Acquittal in his second impeachment trial means that Donald Trump will be legally eligible to compete in future contests for important posts in government. In his February speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the former president dropped several broad hints that he means to make another bid for the grand prize. “Who knows? I may even decide to beat them a third time,” he declared to lusty cheers from his ardent admirers.
Whether Trump actually makes the attempt to stage what one of his advisers optimistically describes as “the greatest comeback since the Resurrection” remains one of the most consequential questions for the future of American politics and may determine the near-term viability of the Republican Party. In making his fateful decision, the Trump team should consider the post-presidential experience of the 13—yes, 13—prior incumbents who tried, but failed, to win renewal of their leases on the White House.
Surprisingly, a clear majority of them followed up their defeats in presidential contests with fresh, and occasionally successful, candidacies for various public offices.
Consider the cases of John Quincy Adams and Andrew Johnson, the last two presidents before Trump to refuse to attend the inauguration of successors they despised.
Two years after leaving Washington in 1829 following his landslide defeat at the hand of General Andrew Jackson, Adams had returned home to the family farm in Massachusetts and announced his candidacy for the House of Representatives. He went on to win a total of nine terms—interrupted briefly by a failed candidacy for governor—and toiled in the House till the very day of his death at age 80. That distinguished service earned the former president the nickname “Old Man Eloquent” for his principled, uncompromising, and fearless denunciation of the manifold evils of slavery.
Andrew Johnson, the poorly prepared vice president who succeeded Abraham Lincoln just six weeks after the Emancipator’s inauguration for a second term, avoided removal from office by the narrowest possible margin (a single Senate vote) in the nation’s first presidential impeachment trial in 1868. Nevertheless, he wanted to vindicate himself by winning a term in his own right and sought the Democratic nomination that year. At the party’s convention in New York City, he placed second on the first ballot but quickly faded, never winning more than a third of the delegates he needed. Immediately upon returning to Tennessee, he tried for a Senate seat, then failed in another Senate race, then lost as a candidate for the House of Representatives, before he finally secured election to the Senate by the state legislature on his third try in 1875. Johnson returned in satisfaction (and to some amazement for his durability) to the same legislative body that had nearly voted to convict him of “high crimes and misdemeanors” just seven years earlier. But he served only five months (and made a single major speech) before a series of strokes took his life. That brief coda to his stormy career allowed MGM to produce an absurdly admiring biographical film in 1942 with Van Heflin. It was called Tennessee Johnson and it appended an altogether ahistorical triumphal conclusion.
Meanwhile, the most admirable and successful post-presidential career unfolded for a derided figure who achieved distinction as the least successful nominee in the history of the Republican Party: the unlucky but indisputably brilliant William Howard Taft. In his bid for reelection in 1912, he finished third in a three-way contest (against Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt), earning just 23 percent of the popular vote and carrying only two states (Utah and Vermont) for an embarrassing 8 electoral votes. Nevertheless, less than nine years later, the new Republican president, Warren Harding, named the former president the chief justice of the Supreme Court, where he earned universal admiration for nearly a decade on the bench. In his satisfaction with his work, Chief Justice Taft miraculously managed to shed 86 pounds from his unhappy presidential peak of 332. It’s difficult to imagine the supremely self-satisfied Donald Trump achieving any similarly salutary weight reduction, no matter how earnestly his physicians may recommend it or how much he enjoys any post-presidential post.
Other defeated ex-presidents came out of retirement to assume other significant jobs in government. The Virginian aristocrat John Tyler, unable to persuade either of the major parties to nominate him for reelection after four years of inept and tumultuous leadership ending in 1844, won election to the House of Representatives 16 years later. Unfortunately for him, it was the Confederate House of Representatives. Tyler died before the Confederate States of America did, and never managed to take his seat in the CSA capital of Richmond. But he had enjoyed a prodigiously busy life in the intervening years between the White House and the Civil War, siring seven children after age 56 thanks to the widower’s blissful, late-in-life marriage to one of the famous beauties of the era, Julia Gardiner, who was 30 years his junior.
