'If You Give Me a Week, I Might Think of One'

AP

Reading Peter Beinart’s new story on Hillary Clinton’s strong roster of surrogates, I was struck by this line: “As the campaign goes on, she’ll likely use her husband and Barack Obama.”

I realized that I’d never in my life seen a sitting president act as a powerful surrogate for a presidential candidate in his own party. By 2008, President George W. Bush was politically toxic, so he wouldn’t have done much good for Senator John McCain—and besides, he was trying to grapple with an economy collapsing around him. In 2000, Vice President Al Gore made the decision (oft-second guessed now) to distance himself from Bill Clinton, wagering that Clinton’s whiff of scandal would hurt him more than the support he might gain. I was alive for the 1988 election, but at the time I was more fixated on, say, pureed foods and stuffed animals than politics.

As a result, it seems hard for me to imagine just how a president’s stumping might work. What kind of events might he take part in? Would he feel compelled to restrain attacks on the opposing party, lest he sully the office of the presidency? Would there be accusations of misusing office, or the vast public funds required for the president to travel with his entourage?

In fact, a case in which a president could campaign for his successor is extremely rare. There haven’t been that many two-term presidents over the last century, and they have tended to be so unpopular as to not be much use. What makes Obama unusual is that his popularity is relatively high, and on the rise.

The 1988 election was one such case. President Ronald Reagan did campaign for Vice President George W. Bush, vouching for him with key groups. But it was a complicated relationship: Bush was eager to show that he could get out from under Reagan’s wing and prove he was not a wimp. Reagan was somewhat tarnished by the Iran-Contra scandal, and the Gipper was already aged and likely suffering from symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Meanwhile, Reagan—like Obama with his former secretary of state this year—waited until well into the spring to formally endorse his former VP, rather than meddle in the GOP primary.

There are only three other examples of retiring presidents who could campaign on behalf of their parties’ nominees since World War II. Two of those were, like Bush, deeply unpopular. In 1968, Democrat Lyndon Johnson had been forced out of seeking his own party’s renomination because of his low approval ratings. And of course, the 1968 Democratic nominating contest was a disaster all around, from Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination to the circus-like convention in Chicago. In 1952, outgoing President Harry Truman also had little standing in the country. He had, of course, barely beaten Thomas Dewey four years previously, and as Jonathan Cohn pointed out on Twitter, Truman’s low standing was a millstone for Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson:

The American Presidency Project

Stevenson lost to Dwight Eisenhower. But four years later, Ike wasn’t much help to his party’s hopeful, Vice President Richard Nixon. During an August 1960 press conference, Eisenhower delivered one of the coldest lines in surrogacy history. The two men had famously never gotten along well, and Eisenhower nearly dropped Nixon after revelations of financial irregularities in 1952. Reporters tried to suss out the state of the relationship.

“Mr. President, will you tell us some of the big decisions that Mr. Nixon has participated in since you have been in the White House and he, as vice president, has been helping you?” asked Sarah McClendon of the El Paso Times.

“Well, Mrs. McClendon, no one participates in the decisions,” Eisenhower replied. “Now let’s see, we just—I don’t see why people can’t understand this: no one can make a decision except me if it is in the national executive area. I have all sorts of advisers, and one of the principal ones is Mr. Nixon.”

The president seemed to be distancing himself from his vice president. A few minutes later, Time’s Charles Mohr returned to that point. Eisenhower sought to clarify that he was simply asserting that the buck stopped with him.

“We understand that the power of decision is entirely yours, Mr. President,” Mohr said. “I just wondered if you could give us an example of a major idea of his that you had adopted in that role, as the decider and final—”

“If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don’t remember,” a chuckling Eisenhower said, and that was the end of the press conference.

Needless to say, John F. Kennedy’s campaign gleefully made the moment into an attack ad. In November, Kennedy beat Nixon in a squeaker.

But I still hadn’t gotten a good answer to what it looks like for a president to campaign. Enter Elizabeth Drew, the great political journalist who was The Atlantic’s Washington correspondent from 1967 to 1973:

So there you have it: quite a bit rarer, but not all that different.