The 2016 presidential election has been called “The Worst Choices Ever.” Is it really?
I looked back for two or more major candidates who may have been thought of as undesirable at the time of the election. Hindsight must be eliminated as much as possible. Certainly Richard Nixon looks like a poor choice in 1972 but when the election took place, he was relatively popular and defeated Edmund Muskie in a landslide. Watergate broke later.
James Buchanan vs. John Fremont vs. Millard Fillmore in 1856 today looks like a nightmare on paper. Buchanan won and is thought to be one of the worst presidents for essentially ignoring the growing problem of slavery and succession that resulted in the Civil War. Fremont while previously serving in the west was convicted of mutiny, disobeying a superior and misconduct. Fillmore became the 13th president when Zachary Taylor died in office. He was the last candidate of the dying Whig party. However going into that election Fremont was seen as a fresh choice of the newly formed Republican Party, Fillmore had the experience of being president previously and Buchanan had served in both the House and the Senate, was Minister to Russia, an ambassador to the UK and was Secretary of State under President James Polk.
A nod to Wikipedia for providing a nice list:
So, is Clinton-Trump truly the worst choices ever?
1848: Zachary Taylor (Whig) vs. Lewis Cass (Democratic) vs. Martin Van Buren (Free Soil)
Zachary Taylor was a Mexican War hero who had little interest in politics. He was convinced by the Whig party to run despite not having any clear political views. Lewis Cass served in the war of 1812, was territorial governor of Michigan and was Andrew Jackson’s Secretary of War, involved in implementing Jackson’s Indian removal policies. Of course at the time, relocating natives from their lands was seen as a necessity. Martin Van Buren was trying to get back into the White House as an anti-slavery candidate after serving as the 8th president and was largely thought of as being a poor president. Taylor won and died a year and a half later.
1860: Stephen Douglas (Democrat) vs. Abraham Lincoln (Republican) vs. John Breckenridge (Southern Democrat) vs. John Bell (Constitutional Union)
With the nation in crisis over the rising abolitionist movement in the north and the south’s threats to succeed to protect their “peculiar institution” of slavery; these four were the nation’s choices. Douglass and Breckenridge were the best known. Douglass was a powerful Illinois Senator who was a strong proponent of “popular sovereignty” – the concept that allowed for new states’ residents to decide if they would allow slavery or not. Breckenridge was James Buchanan’s vice president. Bell was previously Speaker of the House from Tennessee and served as Secretary of War under William Henry Harrison. Lincoln was relatively unknown to the nation. He had served in Congress and was defeated in an attempt to become Senator from Illinois by Douglass. Democrat voters split their votes between Douglass and Breckenridge, Bell was a minor factor and Lincoln of course became president but failed to win 40% of the popular vote and none of the southern states. His election was the final straw for the south and South Carolina seceded soon after the election.
1876: Rutherford Hayes (Republican) vs. Samuel Tilden (Democrat)
Hayes was a Civil War veteran, Congressman and three term governor of Ohio. Tilden was governor of New York. While their qualifications were solid, clearly neither one was overwhelmingly popular with voters. Tilden won the popular vote but Hayes became president after a post-election mess that ended with a compromise- Hayes was given the presidency in exchange for an agreement to pull Northern troops out of the south, thus ending the Reconstruction period which ushered in Jim Crow laws.
1920: Warren Harding (Republican) vs. James Cox (Democrat)
With WWI in over and President Woodrow Wilson considering a third term, despite suffering a stroke and not being able to speak, workers striking in the cities, and the economy in recession, the nation was given these underwhelming choices. Harding and Cox were both newspaper publishers. They had similar political philosophies. They were both from Ohio. Harding was not his party’s obvious choice; he became the candidate after rumors of back-room deals at the Republican convention in Chicago. Cox was a three term governor in Ohio, he supported Wilson’s controversial League of Nations plan and chose the current Secretary of the Navy as running mate: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. After Harding was nominated, a New York newspaper called Harding a “week and mediocre” man who “never had an original idea.” Cox backed a law that prohibited teaching German in schools; he said that is was, “a distinct menace to Americanism, and part of a plot formed by the German government to make the school children loyal to it.” Harding became very popular and won one of the largest landslide victories ever. Cox’s media business continues today. Socialist Eugene Debs won 3% of the vote.
1976: Jimmy Carter (Democrat) vs. Gerald Ford (Republican)
Carter was a relatively unknown southern governor who owned a peanut farm. Ford had become president after Richard Nixon resigned following the Watergate scandal. Ford was a respectable congressman from Michigan and former House Minority Leader. He became vice president after Spiro Agnew resigned amid accusations of accepting bribes when he was Maryland governor and tax evasion. Ford became president when Nixon resigned and is generally given credit for his steady hand seeing the nation through the aftermath of Watergate. While Carter wasn’t all that inspiring to many, the nation was ready to wash its hands of Watergate and Carter won narrowly.
It is hard to look at the 2016 election to-be with the same eye as the ones above. Twenty years from now it will be clearer as most things are rather than reacting without contemplation and historical context. But looking at it as objectively as currently possible, it doesn’t look good. Trump bullied his way to the nomination by calling opponents names and feuding with the media. He made broad, shallow statements that appealed to conservatives who were frustrated by the lack of progress made by Republican majorities in Congress in opposing the agenda of Barack Obama. He has continued this pattern after winning the nomination with a seemingly rudderless and disorganized campaign thus far. It remains to be seen if he will find his way and make a race out of it. Hillary Clinton faced a tougher than thought challenge from Bernie Sanders but won the nomination as expected. She brings a long line scandals and alleged corruption along with her that dates back to her husband’s time in Arkansas as governor in the 80’s to as recently as having to answer questions about her conduct as Secretary of State under Obama. They both have record high unfavorable numbers among voters and yet seemingly one of them will become president. Looking back it appears that this is indeed the worst choices for president that American voters have ever had.