Bush Awaits Chance to Buck Historical Odds

Justin Torres | July 7, 2008 | 8:27pm EDT
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(CNSNews.com) - Presidents who take office after losing the popular vote have a difficult time establishing traction for their priorities, say a group of political historians, and George W. Bush will face the same tough challenge.

In fact, none of the presidents who has taken office after losing the popular vote went on to a second term - one made the choice himself, two were defeated for re-election.

The worst-case scenario? Bush's presidency could hardly do worse than to emulate the administration of John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, who, like Bush, was the son of an ex-president. Adams was outpolled in a five-person race, 41 percent to 31 percent, by Andrew Jackson of - how's this for a coincidence? - Tennessee.

The muddled election produced no Electoral College winner and was thrown into the House of Representatives, where Adams and House Speaker Henry Clay cut a deal that made Adams president and Clay Secretary of State. Called the "Corrupt Bargain" by enraged Democrats, Adams found his four years in power rough going.

"Not a single section of the country rallied to Adams's agenda," said historian John Patrick Diggins, author of several books of political history, including the recent work on Abraham Lincoln, On Hallowed Ground. "His administration confronted a wall of massive indifference." Four years later, Jackson crushed Adams with 56 percent of the vote.

Diggins says Bush may have an easier time of it, since he has a clear regional power base - the South and the Midwest - and was virtually tied in the popular vote. "Still, a recession could kill any good will Bush has among the people," Diggins adds.

Only slightly more comforting for Bush is the eerily familiar story of the election of 1876. Rutherford B. Hayes, Ohio's governor, lost the popular vote to Samuel J. Tilden of New York, but returns from - you guessed it - the state of Florida put the Electoral College victory in doubt. Democrats charged that federal troops garrisoned there had engaged in ballot box stuffing and other kinds of election fraud.

Congress, unwilling to mediate the dispute, appointed a committee to determine the result. The committee voted along party lines to award the presidency to Hayes after Republicans cut a deal that ended Reconstruction in the South. Democrats retaliated by referring to Hayes publicly as "His Fraudulency," and seized Congress in mid-term elections.

Hayes, a reform-minded governor who like Bush had a special interest in education, never saw his legislative agenda go anywhere. Political scientist Glen Thurow of the University of Dallas said Hayes "set himself a series of ambitious goals and achieved almost none of them, because Democrats in Congress were seething." Hayes did not run for re-election.

Thurow says Bush will likely confront similar difficulties in the present Congress. "The mid-term elections will be the key. If Republicans hold Congress, that may become the legitimization that Bush needs and didn't get on Election Day."

And if Americans think that the past several years have been politically confusing, they should consider the 1880s.

In 1884, Grover Cleveland of New York won the presidency and proceeded to alienate several powerful constituencies, including Civil War veterans, by vetoing bills to pay military pensions he thought would contribute to fraud. He ran against Benjamin Harrison of Ohio and lost the electoral vote, despite winning the popular vote by a 100,000 vote margin.

Harrison was the most successful president of the trio of popular-vote losers, passing bills for substantial internal improvements and the landmark Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

But in 1892, Harrison lost the White House to the man he had defeated four years earlier, Grover Cleveland, who is still the only president to have served two non-consecutive terms.

Historians say presidents who win the popular vote have a difficult time overcoming the stigma of illegitimacy. "A president in that situation can't ever shake the idea that somehow he shouldn't be in the White House," said Diggins.

But twice, the president was elected without a popular vote majority during Reconstruction, which Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution calls "another world ... We'll never see that time again."

The election of 2000 displayed an electorate "perhaps more divided than at any time in American history," said Hess. So that may actually make President-elect Bush's job easier since his election will have mirrored the mood of the country. "The other three men were clearly minority presidents, more so than Bush."

Justin Torres is a senior staff writer for CNSNews.com

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