Trump Wouldn’t Be the First President to Try a Comeback

Grover Cleveland, the one successful presidential Comeback Kid. Photo: PhotoQuest/Getty Images

One of the theories about Donald J. Trump’s truculent post-election refusal to concede defeat is that he is planning (or at least considering) a 2024 comeback and wants to get his MAGA base all lathered up into a frenzy of victimization and vengeance while freezing potential rivals into his corner. It actually makes sense for a president whose patriotism is purely self-serving.

Even if it’s just a possibility that Trump will discard in favor of starting his own media network or forcing one of his children onto the GOP in an act of dynastic arrogance, it’s worth a brief look at the history of ex-presidents who attempted to return to the White House.

In examining the examples, it’s important to keep in mind that while there has been a “no third term” tradition dating back to George Washington, it didn’t become binding until ratification of the Twenty-Second Amendment to the Constitution in 1951. So earlier presidents who had hung it up after two full terms were free to speculate about a comeback, too. (Only one, U.S. Grant, mounted a truly viable third-term effort after leaving office.) Here’s a list of other presidential has-beens who tried again:

Martin Van Buren

Van Buren is best remembered as Andrew Jackson’s key backer and protégé, and as the chief architect of the antebellum Democratic Party. A terrible recession (known as the “Panic of 1837”) that struck early in his presidency doomed his reelection prospects, though he did win renomination in 1840 before succumbing in the face of the famously innovative Whig campaign for William Henry Harrison and John Tyler (“Tippiecanoe and Tyler Too!”). But in 1844, Van Buren made his first comeback attempt, losing the Democratic presidential nod on the convention’s ninth ballot, mostly because of his opposition to annexation of Texas.

After struggling with a major intraparty split on his home turf in New York, Van Buren became the unlikely leader of anti-slavery Democrats, who helped form the Free Soil Party after losing control of their old party’s nomination to pro-southern Lewis Cass. Van Buren won the new party’s presidential nomination unanimously and subsequently took ten percent of the popular vote. He and running mate Charles Francis Adams of Massachusetts didn’t carry any states, but did beat Cass in both their home states.

Van Buren returned to the Democratic Party in 1852 but didn’t run for office again.

Millard Fillmore

A less significant figure than Van Buren, his great New York rival, Fillmore became the last Whig president when Zachary Taylor died suddenly in 1850. After helping push through the Compromise of 1850, Fillmore ran for reelection but was narrowly defeated by Winfield Scott on the 53rd ballot of the Whig Convention, having bitterly alienated anti-slavery Whigs.

Fillmore’s attempted comeback occurred after the Whigs shattered over regional differences, with anti-slavery elements helping form the Republican Party and more conservative Whigs joining the new American Party, which was principally the vehicle of the nativist Know-Nothings, a powerful mass movement at the time. Fillmore won the American Party’s nomination and won 21 percent of the popular vote, but was eclipsed by Republican John C. Fremont and carried just one state (Maryland).

Ulysses S. Grant

Grant was the first two-term president to openly seek a third term, but did so only after leaving office for four years. Despite the spotty record of his administration, which was beset by financial panics, corruption, and divisions over Reconstruction (which he continued to pursue despite flagging support in the North), Grant retained huge personal popularity because of his Civil War record. He became the vehicle for the so-called Stalwart wing of his party, united by opposition to civil service reform, and made a robust bid for the 1880 nomination. He was placed into nomination by Stalwart leader Roscoe Conkling of New York, whose speech began with this legendary line:

When asked what State he hails from
Our sole reply shall be
“He hails from Appomattox
And its famous apple tree!”

Despite Grant’s efforts to withdraw from the fray after the convention deadlocked between the Stalwarts and the “Half-Breeds” supporting James G. Blaine, his backers kept him in contention until the 36th ballot, when compromise dark horse James Garfield was nominated.

Grant was only 58 when his third-term bid failed, but his political career was over and he died five years later.

Grover Cleveland

The only successful post-presidential comeback candidate, and presumably Trump’s model, was Grover Cleveland, the 22rd and 24th chief executive. His three consecutive presidential nominations and 2-1 record were the product of a period in which the two major parties were in excruciatingly close competition. He won his first term in 1884 in part due to support from defecting Republicans (particularly strong in Cleveland’s own New York), known as the Mugwumps, who rejected party nominee James G. Blaine. Four years later he won the popular vote but narrowly lost New York and Indiana and the Electoral College to Hoosier Senator Benjamin Harrison after a campaign mostly fought over tariff policies. In 1892 Cleveland was renominated on the first ballot despite opposition from Western populist elements of his party and from New York’s own Tammany Hall.

