Some pres­i­dents will never be pop­u­lar

Win­ners of the elec­toral col­lege who lose the pop­u­lar vote have al­ways strug­gled to gain ap­proval, writes his­to­rian Michael Kazin

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @mkazin

Pres­i­dent Trump seems to live atop his own petard. Ev­ery time it seems like he should have an ad­van­tage, he squan­ders it by tor­pe­do­ing a leg­isla­tive pack­age, fir­ing a gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial, mak­ing ab­surd ut­ter­ances to for­eign lead­ers or rant­ing on Twit­ter, of­ten against the bet­ter judg­ment of many who work for him. No won­der that, since In­au­gu­ra­tion Day, his ap­proval rat­ing has never risen higher than the 46 per­cent of the vote he won in Novem­ber; a Wash­ing­ton Post-ABC News poll out last week­end showed it at 36 per­cent.

But these un­forced er­rors don’t quite ex­plain his in­abil­ity to take ad­van­tage of a boost in eco­nomic con­fi­dence or to ex­pand, even slightly, the pas­sion­ate base that car­ried him to vic­tory. The prob­lem lies with that very vic­tory — the one that won him not only the pres­i­dency but also 3 mil­lion fewer votes than Hil­lary Clin­ton. The legacy of such deficits sug­gests there’s lit­tle he can do to gain the trust of the ma­jor­ity. Amer­i­can his­tory is clear: Pres­i­dents who’ve lost the pop­u­lar vote don’t win pop­u­lar sup­port.

The four pre­vi­ous pres­i­dents who fin­ished sec­ond in votes cast all strug­gled to con­vince Amer­i­cans that they were do­ing a good job. Each bat­tled the per­cep­tion that his vic­tory was un­demo­cratic and il­le­git­i­mate; each soon lost the con­fi­dence of his own par­ti­sans in Congress and led an ad­min­is­tra­tion that his­to­ri­ans re­gard as a fail­ure. Each faced an up­hill strug­gle to keep his base happy and mo­bi­lized while also reach­ing out to the ma­jor­ity, which pre­ferred poli­cies his vot­ers de­tested. Most, like Trump, did not even try to square that cir­cle.

Only Ge­orge W. Bush seemed to es­cape this fate, for a time. But his tem­po­rary suc­cess had more to do with the ac­claim he re­ceived af­ter the at­tacks of 9/11 than any­thing else he ac­com­plished in of­fice. And this cri­sis-in­duced hon­ey­moon didn’t last: Dur­ing most of his sec­ond term, Bush’s rat­ing stalled far be­low the 48 per­cent of the vote he had won in 2000, when half a mil­lion more Amer­i­cans pre­ferred Al Gore.

The three other pres­i­dents who lost the pop­u­lar vote all lived and gov­erned in the 19th cen­tury. None man­aged to over­come his ini­tial po­lit­i­cal deficit or to en­act any of the ma­jor poli­cies he de­sired. In the 1824 elec­tion, John Quincy Adams drew just 31 per­cent of the pop­u­lar vote. The con­di­tions of that con­test have never been re­peated: Adams was one of four can­di­dates, all of whom nom­i­nally be­longed to the same party, the Demo­cratic-Repub­li­cans. Be­cause no man won an elec­toralvote ma­jor­ity, the de­ci­sion fell to the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. Adams tri­umphed, largely be­cause he agreed to ap­point Henry Clay, one of his erst­while ri­vals, as sec­re­tary of state. An­drew Jack­son, whose pop­u­lar-vote count had eas­ily topped that of Adams, screamed that his ri­vals had made a “cor­rupt bar­gain”; if ci­ti­zens ac­cepted it, he charged, “they may bid farewell to their free­dom.”

Old Hick­ory need not have wor­ried. Adams was a bril­liant man but a clumsy politi­cian. He urged Congress to en­act an am­bi­tious pro­gram of pub­lic works and to es­tab­lish a na­tional university. But Adams sab­o­taged his own cause by declar­ing, in his first an­nual mes­sage no less, that if vot­ers did not like such ex­pen­sive mea­sures, law­mak­ers should not be “palsied by the will of our con­stituents.” It was an oddly cav­a­lier way to talk about what Amer­i­can vot­ers wanted. Af­ter all, how coura­geous was it to turn away from their de­sires when you’d never re­flected them in the first place?

Politi­cians who be­lieved that Jack­son had been cheated out of the pres­i­dency took full ad­van­tage of this un­in­ten­tional gift. They or­ga­nized a for­mi­da­ble coali­tion to op­pose Adams at ev­ery turn, touch­ing a deep pop­u­lar re­serve of re­sent­ment against the pres­i­dent. In 1828, Jack­son took the pres­i­dency, car­ry­ing nearly ev­ery state out­side the in­cum­bent’s home re­gion of New Eng­land.

