Election year 2020 is finally here, and we’re about to have “the most important presidential election in American history” — again.
After all, every four years since, oh, 1788 or so we have held “the most important election in American history.” Or have we?
Politicians themselves, and all those deeply immersed in political competition, can be excused for thinking their own election dramas historically momentous. On occasion, the proverbial “man in the street” might even have been inclined to agree. Surely, that must have been the case in, say, 1860, when a civil war loomed. Or how about 1932, when the country was caught in the throes of the Great Depression?
Of course, some elections really have been more important than others, and seemed so to the participants. Others may have seemed routine, even humdrum, as they unfolded, but turned out to be highly consequential in retrospect. And still others have proved to be just as inconsequential as they appeared at the time.
How to judge the importance of a presidential election?
To qualify for epoch-making status, an election must first involve an issue of great importance that divides the two major parties.
That issue must be clearly understood and subjected to serious campaign debate, and its significance must continue to be clear in retrospect.
And for an election to be a candidate for great importance, the race must be closely contested.
Will the 2020 election meet these qualifications? It’s too early to tell, but at this stage it does seem to be shaping up as one for the ages. To see how it compares, let’s start with a tour of weighty presidential elections past.
The election of 1800 surely was thought to be of great significance at the time. In the first place, it was the first of what have been six rematches between major-party candidates. In 1800, the country saw incumbent President John Adams face off against Democratic-Republican challenger Thomas Jefferson — the same two candidates who had been on the ballot in 1796.
(For those keeping score, the other rematches were John Quincy Adams vs. Andrew Jackson in 1824 and 1828; Martin Van Buren vs. William Henry Harrison in 1836 and 1840; Grover Cleveland vs. Benjamin Harrison in 1888 and 1892; William McKinley vs. William Jennings Bryan in 1896 and 1900, and Dwight Eisenhower vs. Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956. The first four sets of rivals split their two contests. But McKinley twice defeated Bryan, and Eisenhower twice bested Stevenson.)
The greater importance of Jefferson’s table-turning victory in 1800 was that it brought about the first peaceful transfer of power from one party to another in the history of the young republic. In his first inaugural address Jefferson sought to minimize differences by declaring that “we are all Federalists, all Republicans.”
Did he govern in a similarly bipartisan way? Not entirely. Jefferson kept Federalist Alexander Hamilton’s national bank, the constitutionality of which he had severely questioned. But he slashed the military budget and acquired the Louisiana territory without congressional approval.
A seminal election, to be sure, but hardly the most crucial ever.
The election of 1828 drove the final nail in the political coffin of the revolutionary-era elite. Gone at last in its wake was not only the Virginia Dynasty, but the Adamses, father and son.
Occupying the presidency now was Andrew Jackson, the uncommon common-man hero of the common people.
A watershed moment, without a doubt.
Now we come to the election that might most closely parallel what is to come in 2020. The election of 1844 was highly consequential — then and subsequently — bitterly divisive, and razor thin. It was the last hurrah of Henry Clay, the greatest leader of the Whig Party, who had been an also-ran in 1824 and unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Jackson in 1832. It also trotted out the nation’s first “dark horse” candidate — Jacksonian Democrat James K. Polk of Tennessee.
Polk aggressively laid out an aggressive agenda: acquire Texas, California and the Oregon Territory — peacefully if possible, by force if necessary. Clay and the Whigs were hesitant about peaceful expansion and opposed to armed conquest. The choice was clear and the vote was close.
Polk won the popular vote by fewer than 40,000 votes, which was a margin of 1.4 percentage points. James Birney of the anti-slavery Liberty Party took 2.3% of the vote. More to the point, Birney won enough votes in New York — votes that otherwise would likely have gone to Clay — to give that state’s 36 Electoral College votes to Polk. Had Birney not been on the ballot, Clay would surely have taken New York and an Electoral College majority. If so, there most likely would have been no Mexican War and perhaps no expansion into what became the American Southwest.
As it was, that war helped push the issue of slavery’s expansion front and center. It made a crisis over the question virtually inevitable. In that respect the election of 1844 was just as important as the election of 1860, which gave the newly created, anti-slavery Republican Party its first president.
Abraham Lincoln had opposed the Mexican War during his one term in Congress. His election as president in 1860 triggered secession and civil war.
Since the Civil War, a handful of presidential elections have been of more than minor consequence, but none rival 1844 or 1860. There certainly have been very few that were both similarly consequential and closely contested — until 2016, and perhaps 2020.
One exception might have been the 1896 contest between McKinley and Bryan. The country was offered a distinct choice between its industrial future and its agrarian past. McKinley carried 23 states while Bryan took 22.
But the actual vote totals were not particularly close. McKinley won the popular vote by five percentage points and the Electoral College by the decisive 271-176.
