1972 and Clinton in 1996, respectively. And, of course, John Kerry was just a terrible candidate for President, so Bush got really lucky in 2004.
It’s important to note, however, that the scandals that tainted Nixon and Clinton didn’t start causing them major problems until after they were re-elected. The Watergate break-in happened during the ‘72 campaign, but the extent of Nixon’s in-depth involvement wasn’t revealed until after Nixon laid an ungodly Electoral College beatdown on McGovern that year — 520-17 was the score, 49 states for Nixon while McGovern took home just Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.
The Monica Lewinsky story didn’t break until January 1998, well after Clinton had coasted to re-election against Bob Dole in November 1996. And, even if Clinton had faced re-election at the same time he was being impeached by the House of Representatives, would it have mattered? Remember, Clinton’s approval ratings went UP while he was being impeached and put on trial by the U.S. Senate!
So, I guess we settle on George W. Bush by default. In retrospect, the 2004 election is definitely one that raises eyebrows. Bush was tremendously unpopular and the only reason he was re-elected was basically due to the fact that in John Kerry and John Edwards the Democrats nominated their worst Presidential ticket since the nightmarish duo of John W. Davis and Charles W. Bryan in 1924.
That 1924 Democrats ticket required 103 ballots before the Democratic Convention finally settled on a candidate. At that Convention, the Democrats nominated SIXTY different candidates for the Presidency! And if they had spent just a quarter of that time on coming up with alternate candidates 80 years later in 2004, George W. Bush probably would have lost that election.
The nation did not want to re-elect Bush in 2004, but the Democrats blew it by nominating John Kerry. You can’t really blame Kerry — you have to take that opportunity when you get it. It’s other leading Democrats who could have and should have stepped forward in 2004 who deserve the blame. Most of them recognize that they made a huge mistake by not running in 2004 because (a.) they could have won, and (b.) they may have lost their window for being President. Hillary Clinton is fortunate to be a resilient enough political figure that her window is still open. If Hillary had run in 2004, she would have beat Bush and would have been seeking re-election to the White House in 2008 instead of losing the Democratic nomination to the junior Senator from Illinois that year.
I really don’t know if I’ve answered your question. I guess my point is that none of those re-election victories are difficult to understand, but it is certainly frustrating that an incumbent as vulnerable as George W. Bush in 2004 was able to win another term. I guess the difficult thing to understand is how the Democratic Party, with its vehement opposition to Bush and increasing anti-Iraq War sentiment in 2004, nominated such an underwhelming ticket in such an eminently winnable campaign. I don’t know if I will ever fully understand that.
Do you know what is most frustrating about the 2004 election? Despite the terrible Democratic ticket, despite John Kerry, despite John Edwards, despite the lack of passion from Democratic voters nationwide, and despite everything that happened from the DNC in Boston until Kerry’s concession speech at Boston’s Faneuil Hall, one thing will always haunt Democrats: Kerry still almost won! The Electoral College count: Bush 286, Kerry 252. If more people had voted for Kerry than Bush in just one state — Ohio — on November 2, 2004, Bush would have been a one-term President.
Like I said, it’s not that I find anything I mentioned to be difficult to understand; it’s just a bitter pill to swallow — still, nearly a decade later.
If the Republicans will stop telling lies about us, we will stop telling the truth about them.
Adlai E. Stevenson, during his unsuccessful 1952 Presidential campaign against Dwight D. Eisenhower
I never liked (John F.) Kennedy. I hate his father. Kennedy wasn’t so great a Senator…However, that no good son-of-a-bitch Dick Nixon called me a Communist and I’ll do anything to beat him.
Harry Truman, on why he was supporting JFK in 1960 despite having some reservations about whether Kennedy was prepared for the job.
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I had read repeatedly that I was the most conservative President since Herbert Hoover. My feeling was, if that’s true, damn it, the extreme right wing ought to be satisfied. But the truth is they never are unless they lock you in to a little ideological circle that is a miniscule number of voters in the American public. Regardless of the political consequences, I knew that I had to call them as I saw them from the nation’s point of view and at the same time from my own political experience. The facts of life are that satisfying the extreme right dooms any Republican in a Presidential election.
Gerald Ford, on his refusal to cater to the far right-wing of the Republican Party during the 1976 Presidential campaign
If no candidate receives the required majority in the Electoral College to become President and the election is sent to the House of Representatives, the first thing to understand is that the votes are not cast individually. Instead, the vote is decided by state delegations (whose individual members of Congress vote as a block), and resolving the undecided election would require an absolute majority of states (at least 26) in order for a candidate to be elected.
So, to break it down more: there are 435 individual members of the House of Representatives, but in the case of an undecided election of the President that is thrown into the House for a resolution, the members don’t cast individual votes. Instead, they gather in their respective state delegations and cast their votes within their state’s caucus — the candidate who wins the majority of votes within the state delegation, “wins” that state. Once a candidate wins an absolute majority of state delegations that candidate is elected President.
