One-termers: What Trump can learn from Carter and Bush’s re-election losses
Presidential politics is a tough business, especially for incumbents who fail to make the cut as re-elected Commanders in Chief. Jimmy Carter, who rode the wave of anti-Watergate sentiment all the way to the White House in 1976, was ousted in landslide to Ronald Reagan in 1980, courtesy of the economic malaise that engulfed the nation during the late 1970s. George Herbert Walker Bush, elected in a rout of Michael Dukakis in 1988, failed in his re-election efforts as economic woes — and Ross Perot’s third-party candidacy — sealed his fate.
Donald J. Trump joins the club of one-term presidents, men of power who were ultimately rejected by the American electorate for any number of reasons. Since 1980, Trump becomes just the third one-term President of the United States after losing to former Vice President Joe Biden in arguably one of the most contentious elections in recent memory.
But this America: Democracy takes precedent over partisan politics.
Carter, in losing to former California Gov. Ronald Reagan was gracious in defeat, noting how, “I promised you 4 years ago that I would never lie to you. So, I can’t stand here tonight and say it doesn’t hurt. The people of the United States have made their choice, and, of course, I accept that decision… About an hour ago I called Governor Reagan in California, and I told him that I congratulated him for a fine victory.”
And there would be not bickering and infighting with the presidential transition, with Carter making it clear to the American public on the importance of a smooth transition of power. Carter even sent Reagan a telegram, which he read as part of his concession speech. Wrote Carter: “…I congratulate you and pledge to you our fullest support and cooperation in bringing about an orderly transition of government in the weeks ahead. My best wishes are with you and your family as you undertake the responsibilities that lie before you.”
After Reagan’s inauguration, Carter departed from Washington back to tiny Plains, Ga., — population, 231 people — slowly, but surely, rebuilding his image as a relevant, admired, and respected ex-president.
George H.W. Bush, riding high with stratospheric poll numbers following the 1991 Gulf War, found himself going down to defeat in November 1992 to a relatively unknown governor from Arkansas. Following three Democratic landslide losses to Republicans (1980, 1984 and 1988), Bill Clinton became the first Democrat to re-capture the White House in 12 years. And the 1992 presidential election was not void of conflict. Clinton claimed Bush was out of touch, inept in dealing with the economic woes of the country. Bush relentlessly attacked Clinton’s character, questioning his ability to lead America. As bitter as the race was, George H.W. Bush — much like Carter — was gracious in defeat. Bush said on election night, Nov. 3, 1992: “Here’s the way I see it… the people have spoken and we respect the majesty of the democratic system. I just called Governor Clinton over in Little Rock and offered my congratulations… I wish him well in the White House.”
And who can forget the personal note Bush left in the Oval Office on Jan. 20, 1993, for incoming President Bill Clinton. Perhaps the most moving statement of all came at the end of Bush’s kind words: “I am rooting hard for you.” Both men also put the contentious election behind them in later years, forming a true personal bond and friendship that — according to Bush’s chief of staff as ex-president, Jean Becker — “was real indeed.”
As for Donald J. Trump, he has every right to contest the election, should he feel that voting irregularities cost him the presidency. I’ll leave that to the political pundits and polling experts to hammer out those issues; regardless, one man will have to concede to another, and soon.
Trump trailed in key battleground states, and the president has an uphill legal battle ahead of him. Should events not play out in his favor, he’d be wise to put Democracy ahead of politics, thereby making one of the most difficult — but necessary — phone calls in his life. Conceding to a man he personally dislikes will prove challenging to the incumbent president, but if irregularities don’t change the electoral outcome, Trump must concede.
The nation is divided, no question about it, but we’ll all move on, get along, and make peace. That’s what Americans do.
As for Trump, much like Carter and Bush, he and his supporters can revel in his accomplishments, which were many. Unprecedented economic growth for almost four years. Three judges placed on the highest court in the land, with thousands more on other benches. No costly wars started. Tariffs that protected American workers. There’s a long list of Trump victories, for sure, so not all is lost in defeat.
Charles Denyer is an historian and a national security and cybersecurity expert. He is the author of “Texas Titans: George H.W. Bush and James A. Baker, III: A Friendship Forged in Power.” He is also personal biographer of two American vice presidents: Dick Cheney and Dan Quayle.