We’re now in the home stretch–thank God–of the tumultuous and tragic 2016 U.S. Presidential election. In the heat of horse-race polls, debates, gaffes, talking heads and predictions by everyone and their brother, it’s understandably hard to step back and look at current events from a historical perspective. It’s true that the 2016 election has been unprecedented in American history, for a number of reasons. But it is part of a historical continuum. Not long ago, particularly after watching PBS Frontline‘s wonderful documentary “The Choice,” profiling the lives of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, I began thinking about the kind of people who become President of the United States and the various paths that their lives take to reach that point. There are plenty of historical theories out there on what makes Presidents and presidential candidates, but in this post I want to offer my own, as a historian, for whatever it may be worth.
I posit that Presidents and major-party Presidential nominees fall into three basic categories: “Strivers,” “Opportunists” and “Party Hacks.” These titles are not intended to be pejorative, just descriptive. You can’t tell which category a person falls into without looking at the totality of their lives and circumstances in historical context. Also, it can be difficult to tell between the categories in some instances. To some degree, which category a candidate falls into, and which one their opponent falls into, probably does have a significant impact on the outcome of the election, as I’ll describe. This analysis considers only major-party nominees, not third-party also-rans, failed primary challengers or joke candidates. It’s not a perfect system, but I think there’s something to it.
1. Party Hacks
What I call the Party Hack is a person whose occupation is politics, and whose loyalty and service to a major political party happens to position them to achieve the Presidency. A Party Hack is a loyalist, an apparatchik, who has most likely spent his entire adult life in politics and who usually becomes a presidential contender when it’s “his time.” Usually a Party Hack’s resume will include legislative offices at multiple levels, and also some executive and administrative offices. President is just the next highest job for them, and if they go down to defeat, it doesn’t usually end up tarnishing their legacies. In campaigns, Party Hacks tend to be uninspiring, but they do know how to run a political campaign.
The quintessential Party Hack is Hubert H. Humphrey, long-time Senator, LBJ’s Vice President, and Democratic nominee for President in 1968. When he was defeated in 1968 (by Nixon, a Striver), he went right back to the Senate and carried on a successful career there. Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, John McCain and Mitt Romney, among unsuccessful candidates, were Party Hacks. Party Hacks who succeeded at reaching the White House include Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. Party Hacks usually make bland, dull Presidents and they often have a hard time getting reelected. Party Hacks lose Presidential elections more often than they win them, which is why there are more prominent examples of Party Hack losers than winners of the Oval Office.
Opportunists are exactly what they sound like: people who find themselves in the right place at the right time, and decide to strike for the Presidency while the iron is hot. Sometimes they will be professional politicians, but if they are, their careers will lack the slow, methodical “working their way up” that Party Hacks and Strivers have on their resumes. Sometimes Opportunists are outsiders whose previous experience in politics is short, or lacking entirely. Any President or nominee whose political career has been described as “meteoric” or who is said to have “come out of nowhere” is, by definition, an Opportunist. Opportunists tend to get a long way on charisma. They can also have a vision or program for the country, but most of all they’re great at exploiting existing circumstances for their own political gain.
Opportunists abound in our recent political history. Of the last six Presidents, five–Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama–have been Opportunists. John F. Kennedy was also an Opportunist. Carter leveraged Watergate and public distrust of government to win in 1976. Clinton “came out of nowhere” from a fairly low-level career in Arkansas. Bush II used his family’s name; Obama seized the opportunity of discontent with the war in Iraq and disgust of Bush. Yet almost no one exemplifies a presidential Opportunist more than the current Republican nominee, Donald J. Trump.
The rarest–and most interesting–of Presidential personalities is the Striver. A true Striver in the making may be difficult to spot at first, because they will always be career politicians or at least close to politics. But, unlike the Party Hack who considers the Presidency because it’s the next rung up in their career, for the Striver, achieving the White House is very, very personal. Their lives will not be complete without it. They quest from an early age, perhaps their very first entry into politics, for the Presidency and will overcome incredible obstacles that would end both a Party Hack’s or an Opportunist’s career. Most importantly, in order to be fully ready to achieve their goal, the Striver must first suffer a crippling defeat. The words “politically dead” and “amazing comeback” invariably appear in a Striver’s past. Because of their single-minded fixation on their goal, Strivers often get the reputation of being dishonest, Machiavellian or playing dirty politics, even when that reputation is not always deserved.
