March 18, 2020


The coronavirus pandemic gives President Donald Trump an opportunity to prove or disprove his competence. It could be his "Jimmy Carter Moment," when the president proved incapable of rescuing U.S. hostages in Iran, or an "LBJ Moment," when Lyndon Johnson proved incapable of getting U.S. troops out of Vietnam.

Or, conversely, it could be a "Cuban Missile Crisis Moment" when John Kennedy barely averted nuclear annihilation. Or a "Berlin Wall Moment," when Ronald Reagan began to bring it down. Both presidents measured up to the moment.

Americans are forgiving of personal presidential foibles like infidelity and "bimbo eruptions" (Clinton), narcissism and chronic Tweeting (Trump), womanizing (Kennedy) and even, to some extent, neurotic and paranoid behavior, including pathological lying (Nixon). But they are NOT forgiving of presidential incompetence.

Everybody knows the U.S. economy is going to take a huge hit, with the stock market sinking and unemployment exploding. Interim benefits will add $2 trillion to the national debt. Family wealth will implode, at least temporarily. Now looks like a good time to buy stocks.

But most people can agree it's not Trump's fault. Most blame it on China and others blame it on Italy. If, however, the COVID-19 death toll is still on an upward trajectory in June, then IT WILL BE the president's fault and Joe Biden will defeat him.

One certainty throughout U.S. history is that competent presidents get re-elected to a second term, while bunglers don't. Think Carter (1980), Herbert Hoover (1932), Benjamin Harrison (1892) and Martin Van Buren (1840), all of whom had the economy tank under their watch. It wasn't their policy that caused the dislocation, but they didn't FIX IT expeditiously, were held accountable, and lost. Add George H.W. Bush to that list: He won the Gulf War in 1990-91, getting Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait but not Baghdad, and then a tepid 1992 economy and Anita Hill sank him against Clinton. The current situation is analogous to Carter's in that the crisis emerged in the fourth year of the first term, making it paramount in voters' minds.

Like Trump, there have been past polarizing one-term presidents, most of which just retired, like Pierce (1856), Buchanan (1860), Hayes (1880) and Cleveland (1896). Some had pre-election problems that were incurable, like John Adams (1800) J.Q. Adams (1828) and Hayes. Trump has exacerbated his polarity, but he is still re-electable if he measures up quickly.

1992: Bush (R) never inspired confidence in his competence. He beat Michael Dukakis (D) 48,881,011-41,828,130, or 53.4 percent in 1988, but then a lackluster presidency shriveled that to 39,102,282 in 1992, a drop of 9,778,729, a fifth of his 1988 vote, to 37.4 percent. The combined Clinton-Perot vote was 64,629,666, or 22,748,655 more than Dukakis's. Turnout was up nearly 13 million over 1988. A clear rejection.

1980: Carter (D) ran as and governed as an outsider. He beat Ford (R) 40,830,763-39,147,793, with 50.1 percent in 1976. He had little institutional support and even less room for error. Inflation, gasoline lines, the Panama Canal giveaway and the yearlong Iranian hostage captivity inspired no confidence in his competence. Reagan (R) beat him 43,901,812-35,483,820, or 41.1 percent, with 5,719,722 for John Anderson (Ind.). Carter's vote dropped 5,346,943 and the anti- and non-Carter vote climbed by 10,473,741. Another clear rejection.

1932: Cyclical economic swings - prosperity to recession/depression and back - were the pre-1929 Depression norm. Much like the 2006-08 bursting of the over-valued real estate bubble, stocks in the 1920s were over-valued and under-capitalized. Herbert Hoover (R) beat Al Smith (D), the Catholic governor of New York, 21,411,911-15,000,185, getting 444 electoral votes and 58.2 percent in 1928. But economic wisdom back then dictated that government cut spending, debt and taxes in a downturn, which put money in the pockets of the well-to-do, but gave nothing to the out-of-work. As consumer spending evaporated, more businesses collapsed, and foreclosures wrecked the farm economy. Now Keynesian economics rule: Pile on more debt, spend more, "prime-the-pump," get more money into circulation. Hoover's bad judgment cannot be blamed on ignorance. Pump-priming wasn't invented until the 1930s. Franklin D. Roosevelt (D) trounced Hoover 22,825,016-15,758,397 in 1932, with FDR getting 7,824,831 more votes than Smith. Hoover had 3 years to build a recovery, but his tight-money policy only made it worse. Another clear rejection.

