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Posts Tagged ‘Ronald Reagan’

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Oxford University Press Blog, 10-26-12

Although he last ran for office nearly 30 years ago, and died eight years ago, Ronald Reagan remains a surprisingly strong presence on today’s campaign trail. It is not just the multiple times Republican candidates’ invoked his name during the primary debates. It is not just that Americans are still debating Reagan’s cry to shrink the federal government. It is not just that Barack Obama has said he wants to be as transformational a president as Reagan was and Mitt Romney says he wants to follow the Reagan playbook – or that Newsweek has a cover story renaming the President “Barack Reagan.” It is also that each of the two candidates is trying to replicate a Reagan electoral feat.

Mitt Romney is trying to conjure up the spirit of 1980. During those days of economic trauma, low morale, and national angst, a remote, gaffe-prone Republican candidate – who even believed that trees caused more air pollution than cars – was stuck in a tight race against an unpopular, cerebral opponent whose rocky first term belied the euphoria his quick ascent to the Oval Office had generated four years earlier.  Ronald Reagan sealed his victory over Jimmy Carter with an effective debate performance, including his avuncular dismissal of Carter’s attacks with the kiss-off line “There you go again.” After the debate, the Gallup Poll recorded its largest candidate jump in the polls since polling began, approximately ten points in Reagan’s favor. On Election Day, Reagan defied the expectations, and silenced the scoffers.

Obama is hoping that 2012 will be more like 1984 than 1980. That year, an embattled incumbent whose party suffered serious electoral setbacks two years earlier, and had struggled to jumpstart the economy, won reelection with a triumphal campaign over a weak opponent. Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” campaign not only won Reagan four more years, it shaped the legend of Ronald Reagan, the president who brought peace, patriotism, and prosperity back to America.

Of course, history, like a winning army, only marches forward, and, as in sports, there are no do-overs. The two candidates can learn from Reagan’s successes – but they also should learn from Reagan’s failures. Reagan pretended that his 1981 win was a mandate for change, when it was basically an anti-incumbent, ABC election – with Americans choosing Anybody But Carter. And in 1984, Reagan scored more of a personal victory than a party victory; his Olympic pride and apple pie campaign had been so vague that he retained power but had trouble governing.

Whoever wins in 2012 will need broad support to lead. While running to win this fall, both candidates need to think about the day after, about how to unite the country and move forward. Such considerations should keep the campaign more constructive and more centrist than it has been, given that the President has to lead all the people. And the President needs a vision. Otherwise, he will echo the famous movie, “The Candidate.” In that 1972 movie, Robert Redford plays a longshot candidate who wins a tough Senate race. The movie ends with the famous tagline “What do we do now?”

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal, and a Visiting Scholar affiliated with the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. He is the author of The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2009), Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism (OUP, 2012), and co-editor of Living in the Eighties (OUP, 2010). Follow @GilTroy on Twitter.

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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-2-12


Ronald Reagan campaigning in Columbia, South Carolina, on October 10, 1980, a few weeks before the only debate of the 1980 election. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Happy October, which every four years becomes debate month in American presidential politics. On October 3, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will debate domestic policy in Colorado. On October 11, their vice presidential running mates, Paul Ryan and Joe Biden, will debate in Kentucky. Five days later on October 16, voters at a town meeting in New York will question the two presidential candidates about any issues and on October 22 — two weeks before Election Day — Obama and Romney will debate foreign policy in Florida.

These debates — which are more like side-by-side press conferences with some exchanges — are usually the political equivalent of military service: long bouts of boredom punctuated by bursts of melodrama. Usually, they reinforce media narratives and voter impressions. But they have sometimes changed outcomes, particularly in 1980, when Ronald Reagan’s aw shucks, “there you go again” dismissal of President Jimmy Carter’s attacks triggered a Reagan surge — and the largest last-minute switch in poll results since polling began in the 1930s.

Treating history as an authoritative tarot card rather than a subtle source of wisdom, Mitt Romney’s supporters have been touting that ten-point swing as proof that the Republicans will win. The 1980 moment appeals more broadly to Republicans as indication that a gaffe-prone, ridiculed, seemingly out-of-touch former governor can defeat an earnest Democratic incumbent afflicted by a sagging economy, Middle East troubles, and accusations that the twin pillars of his foreign policy are appeasement and apology not power and pride.

