History Lesson

Presidential Rematches

What Andrew Jackson can teach Al Gore about beating Bush in 2004.

Al Gore wants a rematch. Pundits are already discounting his chances at beating George W. Bush in 2004—not without good reason, given his reported 19 percent favorable rating. But a historical fact bodes well for Gore: On six occasions, a defeated presidential candidate ran four years later against the man who beat him—and four times the challenger won. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson ousted President John Adams in their rematch. Like father, like son: President John Quincy Adams lost to Andrew Jackson in their 1828 reprise. William Henry Harrison won his second race against President Martin Van Buren in 1840. His grandson, President Benjamin Harrison, lost his second campaign against Grover Cleveland in 1892. (The two-time losers: William Jennings Bryan twice lost to William McKinley, and Adlai Stevenson fell to Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956.) Click here to see the electoral and popular vote results from each election.

So, what can Gore learn from his phoenix-like predecessors?

Like three of the successful presidential comeback artists—Jefferson, Jackson, and Cleveland—Gore lost the presidency by a hair’s breadth the first time around. Like Jackson and Cleveland, he actually won the popular vote. And like Jackson, he can legitimately argue that had it not been for dirty dealing in the post-Election Day politicking, he would have been president.

It’s too late, however, for Gore to heed the main lesson of Jackson’s 1828 comeback: Mobilize popular outrage at having been robbed. In 1824, a four-way race ended with no one commanding a majority of electoral votes (as constitutionally required for election), and the contest went to the House. Henry Clay, who had finished fourth, threw his support to John Quincy Adams, the runner-up, denying Jackson—the first-place finisher in both popular and electoral votes—what he considered his rightful victory. Adams then made Clay secretary of state.

Never one to acquiesce meekly, Jackson decried a “corrupt bargain” and began the rematch immediately. His boosters attacked Adams as illegitimate. He cultivated journalists, kept a high profile, and encouraged grass-roots activity, including the formation of local “Hickory Clubs.” Judging from the tide that swept him into the White House four years later, one can almost imagine the public marching on Washington to install Jackson as chief executive if the insiders’ electoral politicking had again gone awry.

Gore is hardly in the image of Old Hickory, but he might look to Cleveland, who was bounced from the White House in 1888 despite winning the popular vote in his bid for a second term. Before he even left the White House, the lame-duck Cleveland was laying the groundwork for a return: Although he had governed conservatively, his last State of the Union message rang with rousing blasts at the plutocrats of the Gilded Age and the deepening immiseration of the working class—rhetoric geared toward amassing popular goodwill. On leaving the White House, First Lady Frances Cleveland told the staff to mind the furnishings since, “We are coming back, just four years from today.”

But like Gore, Cleveland disappeared after leaving office. He was emboldened to run again only when—and here Gore will have to keep searching for an auspicious precedent—the Democrats fared well in the 1890 midterm elections against the pro-business, GOP-controlled “billion-dollar Congress.” Two years later, Cleveland picked off a few key states to defeat President Benjamin Harrison, bringing a Democratic Congress with him.

Another route to a successful challenge has been for the loser to establish himself as the undisputed leader of his party—which, despite his failure to do so in 2001 or this fall, may still be possible for Gore. While serving as vice president to John Adams (who had narrowly defeated him in 1796), Jefferson managed to secure his place at the helm of the Democrat-Republican Party. Jefferson aided his party’s candidates; urged backers such as James Madison to publish articles supporting him; wrote his friends “private” political missives whose contents were meant to find their way into print; and shored up alliances, notably with his 1796 running-mate Aaron Burr of New York, a state that had gone to Adams.

Most important, Jefferson assumed the mantle as his party’s public philosopher. When Adams drew fire for the Alien and Sedition Acts—potentially unconstitutional measures that allowed the deportation or prosecution of the president’s critics—Jefferson drafted and championed the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions challenging the restrictive laws. Although his position as vice president forced him to do so secretly, he defined the issues at stake in the next election, allowing him to eke out a slim victory over the incumbent Adams.

In addition to Jefferson, both Jackson and William Henry Harrison bolstered their reprise efforts by building superior party organizations while out of power. The 1824 corrupt bargain had ended the so-called Era of Good Feelings, the brief interval in which the nation’s original political parties had atrophied in significance. After his loss, Andrew Jackson not only mended fences with John Calhoun (one of his three rivals from 1824), but also aligned with New York power-broker Martin Van Buren and Virginia leader Thomas Ritchie to solidify a coalition for 1828. That coalition marked the birth of the Democratic Party.

