Presidential Race Musings (August 18, 2007)
I am not an ideologue, so prepare to have your most cherished political beliefs challenged. Though I am not an ideologue, I have been deeply fascinated by politics since the 1960 election, when I was six years old. I was thrilled to vote in 1972 for the first time, and have switched party affiliations freely to vote for or against the candidate of my choice.
I have often voted for third-party candidates (heck, I was one of the Triumvrate which ran a third party in Hawaii 1974-76), as the general-issue parties have long struck me as essentially equal in the sense that whenever they gain power of both legislative and Imperial--oops, I mean Executive--branches, they bollix up the economy, the nation and indeed the world.
There are a lot of moving parts to a Presidential election, and therefore the outcome cannot be predicted. Back in the days of smoky backrooms, the party hacks chose the candidate, or so the cliche goes, and then sold the masses on the brilliance of their pick. But this simplifies the process to the point of uselessness. Did anyone predict that Richard Nixon would rise from the political grave he'd been dumped into in 1962 and become president? No.
It's generally accepted that the party faithful have had more of a say in the process since the McGovern debacle of 1972. But again, that simplifies the process. It's not the party faithful who elect a President--it's everyone in the middle. The Powers That Be of course attempt to select candidates in both parties which are acceptable to them, but they don't always succeed. I have made the case before that Cowboys like Richard Nixon are actually not the elites' candidates of choice. Events and abrupt changes of national mood are beyond their control.
Therefore the interesting aspects of any presidential race come down to this: why would a generally passive citizen rise up to vote when he/she rarely bothers, and what powers that citizen to vote for one candidate over the other?
The answer of course is: they hate one candidate and feel OK about the other. The reason why Nixon could only squeak by Humphrey in 1968 is that Nixon was well and truly loathed by millions of people who got off their duffs to vote for the Happy Warrior from Minnesota.
The other reason is they're mad as Hell and they're not gonna take it any more. (If you haven't yet seen one of my all-time favorite films, Network then by all means rent it, as it is the source of this famous line.)
The reason why Nixon won in 1968 was the cities and campuses were afire, the war in Vietnam was chewing up innocent American and Vietnamese lives at a prodigious rate, crime was rising and disgust with President Johnson was near-universal.
Americans vote for likeable candidates. Unless pushed against the wall, they will vote for the likeable, charming, easy-going person. Given the high level of disgust with the Republicans in the post-Watergate era, Gerald Ford should have been absolutely buried by Jimmy Carter. (More on that in a moment.) But Carter was, despite his famous grin, not a very personable guy, while Jerry Ford was a WYSIWYG guy (what you see is what you get), basically a decent person in the wrong party at the wrong time facing a media hungry to draw blood.
There are two reasons why Carter won: he was Southern, and he had The Big Idea. Every Democrat who actually won the election (other than Jack Kennedy in 1960) in modern times was from a Southern state. Thus Nixon's strategy for winning (and he needed something, for he was a flat-out unlikeable guy) was called "The Southern Strategy," in which he pandered just enough to Southern conservative Democrats to get them to vote against their party.
As for Kennedy winning, three points overcame the negative of being an elite Northerner:
To recap modern elections:
1960: Economy good, Cold War hot, two veterans, one likeable, one not, mild religious angle, too close to call, likeable guy won probably due to Mob work in Chicago. Star appeal and glamorous wife didn't hurt.
1964: Economy good, Cold War cooling, Goldwater essentially a crusty old man, Johnson a personable if overpowering-in-person good ole boy; Goldwater's Big Idea (stand tough against the Commies, use nukes if necessary) was dated, good for 1952 but no longer relevant in 1964; Johnson's Big Idea (civil rights, righting historic injustices) rang true with the times. Johnson won in a landslide.
1968: Country going to Hell in a handbasket (at least to those paying taxes and getting mugged), military bogged down in endless war, Democrat's Big Idea (civil rights) was already enacted, Humphrey's voice and demeanor too shrill to overcome disgust with Johnson and the war, unlikeable "tough guy" Nixon won in a close election thanks to his Western origin and "Southern Strategy."