1892: Grover Cleveland (D) won 4,874,621-4,484,936 in 1884, actually won again 5,534,488-5,443,892 over Benjamin Harrison (R) in 1888 (but lost the electoral vote 233-168), increasing his prior vote. And, running as a conservative, then came back in 1892 by blasting the Republicans and Harrison as profligate spenders. Democrats won the 1890 congressional elections big, and Cleveland trounced the colorless Harrison 5,551,883-5,179,244. Harrison's vote was down by 300,000 and Cleveland's up by 100,000. But then the "Panic of 1893" hit, markets and farm prices collapsed, strikes (like Pullman) proliferated. But Cleveland stubbornly maintained a tight-money policy and used federal troops as strikebreakers. By 1896 Cleveland was so reviled that the Democrats rejected his "Gold Standard" and embraced silver bimetallism by nominating populist William Jennings Bryan. William McKinley (R) beat him 7,108,480-6,511,495 in a record turnout to date, getting one million more votes than Cleveland - and McKinley two million more than Harrison. This was a realigning election, with Republicans now the party of Big Business (banks and railroads), the East and small towns, and Democrats the party of the South, agrarian farmers and miners and immigrant workers.

1860: Founded in 1856, Republicans were the LIBERAL party - anti-slavery, pro-expansion, and for free land and internal improvements. Abolitionists were a small part of their base, mostly in New York and New England. The1850s Democratic presidents, Franklin Pierce (1852-56) and James Buchanan (1856-60) were mediocrities known as "doughfaces" - Northern men with Southern (pro-slavery) sympathies. Their job was to maintain the status quo and allow no new "free" states, as that would dilute the South's 22 U.S. Senate bloc. By 1860 that was impossible. John Fremont ran against Buchanan in 1856, losing 1,836,072-1,342,345, with a Whig getting 873,053 votes. The combined anti-Pierce, anti-doughface Democrat vote was 54.6 percent. Antebellum America was over, as was Buchanan who retired. 1860 was all about sectionalism and factionalism. Abraham Lincoln's (R) stated objective was to NOT expand slavery, NOT abolish it where it existed. Two Democrats ran: Northerner Stephen Douglas and Southerner John Breckinridge, plus old Whig John Bell. The vote was 1,865,908 (39.8 percent) for Lincoln, upping Fremont's vote by over 500,000, and 1,380,202-848,019-590,901 for the rest. The Douglas/Breckinridge vote was 47.6, or 2.2 million, 400,000 more than Buchanan's. Had the South gone for Douglas, the Illinois senator would have won. And since Douglas died in 1861, his vice-president, Herschel Johnson of Georgia, would have taken over. Such is fate.

1824 and 1836: Battle of New Orleans hero Andrew Jackson beat Secretary of Sate John Quincy Adams 151,271-113,122 and 99-84 in electoral votes in 1824, but did not get an electoral majority as two other candidates, Henry Clay and William Crawford got 78 votes. The decision went to the U.S. House, where Clay was speaker. Clay backed Adams, who was chosen. This enraged Jackson and his supporters, who were deemed "ruffians" by effete Easterners (former Federalists). Adams then picked Clay as his secretary of state, sealing what Jackson called a "corrupt bargain." Adams was DOA in 1828, losing to Jackson 642,553-500,987. Turnout exploded from 365,833 to 1,128,018, a threefold increase, with the Jackson vote up by nearly 500,000. Jackson was from The West (Tennessee), which now dominated the new Democratic Party, with the Whigs confined to The East.

Jackson invented tight-money, paying off the national debt and vetoing funds for road construction and for creating a national bank. He was a pro-slavery/state's rights/ Manifest Destiny Democrat, had no compunction about seizing Indian land or annexing Texas, but would not let South Carolina "nullify" federal laws. His second vice-president was Martin Van Buren, New York's governor, elected in 1832 and heir apparent for 1836. He beat Indian-fighting general William Henry Harrison (Whig) 764,716-550,816, but the Panic of 1837 soon occurred, made worse by no federal bank to make loans and provide liquidity. He was soon "Martin Van Ruin," a victim of Jackson's tightfistedness. In 1840, with a turnout spike from 1,503,534 to 2,411,808 - almost 900,000 - Harrison came back to beat Van Buren 1,275,390-1,128,854.

1912: William Howard Taft (R) was the only one-term president to lose because of a party ideological split. He won 7,662,258-6,406,801 over Bryan in 1908, succeeding Teddy Roosevelt (R). But Taft governed as a stand-pat conservative, not promulgating his predecessor's policies of trust-busting, workers' rights and product safety. Roosevelt ran as a Progressive in 1912, got 4,119,207 votes to Taft's 3,486,333, thereby electing liberal Woodrow Wilson (D), with 6,293,152, or 41.8 percent. The combined Roosevelt-Taft vote was 50.6 percent, but the combined liberal/progressive vote, adding 900,369 for the Socialist, was 75.2 percent. Republicans were deemed dead. But they rebounded in 1916, losing to Wilson by only 9,126,300-8,546,789. Wilson won only because he "kept us out of war" before Nov. 2016.

Trump faces a similar situation. He must keep Americans out of a medical catastrophe before June 2020. He cannot allow tens of thousands of people to be hospitalized in tents and America's way of life as we now know it to grind to a halt, along with trillions of dollars in vanished wealth. Trump lost against Clinton in the popular vote 65,853,514-62,984,828 in 2016, winning narrowly in Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa. He has no margin for error in 2020. He stands on the precipice of being the next Donald Hoover Van Ruin.