Stupid Question ™
July 10, 2003
By John Ruch
Q: Some say it’s wrong to criticize the president during wartime. So who ran against FDR and Lincoln, and did they hurt the war effort?
A: To be fair, such comments—insulting and ignorant though they may be—do not seem to be referring to presidential contenders. There’s certainly no serious suggestion that Bush should run unopposed next year. (Though the Bush White House certainly made hay out of Democratic candidate John Kerry’s recent “regime change” quip.)
War creates anxiety. Politically, anxiety can be masked by bashing critics. Or, it can be expressed—and usually is—by opposition-party gains and internal party disputes.
Such criticism and debate, even during the most nation-threatening conflicts, do not appear to have damaged anything not worth damaging, and in many cases was clearly necessary.
The Civil War is a strange case since the entire country opposed it—just from different perspectives. And the election of Lincoln was itself one of the war’s causes.
The opposition Democrats won many seats in the 1862 Congressional election, as the war faltered and outrage grew over Lincoln’s declaration of martial law and arbitrary arrests.
By the 1864 presidential election, Lincoln was facing dissent within his own party. And his Democratic challenger was George McClellan—a former Union general. But the Democrats were themselves so divided they came up with a paradoxical platform: they wanted peace, but also a preserved Union. As the war shifted in the Union’s favor, Lincoln was able to use this illogic against McClellan for the win.
In the 1940 election, both major parties were split internally over whether the US should enter World War II. Then came Pearl Harbor. By the 1944 presidential election, the mainstream no longer questioned our role in the war. Republican challenger Thomas Dewey had, like most of his GOP fellows, shifted from isolationist to interventionist.
Most of the Republican challenge to incumbent Franklin Roosevelt was domestic, but the war was still an issue. The Republican Congress launched an investigation of Pearl Harbor screw-ups just in time for the election.
Dewey didn’t campaign on it, but did assert that FDR had led us into war underprepared. The head of the Democratic National Committee said electing a Republican Congressional majority could threaten the war, and FDR continued to seek treason charges against anti-war activists, including congressmen.
The closest America came to suppressing opposition presidential candidates came from a war that didn’t happen. In 1798, a near-war with France was brewing as the conservative, monarchial President John Adams and his Federalist Party freaked out over the possibility of the French Revolution spreading globally.
The Federalists attacked Thomas Jefferson’s opposition Democratic-Republican Party with the Alien and Sedition Acts. These tyrannical laws severely restricted the rights of immigrants—a core Republican voting base—and outlawed virtually any criticism of the president, the government and their laws. Of course, Jefferson was hard to paint as an outside agitator—he was vice president at the time. Public outrage led to Jefferson’s victory in the 1800 election.
Such follies aside, we should be proud that no war has ever halted a presidential election—and that there has always been a challenger.