With Newt Gingrich expected to announce next week that he is suspending his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, he becomes the latest congressional insider to stumble in his pursuit of the White House.
Fox News reported on Wednesday morning that Gingrich will suspend his bid for the Republican presidential nomination on Tuesday. With five primaries this week in the Northeast, Gingrich hoped to slow down Mitt Romney, the heavy favorite for the GOP nod, and the former congressional leader focused on Delaware -- where he still placed a distant second.
While Gingrich won in South Carolina and his home state of Georgia, he never recovered his momentum after Romney turned up the heat in Florida and Rick Santorum, who ended his bid earlier this month, emerged as the major conservative alternative to Romney.
Santorum also poached some of Gingrich’s home turf. The former senator from Pennsylvania beat Gingrich in some Southern states including Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Louisiana. Still, Gingrich had been targeting one more Southern state -- North Carolina and its May 8 primary -- and his campaign has planned many events there later this week.
While Gingrich led Republicans to their first congressional majority in four decades during the 1994 election cycle, he becomes only the latest in a procession of Washington lions who failed to win the White House.
Gingrich was hoping to become only the second speaker of the U.S. House to become president. James K. Polk, who wielded the gavel in the 1830s when his allies Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren were in the White House, beat out the legendary Whig, Henry Clay, a three-time former speaker of the House, in the 1844 presidential election.
POOR SHOWINGS FOR EX-SPEAKERS
History shows that being speaker of the House -- while certainly one of the most powerful positions in American politics -- ranks as a poor launching pad for the White House. While Clay made bids for the White House in 1824, 1832 and 1844, as well as a stab at the Whig nomination in 1848, other House speakers did not come as close. James G. Blaine, who had been speaker in the 1870s when Ulysses S. Grant was president, won the Republican nomination in 1884 and came close to beating Grover Cleveland in the 1884 election. Blaine had less luck than Clay in winning his party’s nomination, losing out in the 1876, 1880 and 1892 Republican presidential conventions.
Other speakers did even worse when they sought the White House. John Nance Garner was speaker when he sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1932. He settled for being FDR’s running mate. With FDR playing coy about his intentions for a third term in 1940, Garner, who had broken with the president over his plan to increase the number of Supreme Court justices in 1937, attempted to win the Democratic nod in his own right -- only to be brushed aside as FDR decided to run again.
Another House speaker also served as vice president but didn't survive long enough on the national political stage to move up to the White House. Schuyler Colfax, who served as speaker of the House during the Civil War, was tabbed as Grant’s running mate in 1868 but, caught up in the Crédit Mobilier scandal, he was dumped from the ticket in 1872.
CIVIL WAR PASSIONS
A host of former House speakers tried to move up to the presidency during the turbulent Civil War era but had even less luck than Colfax. John Bell, a Tennessee Whig who had served as speaker in the 1830s, attempted to rally what was left of his dying party and conservatives looking to hold the nation together as the Constitutional Union Party’s presidential nominee in 1860.
Robert M.T. Hunter -- better known to his critics as “Run Mad Tom” -- had been speaker under Van Buren and sought the Democratic nomination in 1860. Hunter’s name would be kicked over for the presidency of the Confederacy but -- with Virginia slow to leave the Union -- he ended up as Jefferson Davis’ secretary of state and eventually as a critic of the Southern president as a member of the Confederate Senate.
Howell Cobb of Georgia, speaker of the House during the turbulent debate over the Compromise of 1850, would also be considered for the Confederate presidency but lose out to Davis. Nathaniel P. Banks, a Massachusetts politician who had served as speaker briefly in the 1850s, hoped that his record as a Union general in the Civil War would lead him to the White House -- but he ranked as one of the most unsuccessful Northern commanders in the war.
THE POSTWAR PICTURE
Champ Clark hoped to use the House speakership as a launching pad for the presidency in 1912. But William Jennings Bryan, Democratic presidential nominee three times, ripped into Clark and threw his support behind Woodrow Wilson -- who went on to win the nomination and the presidency.
Politicians holding other House leadership positions have also stumbled in their pursuit of the White House. Dick Gephardt led House Democrats but it did not help him when he sought his party’s presidential nomination for the second time. When he ran for president in 1988, he won the Iowa caucus where he stumbled badly in 2004. Oscar Underwood also led House Democrats but it did not help him in the turbulent 1924 Democratic convention which took 103 ballots before selecting a sacrificial goat to lose to Calvin Coolidge -- in this case John W. Davis, a former congressman, masterful attorney and a shrewd diplomat.
Two politicians who led their parties in the U.S. House would go on to sit in the White House. One was Gerald Ford -- House Republican leader when he was appointed vice president to replace the disgraced Spiro Agnew, later moving on to the presidency when Richard Nixon resigned. The other was James Garfield, who did not seek the Republican nomination in 1880 but still beat out the likes of Blaine and Grant when the GOP needed to find a compromise candidate on the 36th ballot.
Nor have Senate leaders had much luck when they have sought the presidency.
Republican Senate leader Bob Dole was his party’s presidential nominee in 1996, but he had sought the GOP nod in 1980 and 1988, with little success. One of Dole’s rivals for the GOP nod in 1980 was Howard Baker, then the Republican leader in the Senate, who also went on to lose to Ronald Reagan. Senate party leaders have had more success in seeking the vice presidency. Charles Curtis, who led Republicans, went on to be Herbert Hoover’s running mate while Alben Barkley, who led Democrats in the Senate, would be on the ticket with Harry Truman in 1948.
While he ranked as one of the most powerful Senate leaders in history, Lyndon Johnson’s 1960 presidential bid stumbled before he went on to be JFK’s running mate and assume the presidency in 1963 after Kennedy was assassinated.
History shows that Senate experience actually hinders presidential candidates. The only three men who moved from the Senate directly to the presidency -- Warren G. Harding, JFK and Barack Obama -- were essentially back-benchers.
With Gingrich headed to the sidelines, Mitt Romney, the near-certain Republican candidate to challenge Obama in November, is hoping that another historic trend resurfaces in 2012. Americans generally prefer governors when they choose their presidents -- just ask George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Reagan, Jimmy Carter, FDR, Woodrow Wilson, William McKinley, Rutherford B. Hayes or even Polk, who headed home to serve as governor of Tennessee after he was speaker of the House and before he won the White House.
Reach Kevin Derby at email@example.com or at (850) 727-0859. Working on his master's thesis on Edmund Ruffin, Kevin heartily joined the crowd of critics in labeling Ruffin's fellow Virginian Robert M.T. Hunter as "Run Mad Tom."