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The Appearance of Stability

September 8, 2016

As a political science major in the 1970s, I saw a string of presidencies that lasted less than two full terms and worried that the American electorate might have become impossible to satisfy, and that we could no longer be governed in the relative stability of two-term presidencies. During the 20-year span beginning with John Kennedy’s inauguration, we had five presidents.

Lyndon Johnson did not run for re-election in 1968 due to the unpopularity of his prosecution of the Vietnam War; Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 due to the unpopularity of his prosecution of the Watergate cover-up; and Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter lost elections to their successors.

This was by no means our longest period of presidential instability. We had no two-term presidents for 32 years in between Andrew Jackson and Ulysses Grant, the ten presidents during that time averaging not even four years in office. We had nine presidencies in the 36 years from 1877 to 1913. Grant was the only president to serve two full, consecutive terms during the 96-year stretch from 1837 to 1933; during that time 24 presidents (counting Grover Cleveland twice) averaged exactly four years each.

In fact, of 44 presidencies, only 13 presidents served two full, consecutive terms. So looking at American history as a whole, two-termers are the exception, not the rule – less than one-third of our presidents. In 228 years, our 44 presidencies have averaged just over five years each.

In any event, my Kennedy-to-Carter concern turned out to be unfounded. Since Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, we have enjoyed, or endured, a period of unsurpassed presidential stability in our history. In four months, three consecutive presidents will have served two full, consecutive terms – something that hasn’t happened since Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. And we will have had only five presidents in 36 years – something that hasn’t happened since our first five presidents, from 1789 to 1825.

So now I’m worried about a problem that may be similar but is much more insidious: I wonder if, despite our recent willingness to re-elect our presidents, we’re no longer willing to regard them as worthy of the office. I wonder if we’ve come to regard our own presidents as illegitimate.

Republicans derided Bill Clinton because he never won more than half of the popular vote: although third-party candidate Ross Perot won not a single electoral vote, he took 18.9 percent of the popular vote in 1992 and 8.4 percent in 1996. Then of course Republicans impeached Clinton, only the second presidential impeachment in American history. Legislatively, the Clinton presidency saw the beginnings of today’s partisan gridlock: Newt Gingrich ran the House of Representatives based on his “Contract for America,” producing two federal government shut-downs – unprecedented in scope and length, but also in that the shut-downs were part of a deliberate strategy.

Democrats derided George Bush because he lost the popular vote in 2000, and was able to take office only after a Supreme Court decision more notable for its partisanship than for its legal scholarship. Bush largely recovered his popular legitimacy after the 9/11 attacks, and again after undisputedly winning re-election.

Worst of all has been the treatment of Barack Obama, derided as supposedly foreign born and therefore ineligible for the job, deeply undermined based on his race, denied the smallest modicum of opposition cooperation, much less deference, for the entirety of his two-term presidency.

Is this the new normal?

Donald Trump will diminish any person or institution in his pursuit of the presidency, but he has devoted special effort to undermining the legitimacy of an electoral loss. The system is rigged, Trump asserts, while calling for poll watchers in “certain areas” to suppress minority voting. It is a hallmark of Trump’s rhetoric that he conjures a threat of something as a means to inspire the very thing he conjures – in this instance, Trump conjured a phony threat of a rigged election as an appeal for help in rigging the election.

If Hillary Clinton wins the election, she will take office with a majority of the electorate believing she is dishonest, and a large minority believing she is corrupt and criminal. Trump voters believe that Clinton used the Clinton Foundation to rake in money while she was secretary of state, a belief on a factual par with the belief that Obama is not a native-born American. Trump voters believe that Clinton tossed top security e-mails around like schoolyard gossip, a belief on a factual par with the belief that Obama founded ISIS.

If Republican voters believe that a President Clinton is a criminal, how can Republicans in Congress justify working with her, negotiating with her, compromising with her? I hate to say this, but I’m afraid that a Clinton presidency will be so contentious that Democrats will look back on the Obama presidency as the good old days of bipartisanship.

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