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    Biden, Trump glided to 2024 nominations. Here’s why they can thank LBJ


    WASHINGTON — Some voters probably still hope Joe Biden or Donald Trump – or both – will do what Lyndon Baines Johnson did nearly 56 years ago: Pull out of the presidential race under public pressure.

    After all, Biden has heard widespread concerns about his age, and Trump faces four separate criminal trials. The dynamics have led political observers on both sides of the aisle to ask: Should Trump and Biden step aside, or be pushed away?

    It almost surely won’t happen, barring death or a medical emergency. And it was never going to happen, thanks in large part to political changes that followed Johnson’s surprise decision to retire.

    In the decades to come, LBJ’s stunning announcement on March 31, 1968 led to full-time reliance on primaries and caucuses to pick presidential nominees, a system that tends to benefit incumbent presidents and well-heeled candidates. That includes Biden and Trump this time around.

    The political parties “established new rules that basically created the primary-and-caucus system,” said presidential historian Joshua Zeitz.

    Thanks to the ghost of LBJ, it’s essentially too late for Biden or Trump to pull out of the race for the White House, after the current and former presidents locked down the Democratic and Republican nominations Tuesday. And it was never really in the cards because of the ways in which political parties responded to the tumultuous 1968 election.

    ‘Accordingly, I shall not seek …’

    Johnson became president upon the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and won a landslide election of his own in 1964. But he fell into political peril in early 1968.

    Rising opposition to the Vietnam War undercut Johnson, who faced two-prominent anti-war challengers for the Democratic nomination, Sens. Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy, younger brother of the slain president.  Both won the support of cadres of young people opposed to the war.

    On the Sunday night of March 31, 1968, Johnson delivered a prime-time address to announce a bombing pause and urge the North Vietnamese to negotiate.

    He tacked on a surprise ending.

    After saying “I should not permit the presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year,” Johnson added that “I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes.”

    “Accordingly,” he said, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”

    Short-term: A nominee who entered no primaries

    In the months after Johnson withdrew from the 1968 election, Kennedy was killed, McCarthy’s popularity faded, and the Democrats wound up nominating Vice President Hubert Humphrey – a late entrant who did not compete in a single primary.

    Back then, Zeitz explained, only 15 states used primaries to choose convention delegates. This was back in the day when party power brokers, including Johnson, still a had significant say in picking presidential nominees.

    “Humphrey did not run in a single primary,” said Zeitz, author of “Building The Great Society: Inside Lyndon Johnson’s White House.” “And there he was, anointed at the convention.”

    It all changed after Humphrey lost the 1968 general election to Republican Richard Nixon, a complicated three-candidate race that included states-rights segregationist George Wallace.

    All primaries (and caucuses), all the time

    Democrats, and eventually Republicans, responded to the chaos of 1968 by changing the nomination process, building it on meaningful primaries and caucuses and, in theory, giving voters the power to pick nominees.

    Longshot candidates like George McGovern (in 1972), Jimmy Carter (in 1976), and Barack Obama (in 2008) used primaries to overtake favored opponents. They built momentum on the state level instead of among prominent party brokers, and Carter and Obama went all the way to the White House.

    On the Republican side, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan used the primary system in 1976 to mount a serious challenge to incumbent President Gerald Ford. Reagan won the White House in 1980.

    A political upstart like Trump would have had little chance to win in 2016 under the pre-LBJ nomination system. But his wins in primaries enabled him to seize control of the party that he still has a firm grip on, despite a raft of investigations and civil judgements of more than a half-a-billion dollars.

    Time and money

    Over the decades, primaries have tended to benefit incumbents – and some wealthy challengers – because of two essential elements: Time and money.

    Seeking to leverage their influence, states have held delegate selection contests earlier and earlier in an ever-lengthening election season. The earlier an election starts, the less time little-known challengers have to build support and raise money.

    While some upstart candidates are able to notch victories in a longer election cycle, it makes for a major hurdle for lesser-known candidates.

    “It’s much more expensive to wage a fight for the presidency,” said presidential historian Mark K. Updegrove, president and CEO of the LBJ Foundation in Austin.

    Lyndon Johnson pulled out of the 1968 presidential race on March 31. By that time these days, nominations are pretty much locked up, as happened for Biden and Trump this year.

    LBJ’s other reasons for dropping out still matter today

    Updegrove, author of “Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency,” noted that Johnson withdrew in 1968 for other reasons that echo today.

    A workaholic and a heart attack survivor, Johnson worried about his health and whether he would survive another term in the presidential cauldron. He in fact died in early 1973.

    Johnson, Updegrove said, also wondered about whether his re-election might “further divide the country, an already polarized country.”

    Over the past few years, some Democrats have whispered the hope that Biden would pull an LBJ over concerns about his age and health.

    Poll after poll has shown that voters are worried about Biden’s age as he seeks another four years in office, though the president has not been formally diagnosed with serious health challenges.

    In the end, given Biden’s post-LBJ advantages of incumbency, no major Democrat has been able to pull enough support from the president. U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips took the plunge, though he got nowhere.

    Donald Trump has racked up delegates

    Trump, meanwhile, began his official campaign in late 2022, running as a quasi-incumbent and sucking up money and attention. That made it hard for prominent challengers like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to break through.

    After Trump rolled to the nomination, some Republicans wondered if the former president could be dropped from the ticket if he’s convicted in one of the four trials pending against him.

    Not likely.

    Trump already has the delegates he needs to be nominated, the fruits of the post-LBJ primary system. In another era, the national Republican Party could have exerted more control as the former president faces four sets of indictments, a sweeping defamation trial over a sexual assault allegation and a loan fraud trial.

    However, the Republican National Committee has thrown major support behind the former president. After Donald Trump endorsed Lara Trump, his daughter-in-law, as co-chair of the RNC, she vowed that “Every single penny will go to the number one and the only job of the RNC:” Reelecting the former president.

    ‘The system has changed so much’

    In his time, what Lyndon Baines Johnson did in 1968 wasn’t that unusual.

    During the 20th Century, four U.S. presidents took office upon the deaths of predecessors: Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson.

    As Updegrove pointed out, all four then won elections on their own – and all four bowed out of the next election.

    The long-term fallout from Johnson’s decision probably means he will be the last president to retire before even reaching the Constitution’s term limit for commanders in chief.



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