Thursday, May 11, 2006

It's deja vu '72 all over again

The Moose, trying to save the Democratic Party for former Republicans, makes a case that the left side of the bandwidth here in Blogtopia (TM Skippy) needs to grow up and realize that it has absolutely no influence in the great wide world but if it doesn't stop using its non-existent influence it will influence the Democrats to re-nominate George McGovern for President in 2008 and then where will we be?

Facing 8 more years of General Eisenhower!

Or Ronald Reagan or Richard Nixon or somebody.

Maybe George W. Bush again.

"It is no accident," the Moose writes, "that the only Democrat re-elected in the past sixty years was a New Democrat centrist. But, the blogosphere is littered with those who would debase the only winning legacy for the Democratic Party."

I'm going to pretend that the Moose's post isn't a disingenous attack on Liberal bloggers that attempts to attribute to the likes of Kos, Kevin Drum, Josh Marshall, and Atrios the character deficiencies of some of Atrios's more wild-eyed commenters. I'm going to treat it as if it was what it almost is, a warning that history repeats itself and is about to do it again.

Any argument about what the Democrats need to do to win back the White House that's based on the history of the last 60 years has to deal with this inconvenient fact: We are talking about 15 elections here. That's all we have to work with, and it's an awfully small sample to draw sweeping conclusions from. Every single one of those elections can be looked at as what they were, too. A personal contest between 2 men. Since eight of those men ran for the office more than once---Eisenhower, Stevenson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush, with one of them, Nixon, running three times---we not are discussing the doings of 30 men. We're looking at only 21.

Let's throw in the more serious minor party candidates, Henry Wallace, Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, John Anderson, and Ross Perot. That brings it up to 26.

Too small a number for statistical generalizations but just the right size to look at historically and biographically.

So, looking at the election of 1988, say, we can ask and expect to answer the questions: Did the voters reject the Democratic nominee because he wasn't a centrist of the DLC stripe the Moose prefers? Or did they reject him because he was a bloodless android who was short and talked funny to boot and had, as some comedian said back then, a name that sounded like a car whose engine won't turn over?


Did they vote for the Republican nominee because he was a Republican or because he'd been Ronald Reagan's Vice-President and that was the closest they were going to get to a third term for Reagan?

It's true that the Democrats have only re-elected one President in the last 60 years. But then only two Democratic Presidents have run for re-election, Carter and Clinton. They're one for two.

You could argue, however, that in 1948 Truman was essentially facing re-election, having served all but three of a full four year term. And was Johnson elected in 1964, or was the ghost of John Kennedy re-elected? Looked at that way, it's not unreasonable to say that the Democrats have re-elected three sitting Presidents to the Republicans' four.

Nevermind. I think what the Moose was pointing out was that the Democrats haven't elected many Presidents over the last 60 years. But he's applying the apparent trends of the last generation to the last two.

There have been 11 Presidents since 1946. Five Democrats and 6 Republicans. But Gerald Ford is such a weird and special case that he belongs in a separate category of one---Presidents who were never elected either to the Oval Office or the Vice Presidency. So the score is 5 to 5.

I wouldn't say, however, that this shows that half the time the voters have preferred a Republican and the other half a Democrat. I'd say that at the particular (and relatively few) times when they've had to choose they've preferred this Republican or that Democrat.

And their choices had more to do with the problems and issues of the moment and the personalities of the men running at that moment than they had to do with which parties they belonged to.

Biography trumps partisanship.

To demonstrate this, as if it really needs to be demonstrated, all you have to do is play a few easy games of What if?

Truman was highly unpopular at the end of his second term. His choosing not to run again can be seen as an admission of the obvious, that he'd have lost. (I think the fact that he had already served two terms and was tired must have influenced his decision too.) But because Truman was almost a certain loser, and because Stevenson lost, that doesn't mean that the voters were rejecting a generic Democrat.

Stevenson didn't lose to a generic Republican. He lost to Dwight Eisenhower. Suppose he had had to run against a more generic Republican instead of against a celebrity general who had saved Europe in World War II and who practically had to flip a coin to decide if he would run for President and then flip another one to decide which party's nomination he would accept. Suppose Eisenhower had decided not to run. How would Stevenson have fared against the dour isolationist, Robert Taft?

Moving forward into history.

What if Lee Harvey Oswald had missed?

What if LBJ had decided to run again in 68? What if Bobby Kennedy hadn't been shot?

What if Ted Kennedy hadn't driven off that bridge?

What if Jimmy Carter hadn't let the Shah into the country for medical treatment or had not boycotted the Moscow Olympics or had not run his foolish Rose Garden campaign?