The 1980 debate should sober Obama and buoy Romney. In his recent book, The Candidate: What It Takes to Win — and Hold – the White House, Professor Samuel Popkin, an occasional Democratic campaign adviser, recalls his failure coaching Carter in 1980. Playing Reagan in debate “prep,” Popkin echoed the Republican’s devastating anti-Carter criticisms. Popkin describes the kind of careful criticism Romney should launch against Obama, knowing that if the challenger is too aggressive he looks angry and insolent but if he is too deferential he seems weak and intimidated. Reagan, Popkin writes, “resorted to more subtle, coded criticisms that were harder to defend against. He appeared respectful of the office and the president, suggesting that Carter was hamstrung by defeatist Democrats in Congress.” This approach forced Carter to rebut the premise — and plaintively claim he was strong — or the conclusion — by insisting Democrats were not defeatists. “Contesting one point left him tacitly conceding the other,” Popkin writes.

Obama’s caveat is in Carter’s reaction. Offended and embarrassed by the criticism, Carter ended the session after eleven minutes. Popkin as Reagan had pierced Carter’s “presidential aura,” unnerving everyone in the room. Trying to dispel the tension, Carter’s chief domestic policy advisor, Stuart Eizenstat, himself Jewish, resorted to ethnic humor by pointing to Popkin and joking, “You didn’t know Governor Reagan was Jewish, did you?” Popkin, who quickly replied “Well, Governor Reagan is from Hollywood,” realized that many of Carter’s people, including the aggrieved president, were unfamiliar with Reagan’s attacks because the majesty of the presidency insulated Carter from serious criticism or serious study of his challenger.

Of course, in an ideal world the debates would emphasize issue flashpoints not gaffe-hunting. In Denver, Romney should, Reagan-style, subtly question President Obama as to when he as president will take responsibility for the anemic recovery and lingering unemployment rather than scapegoating his predecessor. At Hofstra University, Romney should ask Obama to explain to the voters present and the American people how his increasing reliance on the heavy hand of federal regulations and big government does not reflect doubt in the traditional invisible hand of individual entrepreneurial Americans and the markets themselves. And in Boca Raton, Romney should prod Obama on the Arab Spring, asking him at what point he would concede that his policy failed rather than simply dismissing the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the murder of American diplomats in Libya, and other Obama-orchestrated disasters as “bumps in the road.” In response, Obama should emphasize his successes in halting the economic freefall, his faith in American ingenuity guided by the government’s occasional, competent, and gentle helping hand, and his muscular defense of American interests in hunting down Osama Bin Laden, boosting troops in Afghanistan, and reprimanding Egypt’s president for delays in defending America’s Cairo embassy. Meanwhile, reporters and voters should push both candidates to explain what sacrifices they will demand from Americans, where they will deviate from their party’s orthodoxy, how they will end partisanship, and what bold solutions they have to American debt, demoralization, and decline.

While such substantive exchanges would allow Americans to weigh the candidates’ dueling philosophies and records, it is more likely that the debates’ verdict will pivot around some theatrical moment. Since televised presidential debates began in 1960, when John Kennedy’s aristocratic calm contrasted with Richard Nixon’s sweaty, herky-jerky intensity, style has usually upstaged substance in debate reporting and debate perceptions.

It is too easy just to blame the press — although broadcasters and reporters will be seeking “gotcha” moments when a candidate stumbles and “grand slams” when a candidate dominates. Moreover, American voters respond more to debate theatrics than polemics. The mass reaction reflects one of the realities of modern leadership, which too many academics ignore and editorialists lament: image rules, style counts, a successful president or prime minister must communicate effectively not just administer smoothly.

This season, as the American campaign peaks and the silliness surges, it will be easy to mock American politics. But the presidential campaign remains a remarkable effective and dramatic ritual that gets two individuals conveying their messages to a polity of 300 million people.

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Culture Warriors Don’t Win

By Gil Troy, NYT, 4-27-12

Campaign Stops - Strong Opinions on the 2012 Election

Ronald Reagan campaigned for governor on Nov. 5, 1966 in<br /><br /> Hawthorne, Calif.,
Associated Press Ronald Reagan campaigning for governor on Nov. 5, 1966 in Hawthorne, Calif.

Mitt Romney’s apparent nomination proves that Republican voters are more pragmatic and centrist than their reputation suggests. The Republican candidates this year fought a classic political battle. Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul campaigned as purists, echoing Henry Clay’s famous expression from 1844, “I’d rather be right than president.” The realist Romney updated the belief of nineteenth-century partisans that a candidate’s most important ability is what they called his “availability,” as in “his ability to avail” – and prevail.