Half a cen­tury later, Pres­i­dent Ruther­ford B. Hayes, the Repub­li­can nom­i­nee, proved un­able to ban­ish the specter of his own highly con­tro­ver­sial tri­umph. In 1876, his op­po­nent, Demo­crat Sa­muel Tilden, won a clear ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­lar vote. But the re­sult turned on dis­puted bal­lots from three South­ern states where Repub­li­cans had clearly com­mit­ted fraud yet where white Democrats had also vi­o­lently in­tim­i­dated many African Amer­i­cans, keep­ing them from vot­ing. A di­vided Congress threw the power to de­cide a win­ner to a spe­cial com­mis­sion, which nar­rowly sided with Hayes.

Un­happy Democrats branded the new pres­i­dent “His Fraud­u­lency” and vowed to re­sist his agenda in Congress. Hayes ac­tu­ally helped the op­po­si­tion party by re­mov­ing fed­eral troops from most of the South, where they had at least tried to stop racial ter­ror­ism by for­mer Con­fed­er­ates, nearly all of whom were Democrats. Nei­ther was the pres­i­dent a friend to wageearn­ers, many of whom were suf­fer­ing amid a long de­pres­sion. In the sum­mer of 1877, Hayes dis­patched sol­diers to break a na­tional rail­road strike, which mor­phed into ri­ots in sev­eral big cities. A year later, the Democrats cap­tured the Se­nate and main­tained con­trol of the House; Hayes’s only power was the veto, which he used on 13 oc­ca­sions. In 1880, Repub­li­can op­er­a­tives were re­lieved when the un­pop­u­lar pres­i­dent hon­ored his ear­lier pledge not to run for re­elec­tion. Hayes must have known he stood no chance.

GOP pols were sorry a dozen years later when Pres­i­dent Ben­jamin Har­ri­son de­clined to do the same. In 1888, Har­ri­son had de­feated the in­cum­bent, Demo­crat Grover Cleve­land, by win­ning ev­ery big in­dus­trial state in the North­east and the Mid­west. But his share of the pop­u­lar vote, at just un­der 48 per­cent, lagged be­hind Cleve­land’s. And, like Adams, Har­ri­son lacked the abil­ity to ap­peal to vot­ers who had not warmed to him be­fore. In fact, Har­ri­son was such a stiff, pompous fel­low that even of­fi­cials of his own party dubbed him a “re­frig­er­a­tor” and a “hu­man ice­berg.” Although Repub­li­cans en­joyed a ma­jor­ity in Congress through­out his term, they failed to en­act the only bills Har­ri­son re­ally cared about: to give fed­eral aid to pub­lic schools and to pro­tect black vot­ers in the South. In 1892, the Democrats nom­i­nated Cleve­land again. This time, he thumped Har­ri­son in both the pop­u­lar and elec­toral votes, and his party seized back con­trol on Capi­tol Hill.

Trump is the very op­po­site of a “hu­man ice­berg,” but he shows a sim­i­lar re­luc­tance to al­ter his style of po­lit­i­cal per­sua­sion. When the pres­i­dent lies that mil­lions of votes were cast il­le­gally for Clin­ton in 2016, he be­trays an inse­cu­rity that stems from his per­son­al­ity and from know­ing that most Amer­i­cans wanted some­one else to run the coun­try. If Trump had be­gun his ad­min­is­tra­tion by reach­ing out to Democrats on a plan to re­build the na­tion’s in­fra­struc­ture, he may have had a chance to con­fuse, if not di­vide, the op­po­si­tion. In­stead, he de­cided to wage a re­lent­less bat­tle against the fed­eral bu­reau­cracy and the news me­dia — which comes off as de­fen­sive in­stead of con­fi­dent. Any chance Trump has to gain ma­jor­ity sup­port and get re­elected prob­a­bly de­pends on changing his be­hav­ior. That is a dif­fi­cult task for any politi­cian, much less an in­ex­pe­ri­enced one in his 70s. The knowl­edge that mil­lions of Amer­i­cans con­sider his 2016 vic­tory un­demo­cratic and il­le­git­i­mate could ren­der it im­pos­si­ble. Michael Kazin’s lat­est book is “War Against War: The Amer­i­can Fight for Peace, 1914-1918.” He teaches his­tory at Ge­orge­town University and is the edi­tor of Dis­sent mag­a­zine.

MARKUS SCHREIBER/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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