The next elections of great moment, more so in retrospect than at the time, were the victories of Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and 1916. Given the split within the GOP in 1912 — between incumbent President William Howard Taft and his challenger, former president Theodore Roosevelt (who subsequently ran on a third-party ticket) — Wilson coasted to victory.
Not so in 1916. Neither Wilson nor his Republican opponent, Charles Evans Hughes of New York, was able to secure a majority of the popular vote, but Wilson did squeak out a narrow victory in the Electoral College, 277-254. (Minnesota was as closely divided as the country in that election; Hughes won the state by 392 votes.)
The 1916 election proved to be one of great consequence, even though there was little debate during the campaign over the crucial issue of possible American entry into World War I. Wilson ran on “peace and preparedness,” while Hughes also did his best to waffle on the issue. There would have been a debate had Theodore Roosevelt been the GOP standard-bearer. He was solidly for American entry, but his former party would have nothing to do with him after he had sabotaged them in 1912.
The election proved momentous after the fact, when Wilson asked for a declaration of war in April 1917 on the basis of a crusade to “make the world safe for democracy.”
Similarly, with America mired in the Great Depression in 1932, there might well have been a great debate over its future course. But there really wasn’t one. When Democratic New York Gov. Franklin Roosevelt challenged incumbent Republican President Herbert Hoover, FDR might have clearly spelled out his plans for a New Deal. But he didn’t. Instead he ran slightly to the left of Hoover, while criticizing the incumbent for an unbalanced budget.
Once again, with Roosevelt’s transformative presidency, this was an election whose far-reaching effects only became clear later on.
Yet again, the election of 1940 might have inspired another great debate over the question of entering another brutal overseas war. Isolationist Sen. Robert Taft seemed to be the leading GOP candidate, while Roosevelt’s interventionist leanings were clear.
But at its national convention the Republican Party turned to internationalist Wendell Willkie, and differences over foreign policy were essentially taken off the campaign agenda. FDR proceeded to win an unprecedented third term.
The election of 1952 was the last hurrah for Taft. This contest witnessed perhaps another “last” in American history. It’s not likely that we’ll ever again see both major-party candidates sporting bald heads. But there they were — Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson, hatless and hair-impaired.
This election might also have been a policy crossroads had the GOP nominated Taft (another bald head). But Eisenhower bested the Ohio senator.
The Korean War was still a hot issue. But there was no great domestic debate over abandoning it or expanding it. The only issue was how to honorably end it. The great debate that might have been would have concerned whether to dramatically retreat from the bigger-government New Deal of FDR and Fair Deal of President Harry Truman after two decades of Democratic governance. But with Taft’s defeat, both Republican rhetoric and eventual policy change were more modest.
It’s doubtful that any post-’50s presidential election qualifies as pivotal on all four counts — great issue, great debate, consequential result and close call.
The two that come closest were Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980 and Barack Obama’s in 2008. But neither outcome was terribly close. Nor did either election result in quite the degree of change that each candidate proclaimed was in the offing with his victory. Reagan oversaw the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, but his call for confrontational anti-Communist policy had been somewhat muted in the 1980 campaign. What’s more, he only slowed, and did not reverse, the concentration of power in Washington.
Obama reinvigorated that concentration, but his promise to “fundamentally transform the United States of America” remains unfulfilled.
Who knows? It might just prove to be the most important election in American history. Each of our major parties is increasingly militant and ideologically pure. Gone are brokered conventions and diverse parties with liberal and conservative wings. The country is evenly divided on a large number of serious issues. Lastly, the political virtue of prudence seems to be missing all around.
Therefore, it could be a corker — at least on the order of 1844 or 1896.
Matters of personality aside (admittedly, a lot to set aside), Donald Trump has governed as a center-right Republican. Except on trade (admittedly, a big exception) he has certainly demonstrated that he is to the right of both Bushes, not to mention Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney.
With the Trump persona front and center, Democrats have moved leftward, perhaps thinking this might be the historical moment actually to bring about that “fundamental transformation” Obama heralded.
Given all of this, there could be grounds for a great debate. But will there be one?
There should be such a debate over entitlement reform — but neither party seems to have the stomach for it.
There might be a foreign policy debate of some importance — but it would be less critical than the debates over world war that went missing in 1916 and 1940.
Most likely to occur would be a significant debate over the size and character of the administrative state, or “deep state” — or just “the swamp.” Is this the historical moment to substantially reverse a century of progressive expansion and consolidation of the central government? Or will it be the moment to leap into a future of even bigger and more interventionist government, as Democrats, in varying degrees, propose?
The next American presidential campaign of great consequence is at hand. Will it be the most important ever? Time will tell.
John C. “Chuck” Chalberg writes from Bloomington.