Important note: governors win Presidential elections, senators and representatives do not. To be a governor, you must herd enough political cats to actually get something done. If you can pull this off, then you are qualified for the basically impossible job of President. Congress is a rarified fantasyland and the skills needed to get stuff done there do not translate to the real world.
Case in point: Johnson was always babbling that if only he could get Ho Chi Minh (leader of North Vietnam) in a room somewhere, they could work out a deal to end the war. In other words: Johnson's entire world view was that everything worked like the Senate, where you dragged your opponent into a smoky backroom and wheedled, cajoled, threatened, soothed and then cut a deal which was then carried out to the troops. This explains his abject failure in foreign policy.
It can be argued that Kennedy's initial fumbles on the world stage may well have resulted from his limited political experience in the senate; Nixon, though initially a representative and then a senator, had been Vice President for eight years. Though never part of Ike's inner circle, he was point-man in the Cold War and "bad cop" to Ike's easy-going (hey, another likeable guy experienced at herding cats) genial cop (who was very savvy beneath that affable exterior).
Being a Northern senator were negatives for Kennedy, but they were offset by the particulars mentioned above.
1972: A very muddy slog. The economy was sliding, but Nixon was on top of his game, triangulating China to offset the Soviet Union and implementing basically progressive domestic policies like block grants. McGovern as a Northern senator running against an incumbent did not have a snowball's chance in Heck; though likeable in person, his face and mannerisms did not come across as charming. Add in the debacles of "guaranteed income" and vice-presidential flubs and Nixon's extremely careful media campaign and you got a landslide.
The B-52s carpet-bombing Hanoi until the North Vietnamese ran out of Soviet-supplied SAM missiles didn't hurt, either. Never mind that Nixon's 1968 "secret plan to end the war" took four years and 25,000 more American lives and probably a million Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian lives--he got it done before the next election. Americans don't like wars which run longer than four years; if Sherman hadn't crushed Hood's army in 1864 and cut his way to the sea, guaranteeing eventual Northern victory regardless of Lee's brilliant defense of Richmond, then even Lincoln would have lost.
1976: Ford's Big Idea--WIP--"Whip Inflation Now"--was a dud while Carter's Big Idea--let's clean up a corrupt, inefficient and costly Federal Government--looked good to a weary populace. Ford, though briefly Vice-President, was a Northern congressman; Carter was a governor and a Southerner. It would have been a landslide had Carter actually been a likeable as opposed to a self-righteous person.
1980: A Western governor, very likeable and charming, versus an essentially unlikeable incumbent who'd allowed the Iranians to make him a hostage along with the 52 Americans in Tehran, an economy spiraling downard out of control and a weakened America seemingly flailing under the pathetic, corrupted Democratic leadership in a dysfunctional congress--no wonder it was a landslide. Reagan's Big Ideas: Soviet Union is an Evil Empire, and We Can Turn This Puppy Around--resonated with a nation weary of mismanagement, oil crises and faltering mis-steps on the world stage.
1984: Economy finally on the mend, victory in Granada, likeable incumbent versus another bland, sincere Northern senator--jeez, didn't the Democrats learn anything?--another landslide.
1988: The Elite's choice, Bush Senior, carried an impeccable Insider's resume: combat veteran, C.I.A. chief, Vice-President, etc. etc. The Democrats got one-third of the winning combination right for a change: Michael Dukakis was a governor, but he was a Northerner and did not come across as especially personable. The goofy photo of him in a tank was the coup de grace. Bush's malapropisms were legendary and not exactly winning; There was always something phony about his persona which is why he didn't win much bigger than he did. Neither candidate had a Big idea; Bush confessed he never possessed "The Vision Thing."
Important note: The taller candidate almost always wins. Dukakis was "height-challenged" and though his Greek-American supporters were rightly proud of his accomplishments and candidacy, they couldn't overcome the negatives of being a short Northerner without a Big Idea.