Herbert Hoover may have enjoyed a less prodigiously productive family life (two sons, only one wife), but 15 years after the Great Depression and Franklin Roosevelt’s popular New Deal combined to shatter his reputation, he was called back to Washington by Presidents Truman and Eisenhower to chair important commissions on government restructuring and reform. The two Hoover Commissions generated a total of 587 specific recommendations, and, astonishingly, more than two-thirds of them were successfully adopted.
HOWEVER significant the contributions of other former presidents in less conspicuous roles, it’s hard to imagine that Donald Trump, with his undisguised appetite for the international spotlight, would ever feel satisfied with any position less majestic than the presidency. To temper his temptations, he might consider the fate of the presidents who sought a return to supreme power after their prior White House departures.
Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore, and Theodore Roosevelt all did so as candidates of freshly launched minor parties, and none of them, with popular-vote totals ranging from 10 to 27 percent, came close to national victory.
After overwhelming defeat (to William Henry Harrison) in 1840, Van Buren—former president, vice president, secretary of state, and New York senator—maintained intense involvement in the affairs of his beloved Democratic Party even as his increasingly vehement opposition to the extension of slavery grew. Unable to win traction for the Democratic nomination, he ran as a “Free Soil” candidate in 1848 but failed to carry a single state, much to the disappointment of his unshakable supporters.
Fillmore, having failed to win renomination by his own Whig Party in 1852, four years later accepted the long-distance presidential designation of the militantly anti-immigrant American Party (best known as the “Know Nothings”). He agreed to be their standard-bearer while in the midst of a 13-month grand tour of Europe. The campaign proved a grand bust, winning him only the state of Maryland, with its eight electoral votes.
Theodore Roosevelt, who left office voluntarily as a supremely popular chief executive in 1909, tried for a comeback in 1912 and won most of the Republican primaries against his old friend Taft. When the GOP establishment renominated the portly incumbent anyway, TR indignantly launched his celebrated “Bull Moose” Progressive campaign, more celebrated for its enthusiasm than its success—winning only six states and 88 electoral votes compared with 40 states and 435 for the triumphant Democrat, Woodrow Wilson.
Many observers consider the 1908–1912 sequence of events especially relevant to Trump, though at CPAC he did his best to renounce all rumors that he might have been pondering the launch of a newly constituted “Patriot Party” in 2024. If Trump does win the GOP nomination, Republicans face an inescapable third-party threat: It’s easy to imagine that some of the many prominent conservatives who hope to purge our politics of Trumpism would coalesce around a vigorous independent campaign that, if nothing else, might guarantee Trump’s defeat.
The only former president to follow a defeat with a successful comeback in a third White House run—Grover Cleveland—is obviously Donald Trump’s historical role model. But the unique situation that greeted Cleveland in 1892 stands in stark contrast to Trump’s prospective position for 2024.
Cleveland had actually won the popular vote in his first reelection race in 1888, out-tallying the colorless Republican, Benjamin Harrison, by eight-tenths of a percent (48.6 to 47.8). The reversal of a microscopic margin (14,373 votes, or 1.09 percent) in a single state, New York, would have been enough to flip the result to assure Cleveland back-to-back victories. Trump, by contrast, finished more than 7 million votes and 4.4 percentage points behind Biden in his own reelection bid and would have had to reverse the results in at least three close states to change the result. Moreover, the 51-year-old Cleveland remained the obvious front-runner for his party’s re-nomination from the time he left the White House, facing only unheralded governors of Iowa and New York (Horace Boies and David Hill) as his significant competition. In 2024, Trump will be 78 and, if he seeks a 2024 comeback, would almost surely confront well-funded rivals who were already national celebrities. There’s also the distraction of significant legal problems in the years ahead and implacable hostility from a sizable minority of his own party, still roiled by his conduct in flimsy but ferocious challenges to 2020’s certified results.