The general election was again mostly “about” tariffs, though there was a reaction against Republican nativism in parts of the midwest, and the new People’s Party favoring free coinage of silver and active government regulation of corporations won five western states that might have otherwise gone for Harrison. Patronage may have been the biggest issue of all, as reflected by this pro-Cleveland jingle:

Four more years of Grover.
Out they go, in we go
Then we’ll be in clover!

During his second term Cleveland remained the leader of “Bourbon” Democrats opposed to government intervention in the economy and favoring the gold standard (it was no accident he was the favorite president of proto-libertarian writer and philosopher Ayn Rand), but his faction was decisively defeated by William Jennings Bryan in 1896, while his party lost control of the White House until the next ex-presidential comeback bid, in 1912.

Theodore Roosevelt

Teddy Roosevelt rivals Grant as the best-known ex-president to attempt a comeback. He voluntarily relinquished control of the presidency and his Republican Party to his designated successor William Howard Taft in 1908. But T.R. soon grew restive in retirement while hearing from many old associates that Taft had become the captive of reactionary party bosses and financial interests. He challenged Taft’s renomination, beating him in several of the era’s rare primaries. But T.R. lost at the convention after bitterly claiming of corrupt tactics by Taft’s bosses, and his delegates stormed out and formed a new Progressive Party. Dubbed and remembered as the “Bull Moose Party” in honor of Roosevelt’s claim that he felt “as strong as a bull moose” after he suffered a gunshot wound from a failed assassination attempt on the campaign trail, the party essentially split the GOP vote (Roosevelt beat Taft nationally in both the popular vote and the electoral college) and ensured the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

After much speculation about a 1916 comeback as a candidate for reunited Progressive and Republican parties in 1916, T.R. endorsed and campaigned for the GOP’s Charles Evans Hughes. Any talk of Roosevelt running in 1920 was cut short by his sudden death at the age of 60 in 1919.

Herbert Hoover

The adulation to which Herbert Hoover had become accustomed before his landslide election as president in 1928, and his conviction that the Great Depression that soon consumed his presidency was a sort of natural disaster for which he deserved no blame, sustained unusually lengthy post-presidential ambitions on the part of the man once known as “The Great Humanitarian.” After his decisive loss to FDR in 1932, Hoover became a consistent critic of the New Deal. He was not an active candidate in 1936, but reportedly hoped that his fiery critique of FDR in his keynote address to the Republican Convention that year would produce a draft movement:

Hoover disdained FDR so much that despite his record as one of his country’s most experienced and respected international figures, he became an outspoken isolationist as he again hoped for lightning to strike in 1940, as Nicholas Lemann observed retrospectively:

In 1936 and again in 1940, Hoover hoped that his party would turn to him again to set things right, and was surprised and hurt when it didn’t. As the rise of Adolf Hitler forced Roosevelt to become a foreign-policy President, Hoover began to disapprove of him diplomatically just as much as he did economically. He believed that, if left alone, Hitler, whom he had visited in 1938, would direct his ambitions eastward and wage a mutually destructive war with the Soviet Union, leaving Britain and Western Europe alone. He published another of his many books just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, urging the United States to stay out of the war, and he always considered Roosevelt’s decision to form an alliance with Joseph Stalin to be unconscionable.

Hoover was able to serve a useful public role during both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, but obviously never had the chance to vindicate his enduring reputation as a failed president.

Will Trump Be Next?

Assuming he leaves office in January and then tries a comeback, Trump isn’t the sort of politician who is going to study history or seek role models for his post-presidential career. But those who walked that path before him were united by unquenchable (if frustrated) ambition leading to failure, with the exception of Grover Cleveland. It’s a lesson that his supporters and his party should heed even if the 45th president himself is too blinded by rage and self-esteem to think better of it and simply retire to one of his resorts.

There’s one detail of the Cleveland story that is particularly hard to imagine being reenacted: “[On March 4, 1889] Benjamin Harrison is inaugurated. In a prophetic statement, Frances Cleveland tells the White House staff that she and Grover will return in four years.”

I don’t see Melania Trump doing, or even thinking, that.

Trump Wouldn’t Be the First President to Try a Comeback