Gingrich and Santorum frequently justified their extremism by invoking the modern Republican demigod, Ronald Reagan. Gingrich is just now giving up on campaigning as a “Reagan conservative” against Romney, the “Massachusetts moderate.” In March, Santorum visited a Reaganite holy site – the Jelly Belly factory in Fairfield, Calif., which produced Reagan’s favorite jelly beans. “They’re asking you, people of principle, to compromise your principles and to be for someone who is less corely convicted than Ronald Reagan because we need to win,” Santorum said. He had a pragmatic argument too: “Every time we run someone that the moderate establishment of the Republican Party said we need to win, we lose.”

Santorum’s diction – corely convicted? – is as flawed as his historical memory. Republican voters have rejected culture wars and fanaticism in presidential campaigns repeatedly – they know culture warriors don’t win. Despite the talk about the rightward lurch of their party, a majority of Republicans have learned Reagan’s central political lesson. A Republican candidate can only win by wooing the center, and a president must govern as a national leader, not a factional chief or a cultural crusader.

Even when it began in the 1850s as an ideological anti-slavery breakaway group, the Republican Party favored more “available” nominees. The first Republican nominee, John C. Frémont, was most famous as “The Pathfinder.” In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was the compromise candidate, defeating the zealots Salmon P. Chase and William Henry Seward. Lincoln’s strategy was “to give no offence to others – leave them in a mood to come to us, if they shall be compelled to give up their first love.” He even made his acceptance letter “sufficiently brief to do no harm.”

There has been a more substance-oriented counter-tradition, epitomized by Grover Cleveland’s challenge, “What is the use of being elected or re-elected, unless you stand for something?” But the need to appeal broadly to America’s diverse electorate has usually prevailed. American voters’ weakness for popular icons over articulate ideologues ultimately frustrated even Henry Clay, the conscience of the Whig Party. As the Mexican War hero Zachary Taylor, who had never even voted for president before, conquered his party in 1848, Clay, well aware that Americans loved turning soldiers into presidents, moaned, “I have thought that I might yet be able to capture or to slay a Mexican.”

In the twentieth century, Ronald Reagan delivered his best lines as a culture warrior, including the grand slam — “A hippie is someone who looks like Tarzan, walks like Jane and smells like Cheetah” – while governing California, not while he was running for president. Reagan won in 1980 by moving beyond Barry Goldwater’s cranky conservatism, which had triggered the Democratic landslide of 1964.

Reagan’s conservatism with a smiley face emphasized economic issues. Within weeks of his inauguration in 1981, conservatives were complaining that Reagan’s Cabinet was too moderate. Their cry — “Let Reagan be Reagan” — demanded a more ideological and confrontational “corely convicted” leadership. But in compromising and popularizing, Reagan was being Reagan.

Nevertheless, conservatives revered Reagan because they never doubted his essential conservative identity. In Puritan terms, Reagan had a “covenant of grace” with conservatives, not a “covenant of works.” His salvation came from sharing core beliefs not engaging in particular acts.

Since Reagan, conservative ideologues like Santorum have inspired voters, disrupted primaries, enraged Democrats, alienated independents, but lost. In 1988, the evangelical preacher Pat Robertson surged in Iowa, then faltered. In 1992, Pat Buchanan was only popular enough to hurt President Bush, not to win. This pattern has held, with flareups of varying incandescence from Alan Keyes to Gary Bauer to Mike Huckabee. George W. Bush did not run as the conservative ideologue many saw when he governed but as the Romneyesque “compassionate conservative” whom many on the right at first mistrusted.

Winning candidates need a broad national reach. The appeal of the culture warrior is far more limited than the Tea Party crowd claims. If Americans actually embraced Rick Santorum’s worldview, the rates of premarital sex, abortion, births to single mothers, divorce, and same-sex relationships would be much lower, especially in the “red states.” But these are not “blue state” phenomena or liberal Democratic behaviors.

Most Americans are not ready to jettison traditional moral strictures even as many live non-traditional lives. Especially in this election, with no particularly pressing social or cultural issue demanding the attention of voters, Santorum’s sanctimony functioned as a form of identity politics, telegraphing membership in a self-selected club of the “virtuous,” while churning divisive emotions.

Romney should be wary because culture warriors can sabotage presidential campaigns. When, at the Republican National Convention in 1992, Pat Buchanan declared a “religious war,” a “cultural war,” a war “for the soul of America,” it was President Bush who suffered. Karl Rove blamed the 2000 electoral deadlock on millions of evangelical voters who stayed home because harsh conservative attacks on George W. Bush made them doubt his ideological purity.

