Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, and author, with Kevin Kruse, of the new book “Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.” Follow him on Twitter at @julianzelizer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Is Donald Trump another Jimmy Carter – or George H.W. Bush? Democrats are hoping that Trump will join the short list of modern-era presidents who lost their bids for reelection. But the new Washington Post/ABC News poll should make them think twice.
Though a majority of Americans see President Trump as “unpresidential,” his approval ratings have risen to 47% among registered voters and 44% among Americans of voting age. He is receiving credit from 51% of those polled for the strong economy. Regardless of who holds office, these are not the kinds of numbers that an opposition party likes to see.
Given that Speaker Nancy Pelosi has pretty much ruled out impeachment, almost every Democrat is hoping that the era of Trump comes to an end via the voting booth in November 2020.
Only then can the nation test Joe Biden’s proposition that politics will resume to normal once someone else is in the Oval Office. Just as important, a Democratic president would have the opportunity to protect the policies and institutions which have come under threat in the past three years.
Democrats are thinking of Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, the two presidents since Herbert Hoover who ran for reelection and failed. Ronald Reagan defeated President Carter in 1980 and Bill Clinton beat President Bush in 1992. Other than those two candidacies (Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson both decided they would not run for reelection, Gerald Ford was never elected, and John Kennedy was assassinated), incumbent presidents have done well at the ballot box.
Unfortunately for Democrats, President Trump seems to be in a stronger position than either Carter or Bush. Despite his relatively low approval ratings, and early polls showing that many of the Democratic candidates come out ahead of him in head-to-head competition, Trump enjoys a number of important advantages over Carter and Bush.
The strong economy is the most important. Economic growth and low unemployment, as well as a sense among the public that conditions are good, differentiate President Trump from his unsuccessful predecessors.
In 1980, Carter struggled with the impact of 1970s stagflation, the combination of high unemployment and inflation, as well as an oil crisis that left Americans waiting at long gas lines. This was the reason that one of Reagan’s famous campaign lines stuck: “A recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.”
Bush did not fare much better. In 1992, the economy remained in a severe recession. Bill Clinton took advantage of these conditions to overcome the president’s success with Operation Desert Storm and ran a campaign based on the idea: “It’s the economy, stupid. “
Both Carter and Bush ran with their parties divided. In 1980, Carter struggled right through the Democratic convention as Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy challenged him in the primaries, claiming he had abandoned traditional Democratic ideals. Kennedy won in a number of key primaries, such as New York, and he generated much more enthusiasm than Carter was able to do.
During his speech at the convention, Kennedy brought the crowd to its feet with soaring oratory while Carter could barely muster any applause with his lackluster performance. The bitter tensions that surfaced during the primaries lingered through the election, and, along with the votes lost to third party candidate John Anderson, undercut the kind of enthusiasm Carter needed to defeat the Reagan juggernaut.
Bush’s support among Republicans was stronger, although he too faced internal divisions. His decision in 1990 to accept a tax hike as part of a deficit reduction package enraged conservatives like Newt Gingrich who believed he had abandoned a key tenet of Republican orthodoxy.
Patrick Buchanan captured even more unease among the base when he took Bush on during the primaries, accusing “King George” of having ignored working class conservatives and the culture wars. Today, President Trump does not yet face a serious primary challenger.
He continues to poll very well among Republican voters and very few leaders in the GOP have challenged his campaign.
Neither Carter nor Bush could count on a dedicated partisan media to support their campaign. Fox News didn’t go on the air until 1996 and the internet did not bloom, along with sites like the Drudge Report, until later in the decade.
In 2019, President Trump goes into battle with the full weight of the conservative media universe behind him. He can communicate directly to voters and shape the media conversation through Twitter, while his campaign will depend on Fox News and Breitbart.Com to disseminate stories that are sympathetic to him.
Social media platforms such as Facebook will once again offer a vehicle to spread their message. Trump has already been outspending Democratic candidates on Facebook ads.
And finally, notwithstanding all the instability and diplomatic chaos, President Trump continues to enjoy relative peace abroad. Carter went into the fall campaign with two major international crises – the Iran Hostage Crisis that started in November 1979 and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which began one month later. Bush had relative calm by the fall of 1992, though the military operation against Iraq with Operation Desert Storm had proven that the end of the Cold War did not mean the end of military conflict.
Saddam Hussein’s ongoing provocations against the Kurds and the UN reminded voters that overseas tensions continued to loom large.
While political commentators point to all the risks and threats that the nation faces as a result of President Trump’s haphazard approach to foreign policy, most Americans aren’t worried about international conflicts now.
In other words, Democrats won’t have an easy run of things. While many Democrats find it inconceivable that Trump could ever win re-election, it is possible to see how many of them might end up reliving the morning after the 2004 election when President George W. Bush emerged as a second-term victor.
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Democrats need to consider Trump’s strengths as they select their nominee. Picking someone who stands up well to Trump in early polls will not be enough. They need a candidate, whether Biden or Elizabeth Warren or someone else, who can put together a powerful campaign that mobilizes the grassroots, commands ongoing media attention, and brings the party together with an inspiring agenda. Democrats should think of 2020 as a monumental effort to unseat an incumbent who will bring great strength to the table rather than an easy defeat of a weakened leader barely holding on to power.