Historically, it is a very rare event for a President’s party to hold on to the White House for three terms. Martin Van Buren succeeded Andrew Jackson after Jackson’s two terms. George H. W. Bush succeeded Ronald Reagan after Reagan’s two terms. Both served only one term after people realized they were their own men instead of deep reflections of the popular men who came before them. Both also dealt with economic downturns and did not have the personal popularity to withstand a turn of public sentiment.
Given that only two Vice Presidents in American history were able to survive an election after the two terms of their popular predecessor, and in both cases were subsequently defeated, it is no wonder Joe Biden did not run for President of the United States. The odds would have been against him. But even for Hillary Clinton, after World War II, the ability of either party to hold the White House for more than two consecutive terms borders on being the jackalope of American politics. It has only happened once.
What has happened twice since World War II, however, is something now playing out in spectacular fashion. A President chose a Vice President who decided not to turn for the presidency himself. Consequently, the party jumped back in history and replaced the President with the candidate he beat eight years previously. The party had to refight many of the same fights it had eight years ago, the elders of the party settled on different solutions this time, the base of the party was unhappy and sought to drag out the fight to no avail, then the new nominee could not run fully on the legacy of the existing President, but also could not fully walk away from that legacy. The result was not just defeat, but a party thrown into civil war largely over the legacy of the outgoing President.
While that fact pattern is the pattern of the 2016 Presidential election, it is also the pattern of the 2008 Presidential election. Dick Cheney did not run for President after George W. Bush. Consequently, the incumbent President did not make the sorts of political calculations necessary to ensure his own party sided with his version of the party. Without having to worry about his Vice President’s chances, the President’s actions were not tempered with a desire to help his Vice President. The voters of his party were denied the ability to affirm or reject Bush’s legacy by their affirming or rejecting Dick Cheney as Vice President.
The great consequence of this was the Republican Party going back to 2000, siding with John McCain, and refighting all the fights that led to Bush securing the 2000 nomination, but this time the party sided with McCain. It was a disaster. The base was put off by the nominee they had rejected in 2000. The party leadership seemed to accommodate a man much of the party viewed as an obstacle to President Bush’s policies. The result was a party that wandered the political wilderness for eight years, becoming increasingly angry, until it ultimately had a race wherein the legacy of George W. Bush could be put to pasture. His brother was rejected as his proxy and Donald Trump, who explicitly ran against George Bush’s policies, became the nominee.
As Trump was on the way to becoming the Republican nominee, the Democrats were fighting as the Republicans had fought. They nominated the woman Barack Obama had beaten in 2008. They refought many of the same issues the base of the Democratic Party thought had been put to bed. The party base revolted unsuccessfully with Bernie Sanders as party leaders seemed to coalesce and stack the deck in favor of the loser from 2008. The result is a party now at war with itself headed into the political wilderness.
The only fundamental difference between the two races is that George W. Bush left with high unpopularity while Barack Obama remains popular. But the parties bases were less than excited to embrace the person they had repudiated eight years before and they resisted unity.
With both Martin Van Buren and George H. W. Bush, the Vice Presidents were able to win a third term for their parties by being a proxy for the incumbent. Hillary Clinton could never serve in that role. Neither could John McCain. Only Joe Biden and Dick Cheney could have served as proxy. Given Barack Obama’s popularity, Joe Biden really had a chance. In the future, if a party wants to legitimately fight for a third term in the White House, they will need a sense of history. The President must fill the Vice President’s office with someone willing to serve as a third term proxy and unapologetic defender of the incumbent’s legacy. Otherwise, the party will descend into chaos.
The Democrats, moving forward, need to note one more bit of history. In 2010, Republicans swept back into power in Congress. They took this to mean 2008 had been a fluke. They put off further changes to the party and reinstalled as the faces of the party the very men the voters had rejected in 2006 and 2008. They had completely misread the election as the Democrats appear to be doing now. Democrats consoling themselves that racism lost them this election will only show increasing antipathy to the Obama voters who lined up behind Trump in 2016.
Republicans had one great advantage after their 2008 loss that Democrats do not have. Republicans had a media hostile to them that challenged them and forced them to come to terms with their defeat. Democrats will only have a self-affirming media nodding vigorously that the nation has been ceded to bigots, racists, and rubes.