Romney also has to worry because when smartphones and Facebook make everyone a reporter and modern journalists can shamelessly eavesdrop at Palm Beach fundraisers, it gets harder to reconcile primary-driven genuflection toward the right with more moderate inclinations. Both Republican conservatives and liberal Democrats will resurrect his most extreme statements as he veers toward the center. But in recalibrating, he will be behaving like most nominees. As one Republican Party founder, the passionate, wild-bearded Gideon Welles, advised his ambitious friend Franklin Pierce in 1852, when Welles was an anti-slavery Jacksonian Democrat: “Be the candidate of all.”

In 1984, Reagan’s chief of staff, James Baker, offered a recipe for victory that was more apple pie than red meat: “Crime, Education, Economics – Unity.” Reagan understood that Americans had complex feelings about many issues. He knew that a presidential campaign was not a Christian camp meeting. His covenant of grace gave the conservatives a popular victory they never would have achieved otherwise. And it taught Republicans (and Democrats) that even in primary season, winning the center and the swing voter remains the candidate’s central mission; political purity is useless if you lose.

Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University, is the editor, with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Fred Israel, of “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008,” fourth edition.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 1-19-12

After months of debating, fundraising, positioning, posturing, and polling, America’s Republican candidates are finally facing the voters – with Election Day still nearly ten months away. As always, there is much to mock. But despite its flaws, America’s electoral system is working, managing a complicated, intense, continent-wide conversation among millions of voters seeking a leader.

Admittedly, the Iowa-New Hampshire con  is absurd, with two, small, unrepresentative states starting the voting process earlier and earlier so they can be first in the nation. Both political parties foolishly enable this childish behavior. And yes, the Republican debates often seem more like Bart Simpson versus Sponge Bob than Abraham Lincoln versus Stephen Douglas. The most memorable moment so far from hours of talking by America’s aspiring chief executives has been Texas Governor Rick Perry’s excruciating “brain freeze,” when he could not remember the third federal agency he wanted eliminated, culminating with his now infamous “Oops.”  But this year, especially, the electoral system is not the issue – the frustrations come from the historical context and the candidates themselves.

This election comes at a particularly unhappy moment in American life. The economy has languished for nearly four years.  As during all recessions, Americans fear the downturn is permanent, forgetting the business cycle’s resilience while losing faith in their economy and themselves. The last decade has been clouded by fears of terrorism and the petty harassments at airports and elsewhere from living in a lockdown society. Americans overlook George W. Bush’s greatest achievement, which is a non-achievement — there were no successor attacks on American soil to the 9/11 mass murders. The war in Afghanistan still festers, the withdrawal from Iraq was joyless, even Barack Obama’s triumph in greenlighting the daring operation that killed Osama Bin Laden, brought only temporary relief. It was the dulled enjoyment of a chronically ill patient who had a rare, good day, not the long-sought healing or closure.

Meanwhile, Barack Obama’s upbeat, historic, transformational, “Yes We Can” candidacy has bogged down in the muck of amateur-hour governing, producing a weary, spasmodic, sobering, “Maybe We Can’t” presidency. Obama has now appointed his third-and-a-half chief of staff in three-years. Most recently, the now-retiring chief of staff William Daley shared duties, after his first demotion, with Pete Rouse.

Amid this depressing context, the Republicans promising to rescue America have been more empty suits than white knights, super-cranks not superheroes. The front-runner, Mitt Romney, has been a Ford Escort-kind of candidate, competent enough but not exciting, rolling along smoothly yet frequently stuck in neutral. He has yet to generate the kind of excitement Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Bill Clinton in 1992 each needed to unseat an incumbent president.  Different Romney rivals have successively zoomed ahead sporadically only to crash, sputter, or run out of gas.

Underlying the theatrics and personality questions is a serious referendum about the Republican Party’s character. Romney appears to be the most reasonable, presentable, electable candidate. Voters looking for an anybody-but-Obama candidate should rally around Romney, as the Republicans’ best chance to recapture the White House.  The other candidates – especially now that Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry quit – are ideologues, representing doctrinaire strains within the Republican Party.  Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, in particular, hold fringe views.  In a general campaign, Democrats and the media would easily caricature either as yahoos, while Newt Gingrich remains an unguided conversational missile, who has now been tagged by his ex-wife as an advocate of “open marriage.”

