By Gil Troy, The Toronto Star, 1-4-11
Jimmy Carter’s smile looks forced while applauding Edward Kennedy at the 1980 Democratic convention.
STAR FILE PHOTO
While much of the discussion since U.S. President Barack Obama’s “shellacking” in the 2010 congressional midterm elections has focused on the Republican surge, Obama also should worry about his base. In the last 50 years, the only incumbent presidents who have lost their re-election bids first faced primary challenges for renomination. In short, Obama better worry about his own party before dealing with the Tea Party.
Although in the age of modern communications the power of any incumbent is considerable, the American president’s powers are particularly formidable. By being both the head of state and head of government, in effect the king and the prime minister, the president can tap all kinds of non-partisan patriotic emotions while monopolizing the airwaves and using political muscle. During the Christmas season, for example, as the president hosts thousands of influential Americans in the White House, as he lights the national Christmas tree and calls for national unity, he serves as the high priest of America’s civic religion, transcending mundane partisan concerns.
So it is difficult — and has always been wrenching — to fire a president. In the 20th century, only five incumbents lost re-election bids, and in the last half century, it occurred only three times. Each time it required a major crisis and a serious insurgency, whereby someone with purer ideological credentials from the president’s own party first weakened the incumbent before the general election.
In 1976, president Gerald Ford knew his position was weak. He was the first vice-president in American history to replace the first president ever to have resigned, Richard Nixon. Furthermore, he had been the first vice-president never to have faced the national electorate, having replaced a disgraced vice-president, Spiro Agnew, under the terms of the new 25th Amendment, which had only been ratified in 1967. Before then, vice-presidents were not replaced and, when necessary, the speaker of the House became the president’s designated successor. Moreover, in the 1974 midterm congressional elections, just weeks after Ford became president in August of 1974, his Republican party had imploded, losing 48 House seats and five Senate seats. Americans punished the Republicans as the party of Watergate, shorthand for all the scandals that forced Nixon from office.
Although Ford was a decent and honest man, his short tenure already had been very rocky. His pardon of Nixon dissipated much of the goodwill with which Americans had greeted him; the collapse of South Vietnam humiliated Americans; and soaring inflation devastated individual Americans’ household budgets. Going into their 1976 bicentennial year, Americans were cranky. Republicans worried that their weakened incumbent would follow in the footsteps of two other Republicans who lost their re-election bids, William Howard Taft in 1912 and Herbert Hoover in 1932.
Still, amid all the troubles, what most harmed Ford was the campaign mounted by a fellow Republican, Ronald Reagan. Reagan ran to Ford’s right, exploiting growing frustrations with détente (the policy of engaging with the Soviet Union and China) and a broader sense that Ford was not committed to core conservative ideals. Reagan took advantage of the fact that partisans are often the most motivated to vote in primaries — general elections usually reward centrism more than partisanship. Reagan’s attack imposed the primary double-whammy on Ford. The president was weakened by having to fight Reagan primary by primary — and had to shift right to compete with Reagan for partisan Republicans. As a result, it was easier for the smiling, elusive Democratic nominee, Jimmy Carter, to paint Ford as a weak leader out of step with the American public.
Four years later, Carter was the one in trouble. The inflation rate was even higher — as Americans endured the new phenomenon of “stagflation,” whereby prices rose even as the economy flagged. Carter was a weak leader, urging Americans to adjust to limits. Conservatives hated him for this defeatism. Liberals hated him because they considered him the most conservative Democrat since Grover Cleveland, pushing to deregulate the economy and balance the budget.
Carter’s standing with party regulars and liberals sank so low that the crown prince of the Democratic party, senator Ted Kennedy, decided to run for the nomination. Kennedy’s candidacy was ill-fated. When a sympathetic interviewer, Roger Mudd, asked why he was running, Kennedy rambled. When radical Islamist students overran the American embassy and held 52 diplomats hostage in November 1979, just as the nomination campaign was starting, Americans initially rallied around their president in an instinctive patriotic reaction.
