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Love thine enemies
Why the Dems should wish Donald Trump long life and good health
Democrats developed a loathing for Donald Trump during his four years as president, and their antipathy intensified after the 2020 election, which he tried to overturn in the courts, in Congress and in the streets. Democrats in the House of Representatives responded by impeaching him (for a second time) even as his term ran out; many said they wanted to make sure he never ran for president again. During the months since, the feeling among most Democrats is that Trump cannot disappear from American politics soon enough.
This is understandable but short-sighted. Trump has been the best thing to happen to the Democrats as a party in many years, turning out Democratic voters more effectively than any of the Democrats themselves. The longer he lingers on the political stage, the greater the benefit they will derive. Donald Trump is the gift that keeps on giving.
And if he runs for president in 2024, the Democrats should be ecstatic. The historical record of former presidents trying to regain the White House bodes ill for their parties and well for their opponents.
Martin Van Buren tried it first. Van Buren had been groomed by Andrew Jackson to be Jackson’s successor, serving as secretary of state and then vice president before being handed the Democratic nomination in a convention controlled by Jackson. Van Buren easily won the general election on Jackson’s continuing popularity. But the economy swooned after a financial panic in 1837, and voters vented their frustration by chucking Van Buren from office in 1840.
He attempted a comeback in 1844 and nearly won the Democratic nomination. But the party was splitting over slavery, and New Yorker Van Buren couldn’t garner the two-thirds majority the Democrats in those days required at their conventions. Dark-horse James Polk of Tennessee won the nod, and the presidency.
Van Buren tried again in 1848. Failing once more more to win the Democratic nomination, he bolted the party to run as the nominee of the Free Soil party. In the general election he pulled enough votes from Democratic nominee Lewis Cass to tip the election to Zachary Taylor, giving Taylor’s declining Whigs a new lease on life.
Theodore Roosevelt’s post-White House career teaches a similar - and even more telling - lesson. Unlike Van Buren, Roosevelt hadn’t been rejected by voters; he had voluntarily retired. Roosevelt as vice president had acceded to the presidency upon the assassination of William McKinley in 1901. He won a huge victory on his own in 1904, and taking momentary leave of his senses, announced on election night that he would consider his first, unelected term as a regular term and would not run in 1908, under the de facto two-term limit dating from George Washington’s retirement.
But out of office Roosevelt grew restless, and he mounted a challenge to his handpicked successor, William Howard Taft, for the 1912 Republican nomination. Roosevelt stormed through the primaries - a novelty then - but Taft controlled the convention and denied Roosevelt the nomination.
Thereupon Roosevelt pulled a Van Buren and bolted, winding up as the nominee of the Progressive party. Roosevelt campaigned with his characteristic energy - giving the party its nickname when he said he felt as strong as a Bull Moose - but succeeded only in splitting the Republican vote and handing the election to the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson.
In the unlikely event Donald Trump is paying attention to history, he might reckon that another president is a better indicator of his prospects than Van Buren or TR. Democrat Grover Cleveland won in 1884, lost in 1888, and won again in 1892. If Cleveland could serve two nonconsecutive terms, why not Trump?
The central reason is that Cleveland was popular (not to mention honest, capable and respectful of his office). He is the only president not named Franklin Roosevelt to win the popular vote three times. The second time he lost on electors. Trump, by contrast, has lost the popular vote in both of his presidential races. He lost by nearly 3 million votes in 2016, and by 7 million votes in 2020. At this pace he’s on track to lose by eight figures in popular votes should he get the nomination in 2024.
If Trump merely seeks the nomination, he’ll split the Republican party. Republicans who loathed his cavalier approach to the truth and to values the party had long promoted - free trade, firm alliances, democracy - largely kept quiet while he was president, the leader of their party. But then he lost the presidency, and was primarily responsible for the Republicans’ loss of the Senate and the House. Republicans who hope to have a future in politics, including a few who’d like to become president themselves, won’t sit idly by while he leads the party to disaster again. They will challenge him themselves, or back his challengers.
This was what happened to Van Buren and Theodore Roosevelt. Neither had difficulty getting renominated while president, but once out of office they lost the clout of incumbency. Others stepped up to take their places, and the ensuing battles rent Van Buren’s Democrats and Roosevelt’s Republicans.
The damage will be worse for Trump’s Republicans. He was never as popular as Van Buren or Roosevelt, but his base is loyal. They - and his own narcissism - will tempt him to pursue the nomination. If he wins it, he’ll bring Democrats to the polls in the general election as he did in 2020. If he loses the nomination, he and his followers will sulk and sink the person the party does choose.
The Democrats, therefore, ought to do all they can to keep Trump’s hopes alive. The longer he holds center stage among the Republicans, the better for the Democrats. And the worse for the Republicans.
The worse for the country, too. America needs two functional parties. But that’s a subject for another day.