WHATEVER obstacles the 45th president might face in a bid to return as the 47th president, the historical record shows that continued ambition on the part of recently defeated presidential incumbents is not as rare or unusual as it might seem to observers in the 21st century. The last three presidents to lose the White House in failed reelection efforts (Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush) all followed the same gracious pattern: retiring with dignity to tend to their presidential legacies and libraries. They pursued enhanced esteem from a once-disenchanted public (which all received), rather than returning to the lists in pursuit of vengeance or revalidation. In fact, at age 76, George H.W. Bush (younger than Joe Biden is today or Donald Trump will be in 2024) watched as his first-born son redeemed the family’s honor and won back the White House in 2000.
Reviewing the experience of other presidents who have pondered or pursued electoral comebacks, Trump might conclude that the project of dynastic redemption should best be left to the bright stars of the next generation. No one would be altogether shocked if his daughter Ivanka, who was said to have considered a high-profile Florida Senate race next year, sought to follow George W. Bush’s trajectory.
As for the possibility that Trump might walk the path of J.Q. Adams and Andrew Johnson and pursue some lesser elective office, his own personality and the modern transformation of the presidency combine to render any such course of action all but unthinkable. The one aspect of White House life that the former president most appreciated involved his ability to command international attention every day, every hour. In his business, television, and political careers, the former president displayed scant tolerance for being upstaged by faraway events of disconnected personalities. Even if social media allow him to cultivate his publicity garden again, a tweet from a gubernatorial candidate or a U.S. senator won’t ever land with the same resonance he so conspicuously enjoyed as president.
Trump’s ascension to the presidency was another indication of just how dramatically the balance between Congress and the White House had changed over the course of his lifetime. In the 20th century, fueled by the two World Wars, power and publicity marched inexorably from Capitol Hill down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. Historians sometimes ponder the fact that the past hundred years of congressional history failed to produce gigantic historical figures like the great triumvirate (Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun) who dominated the Senate in the early 19th century. Senators look smaller today because the Senate itself looks smaller and far less consequential. Presidents not only determine the agenda for attention and debate, but do so in control of a newly gargantuan administrative state.
Today, former presidents don’t need to run for office or accept august appointments to maintain their celebrity status. They can easily command more attention by writing bestselling books or delivering corporate speeches for a half-million a pop than by toiling away as one of 535 members of the United States Congress.
In fact, Congress used to treat former presidents with far less generosity than they do today. Federal law provided no pension or other retirement benefits of any sort until the days of the Eisenhower administration. John Quincy Adams’s congressional salary was his livelihood. Without the vast inherited wealth of other early presidents, his annual remuneration of $3,000—the equivalent of more than $80,000 today—made a difference for the most notable political dynasty in our history.
Appalled by the federal government’s failure to do anything to guarantee “dignified retirement” for departed chief executives, Andrew Carnegie offered in 1912 to endow a fund guaranteeing an annual pension of $25,000 (nearly $700,000 in today’s funds). Congress dismissed the scheme as unseemly and blocked the concept of a privately funded pension for presidential public service. Then, in 1958, the Former Presidents Act provided a pension for any president who managed to avoid removal from office by impeachment, with a generous payment for the rest of his (or her) life equal to the current salary of a Cabinet secretary ($219,200 per year in 2020). In addition, recent ex-presidents get literally hundreds of thousands in additional federal support to pay for staff (to answer letters, arrange schedules, and so forth), as well as lifetime Secret Service protection.
These significant provisions help explain why none of our former chief executives in the 63 years since the passage of the Former Presidents Act has disrupted their secure circumstances with a serious attempt to pursue other public positions. In today’s context, any such effort, even if successful, might seem demeaning, given the conspicuously nasty and demonically demanding nature of contemporary politics. Of course, Donald Trump has proudly defied numerous trends and traditions established by his predecessors—but the lessons of both recent and distant history show just how difficult his task would be.
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