CHICAGO — Since Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democrats have never had a firm hold on the presidency. Indeed, over the years Democratic leaders have come to concede, reluctantly, that while the Congress, the state legislatures, and sometimes the governorships were their domain, the White House pretty much belonged to the Republicans. Is this about to change?
If Bill Clinton is to win a second term in the White House, he must somehow stop the strong challenge of the Dole-Kemp team. But if he does, Mr. Clinton would become the first Democratic president since FDR to be given four more years by the electorate.
Let's look back at the Democrats' record in the presidential arena since Roosevelt died in office after being elected to unprecedented third and fourth terms:
First there was Harry Truman, who took over the presidency on Roosevelt's passing. Historians have been reviewing Truman's record and upgrading him to a place among our greatest presidents. But he was never popular when he held that position. At one time his polls hit a low that was surpassed only when Richard Nixon fell from grace during the Watergate scandal.
We all remember how a spunky Truman upset Thomas Dewey. But that was Truman's first run; he later decided to pass up a chance for reelection because his prospects didn't look that good.
Truman gave way to Adlai Stevenson, a rising star in the Midwest whose oratorical skills and attractive personality were winning raves among Democrats who had seen the Illinois governor in action. Stevenson was outstanding presidential material. But he ran headlong into an unbeatable fellow, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had a winning smile to go along with his record as a premier World War II general. Twice Stevenson took on Eisenhower; twice he was beaten soundly.
Then the political winds changed. John F. Kennedy mounted the presidential stage in 1960 and, after his win over Nixon, appeared to be riding a wave of popularity that would have kept him in the White House for a long time.
Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy's successor, held much promise as he pushed through his Great Society programs that his standing in the polls rose. But then Johnson deepened United States involvement in the Vietnam War and his popularity dropped out of sight.
The ebullient and personable Hubert Humphrey got his chance next. But as Johnson's vice president he couldn't overcome the antiwar feeling that had sunk Johnson's political future.
Jimmy Carter, a relatively unknown governor from Georgia, followed the Nixon and Ford years in the White House. Carter emerged out of nowhere to win over voters with a warm smile and populist approach. Some observers thought Carter tried to do too much at once. Many liberals never liked him personally. In the end, Carter had a less-than-united party behind him as he went down before his challenger, Ronald Reagan.
After the fall of Carter, a political wisdom took hold in Washington: The presidency belonged to the Republicans. The public may have had other ideas when it came to lesser contests, but the majority liked a more-conservative flavor in the White House. That could change now, however.
In Chicago, Democratic hopes are high. Democratic national chairman Christopher Dodd was particularly sanguine as he chatted with journalists at a Monitor breakfast. He cited polls showing Clinton ahead by about 12 points. He said he was "cautiously optimistic" but savoring what he saw as a likely victory.