Ex parte McCardle was forged in the superheated atmosphere of Southern reconstruction after the Civil War. The struggle to shape that reconstruction pitted the “Radical” Republicans (representing the pre-war abolitionist wing) against moderates within the party. Democrats, reduced to a rump faction, could do little more than get out of the way and, if palatable, delicately offer support to the Republican moderates. The political and constitutional fault line cut between the restrained Lincoln-Johnson presidential reconstruction based on maintaining the existing federalism, but with abolition of slavery, and the program of congressional radicals to treat the South as a conquered province reduced to territorial status, prostrate before Northern arms and to be cleansed of the twin stains of slavery and secession by stripping the erstwhile states of their old constitutional privileges.
When asked what might derail his agenda for his new Conservative Party government, former British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan is said to have responded, “Events, dear boy. Events.” That aptly describes how the political fortunes of war-time Presidents play out. It is surprisingly difficult for incumbent commanders-in-chief to win even if military campaigns are successful. True, Franklin Roosevelt won in 1944. But, even as the Allies were defeating the Axis powers, the popular Roosevelt won with the lowest percentage margin of victory of his campaigns. When elections occurred while the war effort appeared to be flagging, incumbents have fared badly. In 1952, as a result of the Korean War stalemate, President Harry Truman could not even win re-nomination by his own party, and the Democrats lost decisively. In a similar vein, in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson declined to pursue the Democratic Party nomination for re-election after the newscaster Walter Cronkite and other elements of the media turned the disastrous and strategic military defeat of the Viet Cong during the Tet offensive into a prevailing popular tale of American defeat.
The Election of 1864: Constitutional Issues Raised by Lincoln’s Conduct of the War
The 1864 election pitted the incumbent, Republican President Abraham Lincoln, against George McClellan of the Democratic Party. It was the first election since 1840 in which an incumbent was renominated by his own party. A major focus of the election was the Civil War and the divided Union. Lincoln’s actions as President would also be considered by the electorate, which reelected him in a landslide.