What if the conservatives on the Supreme Court in 2000 had been principled? What if Anthony Kennedy had had more guts or Sandra Day O'Connor more integrity?

The Democratic victories are all contingent on events of the moment too. What if Mayor Daley hadn't come through for Kennedy in Chicago? What if the Republicans had nominated the conservatives' hero Ronald Reagan in 76 and not the hapless Jerry Ford? What if Ross Perot hadn't run in 92?

Up until 2000, the Republicans were ahead on points. They'd won 7 elections to the Democrats' 6.

I'm not counting 2000 for the obvious reason, and that reason makes 2004 a peculiar case in its own right.

But including 2004 (while still setting 2000 aside), 4 of the Republican victories since 1946 have been re-elections of sitting Preisdents, and the re-elections aren't any more indicative of the voters' preference for Republicans either. All that you can deduce from them is that it's a very good thing to be an incumbent during a time of prosperity and relative peace, and that applies to Clinton as well as to Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan, and negatively to Carter and George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush too, who, it must always be remembered, damn near lost an election he should have won in a walk. Add to that the possibility that the second Bush stole two elections---and dear brother Moose, this is not a loony lefty blogger conspiracy theory. The Bush Leaguers did steal votes in 2004. They boldy and in broad daylight set out to do so, by suppressing the vote in Florida and Ohio and Nevada and New Hampshire, by active theft in other places. The question is whether or not they stole enough to change the outcome.

The Moose is worried that the netroots activists will drive the Democrats so far to the left that they will nominate another George McGovern. In fact, he sees history already repeating itself, ignoring the fact that George McGovern probably would never have been nominated if Richard Nixon hadn't been running for re-election, no matter how good his direct mail campaign had been, no matter how hard the supposedly loony left of the day had worked for him.

The Moose makes the point that the only Democratic President to be re-elected was a DLC style centrist, as if such a category existed in 1952 or 1964 or 1968 or 1980 and as if Truman, Johnson, and Carter were all McGovernesque Liberals. If anything like the Moose's point applies, though, it applies to Jimmy Carter in 1980, who was very close to the kind of Democrat the Moose thinks the Democrats should always nominate.

But the ayatollahs didn't care where Carter fell on the Democratic ideological spectrum.

OPEC didn't care either.

All of this is to say that what decides Presidential elections is the problems of the moment and the personalites and strengths and weaknesses of the candidates. George McGovern wasn't nominated in 1972 because the loony left took over the Democratic party. He was nominated because particular events gave the McGovernites more power in the party's nominating processs than they would otherwise have had.

None of those events are repeating themselves now nor are they likely to in 2008. For one thing, Richard Nixon's dead.

So is Ed Muskie. He won't be crying any melting snowflakes in New Hampshire.

Ted Kennedy is not the Democrats' Tragic Lost Hope.

The new party rules that the McGovernites took advantage of better than the other Democratic hopefuls are old rules that have been long since changed again.

The Soviet Union's kaput.

And the War Hawks have been right about one thing about Iraq all along.

It's not Vietnam.

It's its own particular disaster.

And George W. Bush will have been President for two more years.

It is ridiculous to pick a candidate in order to prevent 2008 from becoming 1972 all over again.

We don't know now what issues will be most pressing in 2008.

It would be equally foolish to get behind a candidate now for how well he or she would fit the bill if the election were being held this fall, and I'm talking about Russ Feingold as well as Hillary Clinton.

If you're in a rush, you should choose the candidate or potential candidate who seems most likely to fit the bill no matter what the issues are going to be. The Moose is probably right that such a candidate should be more of a moderate and should definitely be strong on National Security issues---although what it will mean to be strong on National Security after a couple more years of George Bush's failures in the Middle East is anybody's guess.

That's not to say that history offers no parallels.

An unpopular President in the middle of losing a war of doubtful importance to the nation's national security doesn't run for re-election, dumping his disaterous legacy onto his Party's nominee. The opposition party nominates a former Vice-President who had run for President before and lost a very close election.

What if, Moose, it's not 1972 all over again?

What if it's 1968?

Don't listen to me though. I'm just another one of those types the Moose's hero Jonathan Chait despises, paranoid, brimming with humorless rage, a sensible liberal veering off into the abyss.

Or as the Moose says himself, I'm a victim of an infantile disorder.

Hat-tip to Susie who bags, mounts, and stuffs the Bull Moose's argument here. In a paranoid, humorlessly paranoid, infantile way, of course.

Glenn Greenwald gives Richard Cohen history lesson similar to the one I'm trying to give the Moose.


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