1992: A charming, personable southern governor--by gosh, the Democrats finally figured out the winning trifecta--and lo and behold, Clinton beat the elite, out-of-touch and basically blah/unpersonable Bush Senior, who was after all a Northerner without a Big Idea other than underlings should carry his wallet, and hence his amazement at the high technology of a supermarket checkout. Americans don't mind being ruled by an Elite, but they don't like their noses rubbed in it.
1996: Now the Republicans lost their touch, going with a surefire losing trifecta: an unlikeable Northern senator running against a tall, popular incumbent in a booming economy. Slam dunk, incumbent wins by a landslide.
2000: This one shares some features with 1964, only this time it's the Supreme Court which intervenes instead of the Mob. Note that the Constitution is very clear that elections are handled by the states; it was unprecedented, to say the least, for the Supreme Court to butt in on a case without Constitutional foundations. And just to prove the point, they announced the ruling could not be used as precedent. Nice work, guys and gals. The Mob respects your work.
A not-very-likeable Vice-President who was a senator (Nixon in 1964, Gore in 2000) gets lukewarm support from his popular predessessor (Ike, Clinton). Gore was a Southerner, a definite plus, but he was running against a Southern governor--two pluses. While Gore just didn't come across as personable, Bush had the same phony bonhomie as his father. But if you had to be stuck with one or the other on a long, dreary tramp-steamer trip, most Americans would probably pick Bush because he is by all accounts a likeable guy in person even if his public persona is smarmy.
Neither candidate had a Big Idea which resonated strongly, but Bush's well-crafted Compassionate Conservative line was more appealing at the time (due to disgust with Clinton's personal morals) than Gore's environmental-technocrat platform (reinventing government is a good idea but just not sexy enough to woo Americans). Were Gore to run against Bush tomorrow, he would undoubtedly win by a large margin, partly because his Big Ideas are now resonating globally (yes, even if they're wrong, they are still resonating).
2004: Take another unlikeable Northern senator and run him against a Southern governor incumbent in a time of economic good times, and you should have had a landslide for the incumbent. The fact that triple-negative candidate Kerry almost won the election revealed just how weak the Bush Presidency had already become. By all rights, he should have won by a landslide. If the Democrats had picked a winning trifecta candidate (personable Southern governor), they could have easily won the election.
OK, crystal-ball time. Yes, Hillary has loads of supporters who see her as the best hope to elect a female president, and some very smart, experienced people see Obama as the next (just happens to be African-American) Jack Kennedy. But they are both Northern senators. Those are two huge, historically powerful negatives. And Hillary is by all accounts flat-out unlikeable. There is no way Hillary will win with a trifecta of negatives. Millions will be stirred from their passivity to vote for her, but tens of millions will be stirred from their NFL-induced daze to vote against her. No matter how much lipstick her handlers put on the pig of her candidacy, it is doomed. She is visibly not personable. The media is filled with stories of her staff cowering in terror as she reams them out in language suitable for carpenters or longshoremen. No way, no how, forget it.
John Edwards has a chance, because he's Southern and likeable, and he has a Big Idea which will undoubtedly resonate as the nation cascades into a deep recession next year: we need to tackle the inequality and poverty which is hurting the nation. Unfortunately, he is a senator, so he'll need some Kennedy-like "extras" which could push him past his opponent in a close race.
Ditto for Republican hopefuls like Fred Thompson. (Note to Fred: only one Hollywood actor is allowed per 100 years. Reagan took the slot, sorry.) He's Southern, but not a governor, and only so-so as a likeable guy. Mike Huckabee is an interesting guy because he already has two out of three going for him: he's a Southern (Arkansas) governor. If he proves to be sincerely likeable, and comes up with a Big Idea which resonates, he might get the win.
Romney is a Northern governor, a little too slick (i.e. phony) for my taste, and so he only has one out of three at this point. None of these guys--Thompson, Huckabee or Romney has a Big Idea that resonates or is getting any traction, and so they are unlikely to win. (Hint to candidates: Healthcare. If you come up with something other than complicated band-aids, your Big Idea will overpower your negatives.)