The surges of the Santorum and Paul campaigns demonstrate that in the US today, a growing gap separates fundamentalist provincials and cosmopolitan moderates. The extremes are diverging, submerging the center.  Ron Paul’s libertarianism and Rick Santorum’s fundamentalism epitomize the reddest of the red state sensibility, which is deeply alien to the New York-California East Coast-West Coast blue state sensibility.  In an age of niche media – to each his or her own Facebook page and shrill corner of the Blogosphere — members of each social, cultural, political fragment in a society can have their own echo chamber. As they whip each other into self-referential frenzies, and as the headline-driven media amplify their shouts, they drown out the increasingly silent majority, making it harder to forge a common, constructive social, cultural and political conversation.  Of course, the primary campaigns in particular favor the shrill partisans. General election campaigns often help candidates find the center as they woo swing voters.

So let the games begin. As the Republicans battle it out, it will be interesting to see whether Mitt Romney’s safe, lowest common denominator politics wins, or Republicans turn to an edgier, pricklier candidate. And as Republicans pummel one another, President Barack Obama will be watching from the sidelines but trying not to get sidelined.  Hovering above the fray is nice but Obama cannot afford to be too removed – he is too vulnerable and risks irrelevance.

Republicans seek a new Reagan –a Republican upstart who unseated President Jimmy Carter in 1980.  Democrats should be hoping for 1996 Redux, when a flawed, unpopular Democratic incumbent, Bill Clinton, was blessed by an even more flawed, less popular Republican challenger, Bob Dole. For Obama, even winning by default will represent an historic, and possibly redemptive, achievement, as Clinton learned.

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By Gil Troy, New York Times, 1-10-12

Right now, while we indulge New Hampshire’s childish insistence on its presidential primary being “first in the nation,” Americans should decide to bury this tradition. Nearly a century is enough: the Granite State has somehow turned a fluke into an entitlement. Worse, its obsession with primacy prolongs, complicates and distorts the presidential nominating process. In a democracy, no state should be first forever.

People have been grumbling about this and other undemocratic anomalies for years. But the standoff between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008 gave the nominating process the equivalent of a stress test, which it failed.

We can find redemption via randomization. Every four years — in March, not January — four different states, from the North, South, East and West, should begin the voting.

Since 1920, each presidential primary season has started with New Hampshire. Primaries to select national convention delegates first emerged for the 1912 campaign. When New Hampshire officially embraced this democratizing alternative to boss rule for the 1916 contest, the timing served voters’ needs, not state conceit.

The primary occurred in March during “mud season” — after the snow, before the plowing — the traditional time for New England politicking. As the New Hampshire Almanac proudly explains, the legislature scheduled primary day on town meeting day, the second Tuesday in March, because “frugal New Hampshirites” loathed lighting “the Town Hall twice.” By 1920, Indiana, which originally voted earlier, decided to vote in May, making New Hampshire’s primary the first.

A voter stepped out of a town hall in Canterbury, N.H.
T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty ImagesA voter stepped out of a town hall in Canterbury, N.H.

When New Hampshire officially embraced the primary system, the timing served voters’ needs, not state conceit.

New Hampshire continued to hold presidential primaries, even as the number of primaries dwindled and voter turnout plummeted. New Hampshire’s primary, like most in those days, selected unpledged national convention delegates. In 1949, the legislature popularized the process by allowing voters to designate favorite candidates, too, in what amounted to a non-binding straw poll.

Suddenly, in 1952, this “beauty contest” became significant. General Dwight D. Eisenhower proved his viability to Republicans, while Senator Estes Kefauver’s surprise victory in the Democratic primary inspired President Harry Truman to please his wife Bess and retire.

The legend of the cataclysmic “Live Free or Die” primary grew when President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968 and Senator Edmund Muskie in 1972 each won but faltered by performing worse than expected. Four years later, Jimmy Carter soared after his “better than expected” win – by only 4,663 votes. In 1980 Ronald Reagan stopped George Bush’s “Big Mo.” From 1952 through 1988, every winning presidential candidate first won New Hampshire.

During the 1970s, the politics around this first presidential beauty contest started turning ugly. The New Hampshire primary – and its Iowa caucus doppelganger – was tainted by greed. With primaries proliferating nationwide to allow party members more democratic input in selecting their nominee, media scrutiny of the early contests intensified. Motel owners, car rental companies, printers, advertisers and caterers enjoyed the resulting bonanza, while otherwise obscure political hacks and journalists reveled in playing kingmaker.