In the entire 20th century we only had three Presidents who were Strivers: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. FDR’s political death and resurrection came when he was stricken with polio in 1921, but rose again to lead the Democratic Party. Johnson took the Vice-Presidency under JFK and believed his career was finished. But he became President and won the White House in his own right in a crushing landslide. Nixon, of course, was defeated by Kennedy in 1960, a rare example of a premature Striver who received the nomination. Striver Presidents are always hugely influential. Their administrations will be filled either with awesome achievements and victories, like FDR’s, or epic tragedies, usually self-inflicted, like LBJ’s and Nixon’s.
The thing about Strivers is that, once they’re mature–i.e., once they’ve suffered and come back from their “political death”–they’re virtually impossible to beat. Since the beginning of the 20th century I can’t think of a Striver who did not eventually become President. In a little less than two weeks we will see this in effect yet again. Hillary Clinton, who lost the nomination to Obama in 2008 in a knock-down, drag-out battle, is undoubtedly a Striver. Should she win, she will be the first Striver President of the 21st century.
How they stack up against each other.
It’s interesting to see how these personality types fare against each other in Presidential match-ups. As I said above, unless he/she has not yet suffered their “political death,” a Striver always beats a Party Hack or an Opportunist. In unlike match-ups, Opportunists tend to do well. The most unusual races are when personalities of the same type face each other. These elections tend to be especially acrimonious (take 1988 for instance). But note, because Strivers are so rare, there has never been a Striver vs. a Striver.
Here is where I put the various candidates in every election since 1932:
- 1932: Roosevelt (Striver) vs. Hoover (Party Hack); Striver wins.
- 1936: Roosevelt (Striver) vs. Landon (Party Hack); Striver wins.
- 1940: Roosevelt (Striver) vs. Willkie (Opportunist); Striver wins.
- 1944: Roosevelt (Striver) vs. Dewey (Opportunist): Striver wins.
- 1948: Truman (Opportunist) vs. Dewey (Opportunist): Opportunist (Truman) wins.
- 1952 and 1956: Eisenhower (Opportunist) vs. Stevenson (Party Hack); Opportunist wins.
- 1960: Kennedy (Opportunist) vs. Nixon (Premature Striver): Opportunist wins.
- 1964: Johnson (Striver) vs. Goldwater (Opportunist): Striver wins.
- 1968: Nixon (Striver) vs. Humphrey (Party Hack): Striver wins.
- 1972: Nixon (Striver) vs. McGovern (Party Hack): Striver wins.
- 1976: Ford (Party Hack) vs. Carter (Opportunist): Opportunist wins.
- 1980: Carter (Opportunist) vs. Reagan (Opportunist): Opportunist (Reagan) wins.
- 1984: Reagan (Opportunist) vs. Mondale (Party Hack): Opportunist wins.
- 1988: Bush I (Party Hack) vs. Dukakis (Party Hack): Party Hack (Bush) wins.
- 1992: Bush I (Party Hack) vs. Clinton I (Opportunist): Opportunist wins.
- 1996: Clinton I (Opportunist) vs. Dole (Party Hack): Opportunist wins.
- 2000: Bush II (Opportunist) vs. Gore (Party Hack): Opportunist wins.
- 2004: Bush II (Opportunist) vs. Kerry (Party Hack): Opportunist wins.
- 2008: Obama (Opportunist) vs. McCain (Party Hack): Opportunist wins.
- 2012: Obama (Opportunist) vs. Romney (Party Hack): Opportunist wins.
- 2016: Clinton II (Striver) vs. Trump (Opportunist): See update below.
The Presidency is one of the most exclusive clubs in the world. By definition the people who get there, or who get within striking distance, are highly unusual personalities compared to the rest of us. But I think we can draw some interesting parallels by examining those who’ve held the office–and those who tried and lost–that will tell us a lot about the process itself.
As we all know, the Opportunist in the 2016 election emerged victorious over the Striver. However, for what it’s worth, keep in mind the fact that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016 by over 3 million votes and was clearly the choice of the majority of the American people. Therefore, it seems that the Striver did defeat the Opportunist…at least in the court of public opinion, and perhaps historically too.