The first primaries are nine months away, but experts seem to agree on the likelihood of a presidential rematch in 2024. The possibility arises from Donald Trump’s campaign mastery of the intricacies of the Republican primaries, and from Joe Biden’s reading of the uncertain situation. Reservations among the public mostly concern age. Biden would be 82 years old upon taking office, 86 upon leaving; Trump, 78 and 82.
A more interesting question has to do with the kind of a campaign Biden might wage. Another way of thinking about the 2024 election is to think back to 1940, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt flouted tradition, not by running at an advanced age – he was only 58 – but by seeking an unprecedented third term in office. George Washington himself had served only two.
You remember the broad outlines of the story. As the Great Depression deepened in 1932, FDR defeated Herbert Hoover in a landslide, winning forty-two of forty-eight states, capturing the Electoral College 462-59. After a certain amount of experimentation, his New Deal program took shape, and the midterm elections ratified the president’s leadership.
The Democrats margin in the Senate increased to 69 seats from 59; control of the House also expanded. It was only the second time in history that a sitting majority had increased its control of both houses of Congress in mid-term elections. In 1936, an indignant Hoover sought a re-match, but the GOP nominated Kansas Gov. Alf Landon instead. Roosevelt won by a greater margin than before.
His second term was much less successful. Frustrated by the Supreme Court’s rejection of his National Recovery Administration, Roosevelt proposed to enlarge it, by imposition of mandatory retirement at seventy, and the addition of six new seats. (The Constitution does not specify a number; nine has been the custom since 1869.) Opponents accused him of seeking dictatorial power, and compared him to Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini.
Even his own vice president, John Nance Garner, disavowed the proposal, which was scuttled in the Senate. A nervous Federal Reserve Board prematurely tightened monetary policy, causing an unnecessary recession. In the 1938 mid-term elections, Roosevelt campaigned against some fellow-Democrats, many of whom were re-elected. It was the low point of his presidential career.
As 1940 approached, Roosevelt left people wondering whether he might seek re-election. Reporters peppered him with questions. When a New York Times reporter pressed the matter, the ordinarily genial FDR instructed him to “put on a dunce cap and go stand in the corner,” Privately, Roosevelt vacillated.
In September 1939, Germany and Russia attacked Poland, and World War II began. Isolationist sentiment increased in the United States. In February 1940, a New York Times story headlined, “Roosevelt Enigma Overshadows All Else.”
(A blow-by blow account of that campaign can found in 1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler – the Election amid the Storm (Yale, 2013), by Susan Dunn, of Williams College. It is as absorbing a tale of events taking place on one shore during that fateful year as is Transatlantic, a dramatization of the refugee-rescue adventures, in Marseilles, of Varian Fry and Albert Hirschman, currently airing on Netflix.)
Roosevelt had probably decided to run for a third term as early as October 1939, when an investment banker friend brought him a letter from Albert Einstein (which had been drafted by Leo Szilard), advising that the Nazis had begun work on an atomic bomb. But it wasn’t until the Republican nominating convention in Philadelphia, in June 1940, that Roosevelt made his intentions known, by means of a wisecrack, according to Robert Dallek, author of Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life (Viking, 2017).
Front-runners for the GOP nominations were two staunch isolationists from the Senate, Robert Taft, of Ohio, and Arthur Vandenberg, of Michigan. They were challenged by Thomas Dewey, a 38-year-old crime-fighting District Attorney for New York City. Off-stage right lurked aviator-hero Charles Lindbergh, a plausible third-party candidate openly friendly to Germany. In the circumstances, a dark horse received the Republican nomination, the convention stampeded by organized chants from the gallery, “We want Willkie! We want Willkie!”
Wendell Willkie was corporate lawyer from Indiana, who had spent his career on Wall Street representing resenting southern utilities opposed to Roosevelt’s Tennessee Valley Authority, which was building government dams to electrify the American South. A handsome, affable man, a long-time Democrat, he had joined the Republican Party only the year before. He was no stranger to Roosevelt, having met with the president publicly in 1934, to argue against commissioning the TVA.
Descending to meet a press pool in his Hyde Park, N.Y. mansion, Roosevelt apologized for the delay. Someone had turned off the power to the elevator, he explained. “I hope it is not a connotation of what happened in Philadelphia last night.” The reporters all laughed, Dallek writes, understanding at once the president’s implication, that “he viewed a Willkie administration as all too likely to shut down government programs.”
Roosevelt conducted his five-month campaign mainly though proxies. The result in November was another landslide, this time not as great as before: 449-82 in the Electoral College. The popular vote margin was comfortable, but c0nsiderably narrower than before, 27.2 million against 22.3 million. The nation was polarized then, by the prospect of America’s possible entry into a second European war. It is worth a look at the map; independents had carried the day.
So what’s the resemblance to the election of 2024? Willkie seemed a plausible candidate to the GOP in 1940 because he possessed an unshakeable base: “the grass roots of thousands of country clubs,” cracked Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the president’s distant cousin. He could channel the well of pent-up Republican anger, with which he had little to do. And though he clearly supported an American role in the war in Europe, he could be influenced by the isolationist wing of the party. And as a supporter of most of the New Deal, he could attract independent Democrats looking for a change.
Granted, Biden is no FDR. And Willkie was no Trump. Indeed, in the spring following the election, he went to work for Roosevelt, buttressing British resolve as the president’s Lend-Lease champion in London. Above all, the Twenties of twenty-first century are not the Forties of the twentieth century, although the stakes in America’s foreign relations may be similarly high. Everything is slightly out-of-register. The Supreme Court is back in the news, but for different reasons. The war is in Ukraine, not Poland and France. A recession, if there is to be one, hasn’t happened yet.
The underlying similarity, however, is plain. In a re-match, the choice would be between a sitting president who American voters know well, and a former president who they know even better. For all the undoubted polarization that exists in America today, independent voters in fifty states will decide the outcome of next year’s election.