This quaint ritual became a state fetish. In 1975, a state law passed protecting the prerogative. Statute RSA 653:9 now mandates that the primary be scheduled at least seven days before all other primaries.

Jealous states like South Carolina and Florida tried front-loading their primaries to enhance their voters’ influence. New Hampshire advanced its primary date into February, then January — goodbye rain boots, hello snow shoes. The shifts prolonged presidential campaigns unnecessarily, annoying millions. In 1999, New Hampshire bullied candidates into signing the New Hampshire Primary Pledge boycotting states that pre-empted New Hampshire. For this current 2012 election cycle, New Hampshire’s zealous Secretary of State, William Gardner, even considered a December date to pre-empt Nevada’s caucus, until the Westerners caved.

In 2008, this silly situation became scandalous. When two large, important states, Florida and Michigan, dared to hold January primaries, New Hampshire and Iowa state officials demanded that candidates promise not to campaign in either state. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama cravenly complied. Obama’s name did not even appear on the Michigan ballot.

Hillary Clinton won Michigan’s primary on Jan. 15 and Florida’s two weeks later.  Clinton’s Michigan vote of 328,309 was more than New Hampshire’s entire Democratic vote total of 287,542.  Still, the punitive Democratic National Committee initially refused to seat any delegates from those states. Desperately seeking delegates, Clinton rediscovered the democratic ideal of “one person, one vote” and insisted on counting the delegates she won in those states. Ultimately, the Democrats awarded Florida and Michigan delegates half a vote each. This compromise affirmed party officials’ scheduling power over state legislatures, while at least partially involving these two states’ citizens in the nominating process.

New Hampshire patriots describe their primary as downright Jeffersonian. Like their Iowa counterparts, they claim the state’s size favors humbler candidates who “make their case door-to-door,” intimately, substantively. Yet New Hampshire campaigns are as frivolous as any other American elections. Candidates spend days flipping pancakes, driving tractor-trailers, slurping chowder, sucking lobster claws. No worse but no better than other states, New Hampshire merits equal but not special treatment.

Once the New Hampshire primary ends, reporters, rather than locals, start behaving badly, exaggerating this one minor, peculiar state’s significance. Speaking in percentages magnifies margins. Hillary Clinton’s slim 7,589-vote victory sounded more impressive when rendered as 39 to 36 percent. Further amplification comes from the media echo chamber as words like “triumph,” “disappointment” and “momentum” transform minor tremors into electoral earthquakes.

In 1787, the “bundle of compromises” that created the Constitution repeatedly balanced small states’ prerogatives with those of big ones. Presidential elections are too important, and first impressions too lasting, to cede so much power to one small state today. Potential presidents must handle a huge, diverse, continental America. A randomized rotation, with four different states starting the nomination process every four years, would test the candidates fairly.

Fetishizing New Hampshire’s primary position has become big business, but it’s bad politics. An idiosyncratic state’s aggressive assertion of an absurd claim, indulged by two spineless national parties and a compliant news media, effectively disenfranchises other voters while exaggerating the importance and the effect of tiny wins of a few thousand votes in a nation of more than 300 million. We can do better. After all, we are selecting candidates for what is still the most important job in the world.



Gil Troy, professor of history at McGill University, is the editor, with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Fred Israel, of “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008,” fourth edition.

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By Gil Troy, New York Times, 11-6-11

There we go again. After nonstop headlines a year before Election Day and nine debates between the Republican candidates (number 10 is scheduled to take place on Wednesday in Michigan), Americans are already grumbling that the 2012 presidential campaign is ugly and interminable. But these quadrennial complaints about campaigning miss the point.  Presidential campaigns are nasty, long and expensive because they should be. Many aspects of campaigns that Americans hate reflect democratic ideals we love.

The presidential campaign’s length and fury are proportional to the electorate’s size and the presidency’s importance.  A new president should undergo a rigorous, countrywide, marathon job interview. Citizens need time to scrutinize the candidates. As David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s senior strategist, puts it: “Campaigns are like an MRI for the soul, whoever you are eventually people find out.” Already this year, “easy favorites” like Tim Pawlenty fizzled, while Rick Perry learned that years governing Texas do not provide as much political seasoning as weeks of presidential campaigning. Mitt Romney, his aides admit, worked out his campaigning “kinks” in 2008.  That year, Sarah Palin’s popularity waned while Barack Obama’s soared, the more each campaigned.

