Calamity Control

By two metrics, President Trump’s defeat* in the last election was predictable and should have been anticipated.

First, no President who has been impeached (or nearly impeached) has ever won re-election. It is true that only two (Andrew Johnson and President Trump) were eligible for re-election, and only Trump ran; the other two (Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton) were already serving their second terms. But more to the point, in each instance of impeachment, the party of the impeached president lost the subsequent election. In other words, the Democrats took back the presidency in 1976, the Republicans in 2000, and the Democrats in 2020.

The only exception was 1868, in which the Republicans held the White House. But that election was an outlier, in any event, as was the impeachment. The main instigators of impeachment against the Republican Johnson (a former Democrat) were his fellow Republicans. Oddly, House Democrats overwhelmingly voted not to impeach, and all the Democrats in the Senate voted to acquit. It was one weird time. Even though Ulysses S. Grant was elected as a Republican, he was perceived as the antithesis to Johnson.

It emerges that in each instance of actual impeachment, including 1868, the impeaching party lost seats in the House in the subsequent election (2000, 2020), as if the voters were rebuking them for expending their energies on futile gestures. (Nixon resigned before impeachment and Republicans were clobbered in the 1974 midterms, just three months after he left office.) Yet, notwithstanding the political difficulties caused to the impeachment advocates, it has to date been a foolproof method of removing a president (or the subsequent nominee from his party) from office. Perhaps it so sours the political atmosphere that even an acquitted president is tainted by the experience. 

Is there a message in this for a potential 2023 Republican House majority? One would hope not, and it would be healthy for the republic if impeachment never occurred unless there was a reasonable chance of conviction in the Senate. But as long as impeachment is perceived as an effective political tool, regardless of acquittal, we should expect it whenever the political stars are aligned properly (i.e., a House and President of opposing parties).

Second, there is another metric, and this is extrapolated from the wonderful book by the esteemed presidential historian Tevi Troy, entitled “Shall We Wake the President? Two Centuries of Disaster Management from the Oval Office.” It is a history of presidential responses to the range of catastrophes (natural and man-made) that bedevil society and presidents constantly and usually unexpectedly. The upshot is that no president has ever been re-elected having weathered even one catastrophe during the election year or the year immediately preceding. And President Trump was forced to deal with three, none of his making. By the same token, presidents who are faced with calamities early in their terms (FDR-Pearl Harbor-1941, George W. Bush-Arab terror of 9/11-2001) are re-elected. Strange but true.

The calamities take the form of pandemics, terrorist attacks, weather catastrophes, economic collapses, blackouts, civil unrest (riots) and other such misfortunes.

Let’s look at the history of the last century. Woodrow Wilson not only failed to deal with the Spanish Flu, he actually never addressed the matter publicly (!), even though more than 600,000 Americans died (the equivalent today of 1,900,000 souls). His only private comment was his refusal to allow the pandemic to delay the transport of American troops to the European battlefield (even though soldiers were dying because of the pandemic), and his insistence that the war effort take precedence and the public not be informed about the crisis. Oddly, for this and other reasons, Wilson remains a progressive hero who greatly expanded the power of the presidency, except, obviously, as it could be used to limit the ravages of a pandemic.

Indeed, this book (published in 2016) is an amazingly prescient primer on how to deal with a pandemic, and the recommendations for the average citizen read like they were written six months ago. It makes for informative but eerie reading.

In any event, Wilson did little to stem the pandemic; his party lost in 1920. Although the stock market Crash occurred in the first year of Herbert Hoover’s term, not much had changed by 1932, and he lost his re-election bid. Although the Depression returned with a vengeance in 1937, that was the first year if FDR’s second term and he did not pay a political price for that in 1940.

This is not to suggest that every time the White House changes hands the culprit is a mismanaged crisis. It does imply that a mismanaged crisis will doom a president or his party’s chances in the next election if the crisis is close enough to the election.

Moving forward, LBJ and the Democrats were doomed by the mass riots that erupted in the summers of 1967 and 1968. An inability to control the streets (notwithstanding a president’s fairly limited resources in this regard without a request from local officials) is a sign of chaos and anarchy, and disheartens the good citizens. Jimmy Carter struggled through a recession, a hostage crisis and (during the primaries in 1980) a failed rescue attempt. Ronald Reagan’s recession occurred in the second year of his tenure, as did the Tylenol tampering scare. But Reagan handled both with aplomb and swept to victory in 1984. By contrast, George Bush suffered from a terrible recession in 1991 and 1992 (and broke his word and raised taxes) as well as the mismanaged Hurricane Andrew response in August 1992, and lost his bid for re-election.

Interestingly, Dr. Troy uses as an example of a potential catastrophe averted the Y2K panic in 1999. Bill Clinton prepared well, with committees, reports and actions, so when the calendar changed to 2000, nothing happened. The irony is that, for all the trepidation, no one knows if anything would have happened, but it is good to be prepared. His party lost in 2000 anyway (see impeachment, above) but I do not believe much can be learned from those historically rare but recently more common scenarios in which the presidential victor wins the Electoral College but loses the popular vote. That path to victory is so narrow that each such election is unique.

George W. Bush had to deal with the housing crash, and then economic collapse, in 2007 and 2008, and his party lost the White House in 2008. The outlier, here as in many areas, is Barack Obama, who won re-election despite a tepid economy and the ravages of Hurricane Sandy just a few weeks before Election Day in 2012. In our ultra-modern society, millions of homes (hey, including mine) lost power for well over a week in late October. He paid no price for it, perhaps because then Governor Christie lavished praise on Obama when the latter paid a short visit to the devastated south Jersey area. It would seem that when the president is let off the hook (maybe because the state needs federal dollars) he escapes electoral judgment in the voting booth.

That brings us to the current election. President Trump was not only impeached, but he also had to deal in 2020 with a pandemic, a concomitant economic collapse, and widespread race rioting that lasted months that wreaked havoc on American cities, all of which engendered the sense that the country is anarchic, ungovernable and uncontrollable. It is unthinkable that he could be re-elected with that litany of catastrophe hovering over the electorate. And even with all that, the election results were, shall we say, disputable, worthy of a Roger Maris-like asterisk. (I will re-evaluate this in 30 years, like Major League Baseball did for Maris.)

One other point that emerges from this fascinating and quite readable study is that when disaster strikes, the president will always receive conflicting recommendations from a variety of aides and Cabinet secretaries as to the best course to take. (This is underscored in GWB’s “Decision Points Theater in his presidential library’s where the observer is confronted with the four major crises of the Bush Administration and the range and divergent recommendations he received for each one. The observer is invited to then choose one – and behold the results. Hindsight is 2020.)  When these contradictory and momentous opinions are proffered, the president must have the mental acuity to weigh each one and its consequences, as well as consider the impact of any particular choice on living human beings and on foreign policy.

It is highly pressurized, requires quick analytical and decision-making skills and in almost every case, does not (and cannot) follow a preordained or drafted script. And these decisions cannot be delegated to others, as different agencies will have different priorities and approaches. One would hope the president would possess that type of intellectual perspicacity.

And the reality is that a president can make a wise and rational decision – and the results are still calamitous. There are guidelines but no playbook that can account for every situation.

You wouldn’t wish this job on anyone – and yet so many seem to want it. That being said, let us wish the incoming president health and wisdom to make virtuous and just decisions.

One response to “Calamity Control

  1. The incoming President has already made calamitous decisions with cabinet appointments and agency appointments.His term will be Obama part two.Does not bode well.Plus Biden is no free agent, he is a puppet of his handlers.