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HISTORICALLY SPEAKING: Replacing a sitting president

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Dr. James Finck, history professor at USAO in Chickasha, Oklahoma.
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CHICKASHA, Okla. -- With the next presidential election only a short nineteen months away (ugh!), we are already seeing a crowded field of Democrats lining up to challenge, whom they see as a very beatable, Donald Trump. Yet, to my surprise, Republicans are not seeing the same blood in the water and pouncing on an opportunity to challenge Trump for the Republican nomination. As I have said before, I do not believe Trump ever intended to win the presidency, and I have questioned if he would run for reelection. My opinion is that the main reason for Trump’s re-election bid is because of the almost unprecedented criticism from the media and his prideful desire to prove them wrong. My assumption has been that, even if Trump did run for reelection, someone within the GOP would challenge him for the spot.

Challenging a sitting president is difficult, so difficult that only five men have ever succeeded in doing so and only one in the twentieth century. In some ways, I am surprised we do not ask for challengers each election. Giving the party the chance to reaffirm their candidate seems the more democratic option. If the party is happy, they can keep their candidate; but if there is a division in the party, then they can have a voice. The problem is the president tends to control the party and going into an election divided can hurt results. So why have five been able to challenge a sitting president? We will look quickly at the first four, but you will see what they all have in common. It is the fifth who will shed light on our next election. 

The first was in 1844, when John Tyler was not considered for a second term for the Whig Party. The problem for Tyler was that he was not really a Whig. When war hero William Henry Harrison was nominated for the presidency in 1840 instead of Henry Clay, the Clay faction was allowed to choose the VP. They chose Tyler, partly because he was a southerner and partly because as an ex-Democrat he would round out the ticket and bring in fence-sitters. The problem was Harrison died a month into his office and when Tyler took over he proved to be more a Democrat than a Whig. The party corrected their mistake in 1844.

In the next election, 1848, the Whigs ran the biggest hero from the Mexican War, Zachary Taylor, and won. The party continued their run of bad luck when Taylor died in office and Millard Fillmore took over. Fillmore did not do anything particularly wrong, but in 1852, the party decided to follow their winning strategy as before and ran another Mexican War hero: Winfield Scott.

When the Whig Party died in the 1850s, most of the northern Whigs joined the Republican Party and brought their bad luck with them. In 1864, Lincoln ran for a second term and the party chose Andrew Johnson for his VP. This is a similar story, as Johnson was an ex-Democrat who was put on the ticket to balance it out and try to get votes. As everyone knows, Lincoln was assassinated in his second term and Johnson, who was never supposed to reach the highest office, ascended to the position. Johnson proved to still be a Democrat and fought with the Republican Party over reconstruction issues. Republicans followed suit in the next election and ran the war hero, Ulysses Grant. The Whigs/Republicans proved they were nothing if not predictable. 

Finally, in 1880, the Republicans ran, you guessed it, war hero James Garfield. His VP was Chester Arthur from New York, who was chosen to get the Empire State’s vote. When Garfield became the second assassinated president, Arthur moved into his position. Arthur had always been a Republican but fought with the party over the patronage system, rewarding supporters with government jobs, and was replaced in the 1884 election with someone more willing to play ball. 

From the first four examples, we learn that being a Whig/Republican president is dangerous and that if you replace a fallen president your chance of re-nomination is slim. The fifth example is similar in that the candidate replaced an assassinated president, but is different in that he was a Democrat and had already won an election outright. 

In 1960, the Democrats ran John F. Kennedy and, to balance the ticket and keep the south happy, put Texas Senator Lyndon B. Johnson on the ticket. With the death of JFK, Johnson took over as Commander-in-Chief. As opposed to the earlier examples, in 1964 Johnson won his party’s nomination and the presidency. In 1968, Johnson was poised to run one more time. The 22nd Amendment stipulates that no one can serve as president more than ten years. JFK died in November of 1963 and so LBJ would not have served over the limit if he had won in 1968. 

Term limits were not LBJ’s issue. That was the Vietnam War. Much of the nation had turned against the war by 1968 and Johnson was being accused of escalating the war and lying about it to the American people. Young people especially had turned on the war and Johnson. When another Democrat decided to challenge the president for the nomination and denounced the war, the students threw their support behind Eugene McCarthy.

With the unpopularity of Johnson, many hoped that Bobby Kennedy would join the race and take on the president. Kennedy had announced that he would not run if LBJ was in the race. The last thing a party wants is a division in the party going into the national election. We have seen Republicans challenge the president today. Several joined the Democrats lately against Trump’s decision to fund the border wall with a national emergency. Other Republicans and social media have accused those who opposed Trump as traitors.  Kennedy was hoping to avoid the same situation.

However, when McCarthy almost beat Johnson in the New Hampshire primary, Kennedy realized the President was prime for a defeat and entered the race. With Kennedy now in the running, Johnson saw the writing on the wall and pulled his nomination. With Johnson out, his VP, Hubert Humphrey, joined the race and ran on a pro-Vietnam platform. He eventually won the Democratic nomination only to lose to Richard Nixon in the general election.

We cannot know what would have happened if Kennedy had not been assassinated, but what we do see is that it is possible to challenge a sitting president. In the end, the LBJ wing of the party still won the nomination. In our current case, it seems like asking the Republican Party to reaffirm their candidate would not be a bad idea. If the party still wants President Trump, it would only make his national campaign stronger. If the party goes in a different direction, it could bring back those disillusioned with the president. The problem with going in a different direction is losing those who are passionate about Trump. However, in a democracy, it seems opening up nominations even with a sitting president is not a bad idea and should be embraced. Yet it is understandable that the Republicans do not want to kick out their current candidate. In the five times in history when that happened, that party lost every time.

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium.  Follow Historically Speaking at www.Historicallyspeaking.blog or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.

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