These nationwide courting rituals should be long enough to let great politicians flourish and bond with the nation. John F. Kennedy became a better president and person by encountering Appalachian poverty during the 1960 West Virginia Democratic primary. During his 18,009 mile, 600-speech campaign in 1896, the Populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan insisted that voters “have a right to know where I stand on public questions.” Franklin D. Roosevelt’s strategist advised his candidate in 1932 in strikingly modern terms: “You are you,” he said, and “have the faculty of making friends on a campaign tour.” Traditionally, candidates repeated stump speeches so frequently that, as Herbert Hoover noted, “paragraphs could be polished up, epigrams used again and again, and eloquence invented by repeated tryouts.”

A campaign is the defining democratic exercise for a country founded on the consent of the governed. Since the Jacksonian Democratic revolution against elitism in the 1820s, each revolution democratizing American life further popularized the campaign.  Democracy trumped dignity; mass politics required mass appeals that frequently became protracted, vulgar brawls.

Like automotive crash tests, nasty campaigns determine a potential president’s strength and durability.

Popular candidates stopped being passive kings-to-be, becoming active, articulate, prime-ministers-in-formation, introducing themselves to the people, who wanted to vet their leaders. Most Americans still yearned for George Washington’s dignified silence, even as they cheered candidates engaging in what Hubert Humphrey would later call “armpit politics,” intense and intimate.  In 1840, William Henry Harrison explained that “appearing among my fellow citizens” was the “only way to disprove” rivals’ libels that he was a “caged simpleton.” Similarly, in 1948, a century later, President Harry Truman traveled to California to give the locals a chance to examine him in person. “I had better come out and let you look at me to see whether I am the kind of fellow they say I am,” he said.

Like automotive crash tests, nasty campaigns determine a potential president’s strength and durability. George H.W. Bush deflected ridicule in 1988 as a “wimp,” a “weenie” and “every woman’s first husband,” by mudslinging. “Two things voters have to know about you,” his aide Roger Ailes advised. “You can take a punch and you can throw a punch.”

Alternatively, a well-placed blow can pulverize a vulnerable candidacy. Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, a ferociously partisan Democrat, twice devastated Republican contender Thomas Dewey. First, in 1940, Ickes said the 38-year-old New Yorker had “thrown his diaper into the ring.” Ickes was also popularly credited with suggesting four years later that the dapper, mustachioed Dewey looked “like the groom on the wedding cake.” Both barbs stuck, crystallizing concerns about Dewey.

Voters oversimplify, viewing presidential campaigns as presidential dress rehearsals. After Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory, the defeated Vice President Dan Quayle predicted:  “If he runs the country as well as he ran the campaign, we’ll be all right.” Actually, campaigns are auditions for certain aspects of the job. Although the contrast between Barack Obama as candidate and as president suggests that great campaigners do not always make great presidents, every great president must now be a great campaigner first.

Campaign budgets reflect the time candidates require to capture attention across America’s continental expanse. Candidates compete against the din of modern life, not just against each other. Considering that Procter & Gamble spent $8.7 billion in 2008 peddling detergents and razors, spending $4.3 billion for the 2008 campaign appears a reasonable price to pay for democracy.

The time and money invested pay off because campaigns matter. The stakes in elections are high, the outcomes often in doubt. Despite frequently feeling powerless in modern America, voters can make history. The George W. Bush-Al Gore deadlock in 2000 reminded Americans that in close elections, old-fashioned civics teachers were proved right: every vote counts. When Truman upset Dewey in 1948, the St. Louis Star-Times saluted unpredictability as an “essential part of freedom.”

Ronald Reagan used his four presidential runs in 1968, 1976, 1980 and 1984 to become a better candidate – and the Great Communicator. He relished voters’ sweaty handshakes, sloppy kisses, hearty backslaps and soaring hopes, explaining simply, “I happen to like people.”  Reagan instinctively understood the Progressive philosopher John Dewey’s teaching that “democracy begins in conversation.”  That conversation can turn ridiculous, raucous or tedious, but it serves as both safety valve and social salve. Presidential campaigns historically have had happy endings, with America’s leader legitimized by the open, rollicking process.

So, yes, campaigns are excessive, part old-fashioned carnival and part modern reality show. But in these extraordinary, extended democratic conversations, a country of more than 300 million citizens chooses a leader peacefully, popularly and surprisingly efficiently. As Reagan told Iowans during his costly, nasty, lengthy – but successful – 1984 campaign, “It’s a good idea – and it’s the American way.”