Similarly, William Henry Harrison, known as “Tippecanoe” for his heroics in a famed battle against Indian tribes, benefited from a stronger Whig Party in his 1840 victory. In 1836 the Whigs, still embryonic, held no national convention and instead nominated three separate regional candidates, ensuring defeat for all of them. Yet Harrison ran surprisingly well in the West, even as the Democrat Van Buren, as vice president, coasted to the White House as Jackson’s heir. During the next four years, the Whigs borrowed a page from the Democrats and got organized: At their first national convention, in December 1839, a diverse group of key politicos joined forces to block the nomination of the controversial Henry Clay in favor of the popular Tippecanoe.

Harrison also pioneered in 1840 the modern technique of reinventing his image through his canny use of the media. Challenging the Democrats’ reputation as the party of the common people, the Whigs downplayed Harrison’s aristocratic lineage—his father had signed the Declaration of Independence—and portrayed him as a “log-cabin, hard-cider” candidate, a plain-living rustic from the Ohio frontier. In contrast, they castigated Van Buren—an ethnic New Yorker who grew up poor and had heartfelt democratic impulses—for using gold spoons in the executive mansion and traveling in a gilded coach. Harrison won handily.

Gore, alas, already suffers from a perceived excess of self-reinvention. A last option available to him, then, might be one that also served Jefferson, Jackson, William Harrison, and Cleveland: Wait for disaster to befall the incumbent. Second-time losers John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, and Benjamin Harrison all struggled as president. In particular, all were vulnerable to attack as feckless aristocrats unwilling or unable to address urgent needs. Van Buren did little to tackle a terrible depression. The well-born, dandyish Harrison seemed indifferent to the Gilded Age’s rising economic inequality, which pushed farmers and laborers into militancy. Their opponents (like Gore) were hardly classic men of the people, but it was the incumbents who bore the brunt of popular unrest.

Of course, so far George Bush has had mostly good fortune, politically speaking, as president. Sept. 11 and the specter of an Iraqi invasion have shifted focus from economic problems, muted domestic dissent, and rallied support behind the commander in chief. In fact, so far Bush is looking less like his ill-starred 19th-century predecessors than like his 20th-century forebears who handily dispatched their challengers on the second go-round. Neither William McKinley nor Dwight Eisenhower has gone down in history as a great president, but both men cruised to re-election in rematches. Both catered to their corporate constituents while maintaining public approval largely through their foreign policies—Ike by ending the Korean War, McKinley by presiding over the rout of the Spanish in Cuba and the Philippines.

In contrast, their twice-vanquished foes, William Jennings Bryan and Adlai Stevenson, have come to embody the perils of re-nominating a loser. Although both men lost decisively the first time around, they both possessed strong and clear convictions, passion, and great oratorical skills. Beloved by their base, they were virtually drafted to run again—only to lose by even greater margins.

In truth, although challengers have won more rematches than they’ve lost, the winners prevailed in what is now a distant era, one in which the candidate’s role was very different from today’s. Back then, America’s system more closely resembled a parliamentary one. Party leaders had much more direct control over the nomination of candidates than they do today. (Senators, for example, weren’t popularly elected until 1912, and national political conventions were controlled by state bosses, not by delegates committed to the winners of their primaries.) If you lost an election, you weren’t personally discredited by what was seen as your party’s failure. Men such as Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams could remain influential for decades even after losing White House bids.

With the expansion of the right to vote and the advent of mass media, however, the 20th century saw the rise of what political scientists call candidate-centered politics. Parties declined in influence, primaries proliferated (and their delegates were bound at convention time), and political success came to hinge on reaching the voting public more than elites. Increasingly, an individual candidate’s image, promoted to voters through the media, has determined his or her fortunes. As a result, in our own time losers from George McGovern to Michael Dukakis to George Bush the Elder are discarded with increasing haste. The records of Jefferson and Jackson, then, may not matter so much in a fast-moving, image-centered political world, when even a technical winner like Gore can quickly seem like an unwanted guest who doesn’t realize that it’s time for him to go.