As the midterms approach, and there are even hints about what the next Presidential election will be about, such as that Elizabeth Warren will make a run for it, commentators come up with a lot of conventional wisdom to frame their remarks about breaking news. I want to point out that these are largely shibboleths that don’t stand the weight of analysis, while there are other generalizations, such as the idea that midterms favor the out-party, that do, because those can be backed up with statistics and case studies while the shibboleths are mostly just faulty phraseology for what is not there. Let us look at a few of these cliches that pass for political wisdom.
The first platitude is that the major parties nominate centrists except when they are sure they will lose and then waste a nomination on someone they truly love. The examples cited are Goldwater in 1964 and McGovern in 1972. That makes for an even handed balance of the same process working in both parties except that the assertion is wrong. Goldwater was nominated because Nixon wasn’t around to tie together the conservative West Coast wing of the party with the internationalist and liberal East Coast wing of the party. The internationalists in 1964 did have a candidate, Nelson Rockefeller, but the convention, still dominated by machine appointed delegates rather than those elected in the primary system, had its way, managing to vilify television reporters sent to cover the convention as purveyors of what would today be called “fake news”. Conservatives haven’t changed that much; they are just more clearly in control these days. Yes, it was true that it seemed likely that people would vote for Johnson because of the guilt people collectively felt over the assassination of John Kennedy, but no election is a sure thing. It all happens, at least then, on one day, and so you never know about what may shift public sentiment at the last minute, as when Comey reopened the Hillary investigation about a week before the 2016 election. People fight hard for the nomination because lightening might strike. The idea that an election is foreordained was apparently the reason that so many candidates stayed away from the 1992 election, because George H. W. Bush was so sure to be reelected that potential candidates like Gore and Cuomo bowed out, but Cuomo backed out because he couldn’t make up his mind that he was up to the presidency, John F Kennedy having solved that problem for himself by comparing himself to all the other Democrats who had thrown their hats into the ring in 1960, and some people, like Trump, never seeming to have asked themselves that question. And Gore, in addition to being preoccupied with his son’s recovery from an auto accident, was also still waiting for the plagiary charges that brought down his 1988 campaign to pass into history and so he couldn’t run in the 1992 primaries, but that apparently happened by the time he was selected to run for vice president in 1992, while Ted Kennedy had not by 1980 overcome the Chappaquiddick incident, even though that had occured in 1969. And there were a number of worthy contenders in the 1992 Democratic primaries, including Jerry Brown, famous as a young and very liberal California Governor and, from the center, the very well respected Paul Tsongas, Governor of Massachusetts, both of them beaten back by Bill Clinton, the always “comeback kid”, who was a very formidable candidate not only because of his ability to connect with an audience and give carefully reasoned speeches, but because he could bring some southern states with him, just as Jimmy Carter had.
Now, as to the 1972 Presidential election. George McGovern’s nomination was not just the expression of left wing sentiment. The wing of the party loyal to Kennedy was supporting him. He had been nominated in 1968 as the fall back person for the Kennedy’s should Humphrey somehow falter, noone thinking that Gene McCarthy could get the nomination even in that eventuality. Moreover, it was, after all, the McGovern Commission that had set the new rules after the previous election so that the primaries became the battleground for the candidates for the nomination rather than the state party machinery. And, thirdly, Nixon had engineered the dirty tricks against Senator Muskie, who he thought might have beaten him, and that was why McGovern had a chance. Nixon thought he was vulnerable. So you never know what your chances are until you try them out and every election is a crapshoot. That is why it is important to have the election be conducted in a legitimate way: so that we can accept the president of whichever party wins, as was the case even when Hillary was defeated by someone who was so disagreeable and had also lost the popular vote by three million. Whether we will trust the results next time, should Trump win in 2020, should he run for reelection, is a good question. All the commentators mean, then, by saying that an election is surely won or lost already when the candidates decide whether or not to make a run, is that after the process is over, and you see who won by a landslide, then you can always look back and say that it was preordained.
A supposed adjunct of the false proposition just analyzed is that some elections are more important than others, just as some elections are throwaways while others aren’t. But that proposition, again, is based on looking with hindsight at the results of elections. Some elections are indeed watershed elections which means that there are important shifts in the demographics, of what groups move over to support the political party they had not supported in the past, or the presence of a newly emergent demographic group becomes important. The election of 1968 was not a watershed election because the Democrats continued to hold the South and Humphrey was defeated by one half of one percentage point. By 1972, the Solid South had abandoned the Democrats and gone Republican because it was Democrats that pushed through civil rights legislation and because Evangelical Christians as well as Catholics were so motivated by the social issues of abortion and the unconventional lifestyles of the young. This is a situation that no longer holds in Virginia because of the number of Federal employees that live in Northern Virginia and may be changing, finally, in North Carolina because of demographic changes that include the movement of many Northerners to that state. Democrats, however, are still waiting for Hispanics to throw their electoral weight around, but Hispanics do not bother to go to the polls, even when such an anti-Hispanic candidate as Donald Trump is on the ballot.
But all elections are important because we can only speculate about what a candidate will do once in office and we can decide whether his policies would be very different from what would have been the policies or decisions taken if one of his competitors in the primaries or his opponent in the general election had won. Was it such a disaster that Nixon beat Humphrey? Nixon was very liberal on domestic policy. He supported the EPA and even, for a while, price controls, and he was always a staunch supporter of civil rights, and Humphrey would have been reluctant to do anything to move troops out of Vietnam any faster than Nixon did that job, which was over the course of years not months. It is only the character flaw that led him into conspiratorial thinking that led Nixon astray, and the only way that could have been foreseen is if you were one of the Nixon haters from back in the Forties when he showed that he would do anything to win an election. Would Nixon have been so reckless in his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis as Kennedy was or would he have made a secret agreement to trade our missiles in Turkey for the Soviet missiles in Cuba without all the hullabaloo that brought us to the brink of nuclear war? There are also long term trends that Presidents do not avoid but respond to in the way in which their party might be expected to behave, as when Obama used a massive infusion of federal funds to get the economy moving again during the Great Recession, and there are as well initiatives which carry a President’s own signatures, such as Obama avoiding a war in Syria.
So there is no way to backup a claim that one election is more important than another one. It was a disaster, so I thought at the time, that Reagan, the B-level Hollywood actor, got elected, but he appointed himself a very able cabinet that did bring an end to the Cold War that was playing itself out anyway because of the economic weakness of the Soviet Union. He did try to weaken labor unions by refusing to hire back the air controllers whom he had fired, but the union movement was on the decline anyway. What he did introduce, all on his own, and not just because it was part of the Republican Party playbook, was the idea that charm is enough to get you the Presidency. At best, Presidents are aware that they can make just a few moves on the chessboard, and will leave it at that. George W. Bush far overreached when he went into Iraq and that defeat remains relevant in that it established Iranian power in the region, but most initiatives just pass away, while others linger, like Truman’s recognition of Israel, though it is fair to say that his was a consequential Presidency, as was Johnson’s and Reagan’s and Obama’s, which is very different from the claim that the voters know in advance which election will be consequential and which one will not.