Gil Troy, professor of history at McGill University, is the editor, with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Fred Israel, of “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008,” fourth edition, just released by Facts on File of Infobase Publishing.

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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, The Montreal Gazette, 8-11-11

U.S. President Barack Obama is smart, eloquent and talented, but inexperienced as an executive. While he still needs more management experience, the presidency is not the right place for on-the-job training.

U.S. President Barack Obama is smart, eloquent and talented, but inexperienced as an executive. While he still needs more management experience, the presidency is not the right place for on-the-job training.

Photograph by: Alex Wong, Getty Images

The downgrading of America’s credit rating just days after the debt-ceiling fight ended – followed by wild stock market gyrations – risks branding Barack Obama’s presidency as a historic failure. The S & P analysts made it clear that they were passing political judgment on the United States, not just making an economic assessment. While Republicans clearly share the blame for U.S. political gridlock, Obama shoulders most of the burden as the person in charge.

The perception of American paralysis reflects deep ideological divisions in the country as well as disturbing management failures in the Oval Office. Barack Obama is smart, eloquent and talented, but inexperienced as an executive. As a community organizer, an academic and a senator on the state and national levels, he has led but not managed. The presidency is an executive position and not a place for on-the-job training, especially during times of economic catastrophe.

The debt-ceiling fight and the ensuing downgrade proved yet again that few politicians fear the current president. Obama seemingly skipped the section in Machiavelli that teaches “it is much safer to be feared than loved.” America’s president could learn from Canada’s current prime minister how to motivate in a muscular way, just as Stephen Harper could learn from Obama how to lighten a leader’s touch. Obama’s dainty presidency will continue drifting until both Democrats and Republicans, in Congress and in the executive branch, learn that crossing the president has a cost, and that this president, like other strong leaders, will wreak vengeance on errant allies as well as political enemies.

Petulance is not enough. Obama has repeatedly denounced the Republicans as obstructionist. But these displays of presidential pique backfired, legitimizing Tea Party claims to being independent troublemakers. Moreover, Obama’s denunciations risk becoming ritualized, more like the fulminations of a substitute teacher who cannot control the class rather than the commands of the disciplinarian assistant principal who restores order.

Obama has long struggled with this problem of presidential wimpiness. Rahm Emanuel swaggered into the Oval Office as White House chief of staff to be Obama’s enforcer. But years in the House leadership softened Emanuel, making him too deferential to Congress. Congressional Democrats acted with impunity during the two years they enjoyed a majority in both Houses. The result was the health-care bill, a bill so complex because it indulged so many legislative whims it is difficult for the president to explain clearly in popular terms.

Obama’s most successful predecessors cultivated reputations for toughness. Theodore Roosevelt conceptualized the White House as a bully pulpit for national leadership while understanding the need to bully the occasional critic. Franklin Roosevelt’s famous challenge, “Judge me by the enemies I have made,” today sounds like a wartime boast. In fact, Roosevelt made this defiant statement during his 1932 campaign visit to Portland, Ore., vowing to confront greedy public utilities. As president, Roosevelt perfected various techniques for rewarding friends and punishing enemies. He distributed federal goodies like a tyrannical father doles out love, attention and allowance, favouring the districts of loyal legislators such as Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson, whose constituents then prospered.

Conversely, while historians often emphasize Roosevelt’s failure to unseat the conservative Democratic congressmen he opposed in 1938, targeting some kept others in line.

Ronald Reagan, like Obama, was constitutionally unable to bully party members who strayed or opponents who obstructed. But Reagan knew he had to telegraph toughness, especially because many underestimated him as a mere actor and a political amateur. In August 1981, when members of the Air Traffic Controllers’ Union went on strike, Reagan gave the controllers 48 hours to return to work. Two days later, he fired those who continued striking.

“I’ve asked so many leading European financiers when and why they started pumping money into this country,” a British businessman based in Washington said years later, “and they all said the same thing: when Reagan broke the controllers’ strike.”

Obama, like all effective leaders, must remain authentic. Seeking to play the role of the moderate is natural for him, and commendable. But many of America’s most successful presidents understood they had to be muscular moderates, building consensus without playing the patsy.

Political scientist Richard Neustadt characterized the power of the presidency as the power to persuade. In fact, presidential power also comes from the ability to reward and punish, to create careers and destroy others – demanding a ruthlessness in domestic politics that Obama has rarely displayed.

Leaders, even muscular moderates, should be feared, respected and, if possible, as a bonus, loved.

Gil Troy teaches history at McGill University.

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