Friday, December 9, 2011
Echoes of 1948 and 1972
It’s far too early to be making any predictions about next year’s presidential elections. We don’t know who the Republican nominee will be, we don’t know if there will be viable candidates from a third or fourth party, and we don’t know what’s going to happen in the world in the next ten months or so.
With that qualification, I can’t help looking at what we can see now and being reminded (given a propensity for glib historical analogies) of two other elections gone by, where a lot of similar factors were in play.
Barack Obama took office in the most tumultuous set of circumstances inherited by any president since Harry Truman, and there are some intriguing comparisons with Truman in his first term. Like Truman, Obama had to make a lot of tough decisions right away and pleased almost no one. Like Truman, he saw the Republicans decisively take over Congress in the mid-term elections. Like Truman, he has been scorned by many in his party, but unlike Truman he doesn’t appear to be in any danger of facing extra-party campaigns begun by disgruntled Democrats.
For all those problems, plus some economic difficulties (inflation and postwar scarcity of some items), Truman ran a strong campaign, positioned himself as the friend of the average American, attacked the “do-nothing Congress,” and stunned everybody by defeating the excessively stiff New York Governor Thomas Dewey, who was once described by Dorothy Parker as looking “like the little man on top of the wedding cake.”
That brings us to another troubled incumbent and another presidential election. Richard Nixon was elected president with 43 percent of the vote in an election where third-party candidate George Wallace polled more than 12 percent. Nixon was the most personality-deficient president of the television era, and he came before the voters for re-election in 1972 at a time when the economy was going through a period of inflationary shakiness.
Nixon and Obama had some points in common. Like Obama, Nixon came to office inheriting a huge problem, the Vietnam War, and in four years he had neither won it nor gotten the country out of it. Like Obama, Nixon was a pragmatic moderate, whose moderation was appreciated by nether his party nor the opposition. And like Obama, Nixon drove many people in the opposition party absolutely out of their senses — bug-eyed, drooling crazy. It was the latter quality that got him re-elected.
One of the best things in favor of a candidate is a vulnerable opponent. Many Democrats had become so rabid about Vietnam by 1972 that their primary criterion for a candidate was that he be as passionate against the war as they were. They ended up getting Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, a smart and decent man who didn’t deserve all his followers.
Despite his inability to connect personally with most voters, and despite his failure to resolve the biggest problem he was handed, Nixon made himself look better by attacking his opponent. Calling the Democrats the party of acid, amnesty and abortion, he rode those attacks to victory with nearly 62 percent of the vote.
Truman and Nixon both showed that an incumbent president of some ability can win despite problems in his record. They both demonstrated, to differing extents, the value of having a problematic opponent. Obama is certainly a president of some ability, with a better record than either his opponents or many in his own party give him credit for. And it looks as if he’ll be lucky in his opponent. The Republicans appear poised to nominate either their own fringe-element darling or else Mitt Romney, who, come to think of it, reminds you of the little man on top of the wedding cake.