War Makes Political Havoc for Presidents, Challengers Alike

War Makes Political Havoc for Presidents, Challengers Alike

April 7, 2003
By Kenneth D. Ackerman,
Roll Call Staff

With America now involved in both war in Iraq and a simultaneous war on terrorism around the world — with no telling how far into the future either may last — it is not too early to speculate on one point about the 2004 presidential contest. President Bush may find himself the first sitting president since Richard Nixon in 1972 to face re-election as U.S. soldiers fight in shooting wars overseas.

America has never shied away from politics in wartime; we’ve held six presidential contests as wars raged against foreign enemies, plus 10 others during the 40-year Cold War with the former Soviet bloc. These campaigns have tested our constitutional system, pitting needs for unity and security against freedoms of expression and self-government. We have seen wars dominate national debate, pushing domestic issues aside; opponents criticizing a commander in chief have risked public backlash for appearing disloyal to soldiers in the field. Wartime secrecy has limited debate or blocked vital information from reaching the public.

Already, war is shaping the 2004 presidential contest. Voters increasingly judge Bush by his handling of today’s multiple world crises as Democratic challengers stake out a range of positions on Iraq. Those candidates with strong military experience, such as Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, are making sure voters are aware of the fact.

War creates a future fraught with unknowns. Each candidate must worry whether statements they make about war today will look either prophetic or foolish tomorrow after the dust settles.

On its surface, history seems to show incumbent wartime presidents enjoying strong support. The four presidents who sought re-election during U.S. involvement in major wars — James Madison in 1812, Abraham Lincoln in 1864, Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1944 and Nixon in 1972 — each won, regardless of how well or badly events were unfolding on the battlefield. Voters rallied to the national leader and resisted changing commanders in the middle of a crisis.

But looks can be deceiving, and a fuller view of the record shows the path full of hazards. Fortunes of war have directly shaped political outcomes. Two wartime presidents who presided over stalemated, unpopular conflicts — Harry Truman in Korea and Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam — each chose not to seek re-election. They thereby not only saved themselves the personal anguish of a divisive campaign and possible defeat, but also saved voters from having to make painful choices between loyalty to an embattled leader versus grave doubts about his policy.

Even Lincoln recognized his vulnerability to battlefield setbacks. Democrats in 1864 had nominated former Union Gen. George McClellan to oppose him as Lincoln’s own two top generals each remained stuck in battlefield quagmires — Ulysses S. Grant facing Robert E. Lee’s entrenched forces in Virginia and William Tecumseh Sherman marching south in Georgia. As casualties mounted, Lincoln saw his own days in the White House coming quickly to an end. It was only after Sherman broke through Confederate lines and captured Atlanta in September 1864 — weeks before Election Day — that Lincoln could feel any confidence of victory.

“Peace” candidates themselves have had enormous influence. By challenging a president’s wartime performance or the rationale of the war itself, they give war doubters a unifying voice and a legitimate outlet for their dissent. But this role too has its pitfalls. No peace candidate has ever defeated an incumbent president seeking re-election. DeWitt Clinton in 1812, McClellan in 1864 and George McGovern in 1972 all opposed the wars being fought or the manner of fighting, and all were defeated; voters rejected them even while sometimes agreeing with their messages. The appearance of disloyalty from publicly attacking a commander during wartime can doom a candidate.

Where peace candidates have been successful, though, is in forcing change: shifting government policy, shortening a conflict or changing the leader.

Most prominent in recent memory is the 1968 run by Eugene McCarthy (D), the former college professor and Senator from Minnesota. Johnson seemed unbeatable for renomination that year; protests against the Vietnam War remained scattered and his strongest Democratic opponent, New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, sat on the sidelines. But McCarthy challenged Johnson directly on the Vietnam issue and his surprise, better-than-expected 40 percent showing in the New Hampshire primary demonstrated the depth of anti-war feeling. Weeks later, Johnson announced his decision to quit the race and offer negotiations with North Vietnam.

Four years later, in 1972, Democrat McGovern captured the nomination on an anti-war stand but lost the presidency in a landslide. By then, voters sensed the Vietnam War nearing an end; Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had declared in October that “peace is at hand” and U.S. troop levels had been sharply reduced. In January 1973, in fact, a cease-fire was declared.

Two self-proclaimed peace candidates have ultimately won the White House, however. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, running as a Republican in 1952, promised late in his campaign to travel personally to Korea to end that unpopular conflict.

The other, Woodrow Wilson, was already in the White House in 1916 when he ran for re-election on promises to keep the United States out of World War I — a popular stance even after the 1915 sinking of the British liner Lusitania by German U-boats with heavy civilian losses. Once voting was over, however, Wilson quickly broke those promises, seizing on Germany’s announcement of unrestricted submarine warfare to join the allies in the struggle.

It is far too soon to suggest how 2004 will unfold. But if history is any guide, decisions being made by candidates today could well shape the outcome of the presidential contest still more than 18 months away. For Democratic challengers, destinies will hang both on how they position themselves on the substantive issues of war and the way they conduct themselves during the crisis. For Bush what matters most will be making the right choices and having the luck of events.

Kenneth D. Ackerman practices law at Olsson, Frank and Weeda, P.C., and has served as senior counsel to the Senate Governmental Affairs and Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry committees. He is the author of the forthcoming book “Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield.”