Party like it’s 1972?
Hold on to your hats—here’s where I compare Barack Obama to Richard Nixon.
Perhaps I should explain.
When it comes to politics and presidents, everyone’s always looking for precedents.
Which is why you’ve been hearing so many references lately to 1994.
“This is just like 1994!” the pundits cry. “A first-term Democratic president’s first midterm election, and the voters are really angry, and they take it out on the president’s party, and the Republicans take control of the House of Representatives for the first time in generations!”
Not a bad comparison. Decision 2010 may turn out to look a lot like Decision 1994.
Then there’s the 1980 comparison; I’ve been leaning toward the 1980 comparison lately. Another first-term Democrat in the White House, running for re-election this time, with a terrible economy at home and endless frustration abroad (the Iranian hostage crisis, for instance).
But the parallel for me isn’t the Democratic president going down to defeat in November, but all the Senate Democrats who went down with him.
See, anytime you have a slew of competitive seats, there’s a tendency to say, “Well, OK, it’s a bad year for our side, so maybe we won’t do as well as the other guys. A dozen seats up for grabs? Maybe we’ll only hang on to five.”
But it doesn’t always work that way—and it certainly didn’t work that way in 1980. The results weren’t “a few more here, a few less here.” The results were a virtual sweep. Practically every competitive Senate race in 1980 fell the same way—to the Republicans. They took control.
Many of the contests were close, but in almost all of them, the result was the same. A Democratic loss, a Republican pickup. Which to say: When it goes bad, it can go really bad.
So 1980 isn’t a terrible comparison either. It’s hardly beyond imagining, even with the likes of a Sharron Angle or a Rand Paul or a Christine O’Donnell on the ballot, that the GOP runs the table—that it picks up the 10 seats it needs to grab the Senate.
Unless, that is, the best comparison of all is to 1972—but not the way you think. This is the part where Barack Obama gets to play Richard Nixon.
In 1972, it was a Republican president—Nixon—running for re-election against George McGovern. George McGovern was that year’s darling of the left flank of the Democratic party—against the war in Vietnam, against a bigger military budget, in favor of decriminalizing marijuana. That sort of thing.
Equally important, the McGovern campaign was—untidy. Undisciplined. Liberated women. Hairy kids. Multiple skin tones. A nominating convention so blissfully self-indulgent that by the time the candidate got his moment in the sun, it was the middle of the night.
And—here’s the point, here’s the possible parallel: It took the Nixon campaign roughly three milliseconds to make its move on the rest of the Democrats.
“Your party has been captured by the McGovernite wing,” the Republicans declared. “You’re every bit as appalled as we are.”
“It’s not your party anymore,” Nixon and his pals told those disaffected Dems. “Come find a new home with us.”
And millions did just that—they crossed party lines for the first time in their lives. They voted for Nixon and the Republicans. Many of them never came back.
“I didn’t leave the Democratic Party,” they told themselves. “The Democratic Party left me.”
You think there aren’t millions of sensible, middle-of-the-road Republicans today who are looking at the sudden rise of the Tea Party—hearing the ravings of the Angles and Pauls and O’Donnells, the Palins and the Becks—and thinking exactly the same thing?
“This isn’t my party anymore.”
So the question is: How many milliseconds should it take for Obama and friends to put out the welcome mat?
Rick Horowitz is a syndicated columnist. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.