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When Henry got the boot
Lessons for 2024?
In the summer of 1944 the leaders of America’s Democratic party gathered to nominate Franklin Roosevelt for president—for the fourth time. Not all of them were delighted at the prospect. To be sure, all the Democrats appreciated Roosevelt for leading their party out of its post-Civil War wilderness and making it competitive once more with the Republicans on the national stage. The left wing of the party liked what he had done with his New Deal to ease the pain of the Great Depression on ordinary Americans, but the right wing—mostly Southerners—was skeptical of the bigger government the New Deal specified. Both wings liked his leadership of the Grand Alliance in the ongoing war against fascism in Europe and Asia.
But ambitious Democrats who fancied themselves presidential material grew frustrated at Roosevelt’s anointing himself, apparently, president for life. Two terms had been enough for George Washington, and Washington’s example had set a ceiling for all future chief executives—until Roosevelt employed the occasion of the war to exempt himself. A third term was bad enough, in the thinking of those Democratic senators and governors who saw presidents in their mirrors while shaving in the morning; a fourth term put them in mind of heirs to the throne of a monarch who outlives the heirs.
The discontent ate into the enthusiasm for Roosevelt at the Chicago convention that July, but it couldn’t deny him the nomination. It did, however, compel a change at the level just below the president. In those days the parties had more influence over vice presidential nominations than would be the case later; a presidential nominee could not simply impose his will in the choice of the number two. Roosevelt had accepted Texan John Nance Garner as his running mate in 1932 and 1936 to placate Southerners leery of Northeasterners like Roosevelt himself. In 1940 he had leaned the other way, taking on Henry Wallace, the last of the unreconstructed New Dealers, to reassure the lefties he hadn’t lost his liberal faith.
Now the Southerners, and more than a few others in the party, revolted at the thought of a second vice presidential term for Wallace. This was where the president-for-life complaints kicked in, for by the summer of 1944 Roosevelt was clearly ailing. Some wondered whether he would live through the election, let alone through a fourth term. And almost none wanted him to leave the presidency to Wallace.
They aired their dissatisfaction for Roosevelt to hear. He listened and took their complaints to heart. He knew his hold on the party wasn’t what it had been. Nor was he deeply invested in Wallace.
He chose not to resist the revolt but to guide it. He let it be known that he would be satisfied with Harry Truman, a solid but undistinguished senator from Missouri, as his number two on the ticket. Truman had no enemies, largely because others in the party didn’t think enough about him to feel threatened. Truman himself was flabbergasted to learn of Roosevelt’s preference; he deeply doubted he had the stuff to be president, should it come to that. But he was canny enough not to say no to opportunity.
Roosevelt was duly nominated, with Truman beside him. The Democratic ticket won for the fourth time in a row. Roosevelt lived three months into his fourth term and died, making Harry Truman president.
The foregoing chapter from their party history holds lessons for Democrats today. Perhaps Joe Biden will retire after one term, as many in the party have suggested he do. Quite likely he won’t. The recent midterms proved more successful for the Democrats than almost anyone imagined, and Biden wouldn’t have gotten to where he is today had he not learned to claim credit for happy accidents. He can also point out that he’s undefeated in races against Donald Trump.
If Biden seeks the nomination he will most probably get it. No single challenger has emerged, and a sitting president determined to keep sitting can complicate such emergence.
The contest for the vice presidential nomination might then become quite interesting. This isn’t 1944; presidential nominees have more freedom now in their choices of running mates. But some of the same influences will be in play. Biden is already the oldest president in history; actuarially, he is more likely to die in his second term than any president before him. This makes the vice presidential nomination more important than usual, and potential nominees will receive unusually careful scrutiny.
Not since 1944 has an elected vice president been dumped for a reelection campaign. Biden, moreover, would hesitate to push Kamala Harris overboard given the sensitivities of the party on matters of race and gender. Yet there are plenty of Democrats who think they would be a better president than Harris, and she won’t receive a second nomination without much intraparty grumbling. Personal ambition aside, they’ll mutter that Harris added little to Biden’s appeal in 2020 and might drag him down in 2024, when voters will be thinking more seriously about whether she would make a good president.
Harris herself might be torn. No one at her level of politics gives up a chance at the brass ring without compelling reason. Harry Truman didn’t. Yet she must certainly reflect that entering the White House through the side door would be inauspicious for the first woman to become president. If she does get the nomination and Biden does win a second term, she more than most will pray he survives that term, to give her an open shot at the presidency in 2028.
In any event, assuming Biden runs, the 2024 Democratic convention might be the most intriguing party gathering since Henry Wallace was shown the door eight decades ago.