Jeb Bush recently suggested that someone ought to run against U.S. President Donald Trump in next year’s presidential primaries. It would, in Bush’s estimation, be good for the Republican Party.
The underlying logic is simple. Rather than being a real Republican, Trump is an interloper who executed the political equivalent of a hostile business takeover.
And even if a primary challenge is doomed, it would strike a blow for the party’s longer-term future. After all, Trump will be gone by 2025 at the latest.
Recent experience notwithstanding, there was a time when it was almost routine for a president to be challenged within his own party. Starting in 1968, it happened for four consecutive cycles.
With the Vietnam War as his issue, Sen. Eugene McCarthy opposed President Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 New Hampshire Democratic primary. And when Johnson was politically wounded by McCarthy’s unexpectedly strong showing, Sen. Robert Kennedy jumped in. So on March 31, 1968, Johnson bowed out.
In 1972, President Richard Nixon faced primary opposition from two congressmen representing opposite wings – left and right – of the Republican Party. Nixon, however, brushed them aside without raising a sweat.
Next came Ronald Reagan’s 1976 challenge to President Gerald Ford. Notwithstanding Ford’s incumbency advantages, Reagan came within a whisker of taking the Republican nomination from him.
Finally, there was Sen. Edward Kennedy’s 1980 run against President Jimmy Carter. Despite favourable early polls, Kennedy failed in his attempt to wrest the Democratic nomination from Carter. It wasn’t even close.
Mind you, the underlying circumstances of 1976 and 1980 were different.
In challenging Ford, Reagan was taking on an accidental president, someone who’d never have gotten near the Oval Office were it not for the resignations of the previous vice-president (Spiro Agnew) and president (Nixon). Further, Ford was only appointed vice-president – and thus injected into the presidential succession – because Democrats who controlled the Senate and the House wouldn’t countenance a stronger Republican.
Carter was a wholly different matter. He’d become president the old fashioned way, dispatching a range of primary rivals and subsequently winning the general election. Whatever you thought of him, he was legitimate.
Still, the senior political class within Carter’s own party viewed him warily. He was an outsider, not really one of them. So when they came to see him as incompetent, there was no deep well of loyalty or affection to pre-emptively ward off a challenge.
The incompetence bit was a surprise.
With his bachelor of science degree, years as a naval officer, subsequent experience running the family peanut business and stint as Georgia governor, Carter seemed to bring a well-rounded resume to the table. Stir in the fact that he was a prodigious worker who immersed himself in detail and you’d anticipate a chief executive who’d tick the right competency boxes.
But almost from the beginning, Carter seemed to struggle. His peculiar blend of earnest piety and slick gimmickry struck an odd note.
And when, as they invariably do, troubling events came at him, he seemed perplexed. So he assembled a conclave of intellectuals to advise him.
Afterwards, one of them observed that “Jimmy Carter listens but he doesn’t always hear.”
Another participant was even more pointed: “The problem was obviously not that the president was doing anything wrong, but that the people were wrong.”
For his part, Kennedy framed his decision with the moral vanity that’s routine in such circumstances. Rather than being ambitious, he felt a call to duty.
Although he had few major policy differences with the president, Carter’s perceived ineffectiveness incensed him. To quote, “Even on issues we agree on, he doesn’t know how to do it.”
But the Kennedy mystique that seemed so alluring in the abstract evanesced the moment he became an active candidate.
Organization, thought to be a traditional Kennedy strength, was initially non-existent. And from having been the masters of modern campaign techniques in 1960, the Kennedys seemed to have been bypassed by the subsequent evolution in how the game was played.
Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, was Kennedy himself.
Woefully inarticulate, he had great difficulty expressing a cogent rationale for his candidacy. And having anticipated a friendly press, he was at a loss in dealing with probing questions.
Ultimately, his argument seemed to be that his name was Kennedy and he was thus entitled. It wasn’t nearly enough.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps just a little bit.
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