Election 2012

When presidents can, cannot decide who succeeds

When presidents can, cannot decide who succeeds
Former President Bill Clinton watches from backstage as President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

If President Barack Obama is inaugurated Jan. 20, he will owe a debt of gratitude to a previous resident of his home William J. Clinton.

The two-term president not only gave a ringing endorsement to Obama at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., he is also campaigning in battleground states for the incumbent — freeing him to campaign in other states.

W. Mitt Romney has no comparable surrogate or advocate.

In fact, Romney has distanced himself from the last GOP president George W. Bush in a way reminiscent of how Clinton was treated by his intended successor and vice-president Albert A. Gore Jr.

Dynastic succession is a tricky game in a democratic republic. Despite our protestations to the contrary, Americans are quite comfortable with familial succession. There have been two father-son presidents: John Adams and John Q. Adams, and George H. W. Bush and his son W.; one grandfather-grandson: William H. Harrison and Benjamin Harrison; one set of cousins: Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, whose brothers Robert F. and Edward M., both came close to winning the Democratic nomination within 17 years of J.F.K.’s murder in 1963.

For that matter, a member of Clinton’s own household, Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton, took her losing fight for the Democratic nomination against Obama all the way to the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

In the Age of the Antonines, Roman emperors put aside familial succession in favor of designating the best man to succeed them in their own lifetime. This model of meritorious succession from A.D. 96 to 192, not only provided the empire with its golden age, but when Marcus Aurelius named his own son Commodus, it marked the beginning of the empire’s decline.

In America, by tradition and then constitutional amendment after F.D.R. broke tradition, the president is limited to two terms. Unable to succeed themselves, eight of the 11 two-term presidents have been followed by their own party’s nominee.

Of the eight winners, only two served two terms themselves: James Madison following Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe following Madison, a 24-year streak broken by Q. Adams.

In a bizarre twist of events, William H. Taft was groomed and blessed by his predecessor, only to have that same man, Theodore Roosevelt, run against him in 1912, splitting the Republican vote and handing the election to T. Woodrow Wilson.

The three, who did not, were all in the post-World War II-era: Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon, Clinton and Gore, and W. Bush and John S. McCain III.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower was spurned by Richard M. Nixon, his then-vice president, when Ike offered to campaign for Nixon in his 1960 run for the White House against John F. Kennedy. Nixon, like Albert A. Gore Jr, in 2000 and John S. McCain III in 2008, lost, preferring to win or lose as their own man without the support of the two-term president they would have succeeded.

In each of the three cases, the losing candidate rejected help from the outgoing president.

What is strange about Clinton’s role in the 2012 election is that he anointed Obama as his heir after Obama was already president. While he supported Obama in 2008, Obama very much won without his help. Now, Obama needs his help, so in this way, Clinton can redeem himself this year for the 2000 election, when Gore preferred to lose than ask for his help.

Clinton’s support of Obama also sets up a neat synthesis, if Obama is re-elected. In 2016, the conditions would be perfect for his wife Hillary to run again for the White House and win. There is precedent. Six secretaries of state have gone on to become president, and this first husband-wife president set will be the combination of designated and familial succession.

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