It was the most surprising political decision of the 20th century: On March 31, 1968, 50 years ago Saturday, President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run for reelection.
Might Trump do the same? Probably not, but history provides some tantalizing parallels.
LBJ withdrew mostly because it looked like he would lose the election. That was true even though almost every Democrat in Congress supported him, and everyone assumed he would run.
Right now it looks like Trump would lose to virtually any Democrat in 2020. Nevertheless, almost every Republican in Congress supports him, and everyone assumes he will run. But there are many months to go before primary season. Anything could happen.
Here’s what happened in Johnson’s case. In December 1967, U.S. News & World Report predicted that he would carry only 12 states with 110 electoral votes, losing the rest of the 44 states he had carried in 1964, mostly because of growing antiwar sentiment in the Democratic rank and file. At that point, LBJ had already confided in a few people that he had doubts about running for reelection.
The following month, in January 1968, he asked his speechwriter to put a resignation announcement at the end of his State of the Union address — but he didn’t deliver the line. Two weeks later, the Tet Offensive made it clear to Americans that we weren’t going to win the war in Vietnam, that all of the Johnson administration’s statements about “light at the end of the tunnel” had been wrong.
The event that ultimately provoked LBJ’s announcement came in March: He nearly lost the New Hampshire primary to a little-known antiwar senator from Minnesota, Eugene McCarthy. The result stunned the country. It also inspired LBJ’s nemesis, the charismatic Robert Kennedy; a few days later, Kennedy announced that he, too, would challenge Johnson for the nomination.
There are signs that Trump might not win the New Hampshire primary in 2020. It looks like John Kasich and Jeff Flake will enter the race, and a February Washington Post poll showed that support for Trump is sinking in the state, with only 36% of voters approving of his performance as president. His approval level there is more than 20 points below the state’s Republican governor.
Of course, Trump is nothing like Johnson. LBJ devoted his entire life to politics, to becoming, in biographer Robert Caro’s words, “Master of the Senate.” Trump devoted his life to real estate and reality TV. LBJ had won the popular vote overwhelmingly, by 61%. Trump lost the popular vote, getting only 46%. LBJ had historic achievements in his first two years: the Voting Rights Act, the “War on Poverty,” the first real immigration reform since the 1920s, and Medicare. Trump has failed thus far to achieve most of his legislative goals, except cutting taxes for the rich.
Johnson didn’t say he was withdrawing from his own reelection campaign because he feared he would lose. He said he was quitting so that he could work full time on ending the Vietnam War. Some historians have accepted that argument. But after dropping out, his approach to ending the war was to increase the bombing, which did not persuade the North Vietnamese to make a peace deal. (It didn’t help that Richard Nixon sent an emissary to Saigon to urge the South not to agree to a deal with the North.) Johnson left office without ending the war.
If Trump were to announce his withdrawal from the 2020 race, presumably he, too, would offer a reason other than fear of losing. He might say he could be more effective in his battle to drain the swamp by working from the outside. Or he could simply declare “Mission Accomplished” because of the tax cuts.
What we do know for sure is that circumstances will change between now and 2020. Trump is not going to become more thoughtful or judicious, but, as Thomas Frank pointed out in Harper’s, things might happen to make Trump a stronger candidate than he seems now. A terrorist attack on American soil might rally the country around him, like it did around George W. Bush. Or his team could dream up “mini-New Deal schemes,” as Frank put it, that would revive parts of the Rust Belt and make him a hero of the common folk, like FDR was.
Or he might resign after impeachment by the House rather than face a trial in the Senate, like Nixon.
Johnson withdrew seven months before the election. For Trump, that would be two years from now. A long way off, yes, but he opened his 2020 reelection campaign in February, earlier than any president. Does that suggest a certain anxiety about his prospects?
In any case, he’s already hired a campaign chief and started raising funds. Nobody thinks he’ll quit. But nobody thought LBJ would quit, either.