Eventually, Kennedy found his footing, winning the important New York primary. Kennedy failed to win the Democratic nomination, but at the party’s national convention he upstaged Carter. Kennedy’s passionate endorsement of the welfare state, vowing “the dream shall never die” in a speech that became an instant classic, captured Democratic hearts. At the same time, it helped Carter’s general election opponent, Ronald Reagan, define Carter as yet another liberal to a nation increasingly fed up with liberalism’s failures.
In 1984, Reagan broke the emerging presidential losing streak, winning re-election with his upbeat “Morning in America” campaign. Reagan had no real opposition from his fellow Republicans in the primaries. His Democratic opponent Walter Mondale floundered, with the economy finally booming after the traumatic, inflation-wracked Ford-Carter years.
Reagan’s vice-president, George H.W. Bush, essentially inherited the presidency after Reagan’s two terms. But Reaganite conservatives always doubted Bush. They remembered how Bush opposed Reagan in the 1980 primaries, mocking their cherished tax-cutting, budget-shrinking “supply side” theories as “voodoo economics.” They mistrusted Bush as too Yankee, too Connecticut, too establishment. To placate the right, Bush proclaimed at the 1988 Republican convention: “Read my lips: no new taxes.” When, governing responsibly, Bush broke that vow two years later, conservatives broke with Bush. The conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan ran against the president for the 1992 Republican nomination.
Buchanan’s candidacy was far weaker than Reagan’s in 1976 or Kennedy’s in 1980. Still, Buchanan’s impressive showing in the New Hampshire primary with 38 per cent of the vote, and his own fire-breathing convention oration, helped derail Bush’s campaign. Arkansas governor Bill Clinton’s campaign shrewdly emphasized that “it’s the economy stupid.” Still, the Buchanan candidacy helped confirm Clinton’s argument that Bush was a weakened incumbent too tied to the exhausted and discredited Reaganite right.
A few weeks ago, on Dec. 4, with Democrats still reeling from their midterm losses, the Washington Post ran an op-ed from a progressive fed up with Obama’s “spinelessness,” pleading: “Save Obama’s Presidency by Challenging Him on the Left.” The writer, Michael Lerner, overestimated the left’s popularity and misread his history. Such an insurgency would threaten Obama’s tenure not prolong it.
Lerner’s voice is marginal but the fact that the influential Washington Post ran his article demonstrated just how far Obama has sunk since the magical days of his election back in November 2008. For that reason, Obama and his aides will have to use some of the sharp-elbow tactics they mastered in Chicago politics to try squelching any potential Democratic opponents to Obama’s renomination, such as Congressman Dennis Kucinich or former Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold.
Exit polls after the 2010 midterm congressional elections showed that Obama has lost most ground with the independents who helped elect him in 2008. Obama should shift to the centre over the next two years, governing more as the post-partisan moderate he promised to be rather than the liberal partner to the liberal-Democratic congressional leadership he often has been. A liberal challenge in the primaries would force Obama to play to his left, undermining that effort.
The Ford-Carter-Bush losses also offer Obama another cautionary tale. It really is “the economy, stupid.” Americans tend to give presidents too much credit when the economy booms and too much blame when the economy sags. Seeing the stock market or employment figures or inflation rates as a referendum on a president is natural but simplistic. Government policies and presidential economic strategies affect the economy, but so do many other factors. The broader economic cycle reflects a stunning array of inputs, that neither the president nor any other individual can control fully. If the economy revives, even as late as 2012, Obama will have bragging rights to his own Reagan-style “Morning in America.” Even most Americans’ judgment of the complex health-care reform, which will barely be kicking in by then, will be determined by the state of the economy.
History is instructive not predictive. Still, it is hard to see how Obama could lose if the economy is booming and his party is united. And it is hard to see Obama winning if the economy remains depressed, Democrats are deeply divided, and Republicans find a candidate who is popular, credible and effective.
Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and the author of, among others, Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, and The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.