Now, there are, of course, 50 states, so what happens if the votes of the state delegations are split 25-25 and we still have no winner? We simply take another ballot. And, if necessary, another and another and another… The voting in the House of Representatives continues on-and-on until a candidate finally wins a majority of state delegations. It’s like a Papal Conclave — we must have a winner! — without the world’s most low-tech method of excitement: the fumata bianca.
A few more important particulars to note if a Presidential election is thrown into the House of Representatives because nobody won a majority of Electoral votes:
•The House must choose between the leading Presidential candidates who received Electoral votes, they can’t just plug anyone that they want in there. Of course, this is usually just two candidates. However, the last time the election was decided by the House (1824), there were four candidates who split the Electoral vote: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, William H. Crawford, and Henry Clay. In such a case, the House is limited to deciding between the top three vote-getters in the original Electoral College tally.
•Advances in technology and transportation has all but eliminated the possibility of state delegations being absent from the proceedings, but it is mandatory for at least 2/3 of the state delegations to be present in order for the House to decide the election.
•All other Congressional business takes a backseat to an undecided Presidential election thrown into the House. The House begins voting as quickly as possible and continues until there is a winner who qualifies.
•If we reach Inauguration Day and still don’t have a President-elect, the person who won an Electoral College majority as Vice President becomes President. If there is also no Vice President-elect, the House how and who to choose the person who will become Acting President until somebody qualifies as President. (An undecided Vice Presidential election is resolved by the U.S. Senate.)
The House of Representatives has decided two Presidential election — most famously the aforementioned 1824 election in which Andrew Jackson won a plurality of Electoral votes against John Quincy Adams, William H. Crawford, and Henry Clay, but lacked the required majority necessary to clinch the Presidency. The House ended up electing John Quincy Adams, a result that Jackson and his supporters chalked up to a “Corrupt Bargain” between JQA and Henry Clay, who became Secretary of State under President Adams.
The first election decided by the House was the 1800 campaign. At the time, the top vote-getter in the Electoral College was elected President and the person who finished second was elected Vice President. While there was no official designation between the Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates, going into the 1800 campaign, Democratic-Republicans unofficially saw Thomas Jefferson as the Presidential candidate and Aaron Burr as the Vice Presidential candidate. When Jefferson and Burr ended up tied in the Electoral College, Burr saw an opportunity to snatch the Presidency up for himself, decided not to step aside for Jefferson, and the election was thrown into the House. Alexander Hamilton, a Federalist leader, had issues with both Jefferson and Burr, but he hated Jefferson just a little bit less than Burr. Hamilton influenced the Federalist support in Congress that Jefferson needed to clinch the Presidency and Burr ended up as Vice President. As we all know, Burr never forgot Hamilton’s role in costing him the Presidency and he ended up killing Hamilton in a duel while still Vice President of the United States.
Incidentally, just in case anybody was wondering, a Vice Presidential election has only been thrown into the Senate for a decision on one occasion — 1836. Richard Mentor Johnson had been a staunch supporter of Andrew Jackson and the outgoing President Jackson wanted to reward him. While Jackson had almost seemingly handpicked Martin Van Buren as his chosen successor in 1836, Old Hickory definitely chose Johnson as the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate that year, insisting that the Democratic National Convention nominate Johnson as VP. The Democrats nominated Johnson as Van Buren’s running mate, but Johnson was extremely unpopular in the South. Despite being from Kentucky, Johnson openly kept a former slave as his common-law wife and raised their mixed-race children as white, free, and legitimate. Many Southerners of his own party steadfastly refused to support Johnson’s candidacy for Vice President even as they supported Van Buren for President. This led to four candidates splitting the vote for Vice President in the Electoral College — Richard M. Johnson, John Tyler, Francis Granger, and William Smith. While Johnson had a solid plurality of Electoral votes for VP, he lacked the majority required for election that Van Buren had won as President.
In the case of a Presidential election deadlocked in the Electoral College, the House settles the dispute by a vote between the top three vote-getters, at most. When a deadlocked Vice Presidential election is decided by the U.S. Senate, only the top two contenders in the Electoral College are considered. So, the undecided election for Vice President in 1836 came down to Johnson and Granger, and Andrew Jackson was happy to see the Senate elect his choice for VP, Richard Mentor Johnson, to join his chosen successor as President, Martin Van Buren.
(Four years later, neither President Van Buren or Vice President Johnson were as lucky. The Democrats renominated Van Buren, but Southerners were no longer the only opposition to the scandalous Richard Mentor Johnson. At the Democratic Convention in 1840, Democrats refused to renominate Johnson, Van Buren refused to nominate another VP, and Van Buren headed into the general election season without a running mate. Still hoping to continue in the job, Johnson simply campaigned for VP on his own and ended up as President Van Buren’s de facto running mate. Johnson’s presence or absence had no discernible impact on the campaign — no matter who his running mate was, the incumbent President Van Buren was trounced on Election Day by Whig candidate William Henry Harrison.)