Ron Paul has the Big Idea--restore our currency--and he's Southern (Texas), but he's a congressman. He seems like a sincere, likeable guy, and so he has two out of three. Not being a governor is a real negative, however, as no representative has won the Presidency in modern times.
But here's the wild card. If the U.S. and global economies slide into deep recession in 2008, as all the evidence suggests is inevitable, Americans will be primed for another "I'm mad as Hell and I'm not gonna take it any more" moment of profound change. Politicos who are basically dabbling around the edges, trying not to make any fatal mistakes (i.e. Obama, Hillary, Thompson, Romney, Huckabee, et. al.) are not going to fire anyone's imagination. But a guy like Ron Paul just might: as the dollar and global financial excesses come apart at the seams, a guy with a record of integrity and a Very Big Idea which is currently dismissed as weird/fanciful/fanatic (back the dollar with gold) might just spark a wildfire of support.
OK, he had to get re-elected, he's a politician, so of course he's funneled Federal dollars to his district and done all the other things you do to win, regardless of your party affiliation. Even Nancy Pelosi has to bring home the bacon to her district. All of that is basically quibbling: what will rule is who gets closest to this ideal: Southern governor, likeable/personable, with a Big Idea which resonates with the problems and contexts Americans will be struggling with in 2008.
In a similar fashion, Edwards has the Big Idea which will resonate in bad economic times: correct inequality, strip at least some of the Elite's more blatant privileges, show some concerns for working-class issues--the very issues the Republicans have ignored by firing up Moral Crusade bandwagons against phony issues like gay marriage.
Yes, he's an attorney, and a rich one; but he came from humble roots and has suffered greatly as an individual and as a family. If he "feels your pain," it will be sincere because he has suffered great losses. I suspect Americans will be very, very tired of slick Elite dynastic candidates (Romney and Clinton, for instance) and be willing to give someone with a cause (Edwards) or a strong belief in what's needed to make things right (Ron Paul) a chance, just as they were willing to give unpersonable but morally upright Carter a chance in 1976.
This is not to say the other candidates aren't sincere in their beliefs or fixes--undoubtedly they are--but the point is this: The Big Idea has to be simple, and it has to resonate in this time. In very deeply troubled times--such as the era we are now entering--an unlikeable candidate like Richard Nixon can win if he projects the strength and conviction to push through his/her Big Idea To Fix What's Wrong With This Country.
If a Southern Governor like Mike Huckabee can come up with a sincere Big Idea which resonates in a terrible recession, and he is basically a likeable guy, he can win. But if times are as dicey as I expect, the disadvantages of being a congressman won't be enough to stop a candidate like Paul or Edwards with a sincerely held Big Idea. In my judgment, both Edwards and Paul are sincere about their Big Idea; those aren't issues some hack handler invented for their campiagn to "broaden its appeal."
One last issue. The winning candidate has to have the personal gravitas to be imagined as President. Hillary has it--of course we can imagine her standing up to other leaders. (Even if you loathe her, you have to grant her this, just as people who loathed Nixon knew he had the persona to be a tough President.) If voters can't imagine the candidate as President, they can't win, regardless of their other advantages. And names and height do count in this equation; if people can't imagine "President Huckabee" then Mike can't win, regardless of his sincerity and other advantages.
One last note. A lot of right-wing ideologues rail against Franklin Roosevelt (Northern governor and Elite's elite) but they forget (or never bothered to learn) that Roosevelt was likeable and charming, and he understood suffering in a way blow-hard talk-radio/TV pundits do not. As someone who contracted polio in the prime of his life, Roosevelt knew injustice, pain and suffering. He withdrew into a shell of exile for years. When he emerged, he had the strength to lead the nation through horrendously perilous times. Hoover had his chance, and though he was a very smart and personally good guy, blathering on about "the free market" didn't cut it in reality.
So the person who wins in perilous times must have had personal experiences of sufficient strength to lead the nation through times when there will be no easy solutions. Lincoln had it (deep, crippling depression) and Truman had it, too (combat soldier/officer in World War I).
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