Will (the Election of) 2012 Be Like 1996?
Peter Lawler is Dana Professor of Government and former chair of the department of Government and International Studies at Berry College. He serves as executive editor of the journal Perspectives on Political Science, and has been chair of the politics and literature section of the American Political Science Association. He also served on the editorial board of the new bilingual critical edition of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and serves on the editorial boards of several journals. He has written or edited fifteen books and over 200 articles and chapters in a wide variety of venues. He was the 2007 winner of the Weaver Prize in Scholarly Letters.\r\n\r\nLawler served on President Bush's Council on Bioethics from 2004 – 09. His most recent book, Modern and American Dignity, is available from ISI Books.\r\n\r\nFollow him on Twitter @peteralawler.
Looking to past elections to predict the outcome of one soon to come doesn't usually work that well. Back in October 2008, I looked to eight past elections to try to gain some perspective on what might happen in November. It turns out that sound historical comparisons can only be made after the election is over. At that point, of course, they can't be said to have predictive value.
In retrospect, 2008 seems most like--but of course nowhere near exactly like--1980. It was, first of all, a negative landslide--an emphatic rejection of the incumbent's and his party's incompetent and somewhat corrupt record. McCain, it's true, was not the incumbent, but the negative judgment was rendered against Republicans in general. McCain didn't say anything to suggest that he was less clueless than Bush concerning the economic meltdown.
Another comparison, of course, is between the men Obama and Reagan. In both cases, there was nervousness about the candidate being too extreme. In both cases, voters were reassured by competent and charming debate performances. So a lot of voters said something like what the heck, let's give the new guy a chance. Look at all the ways the guy we have now has screwed up: The Iran hostage crisis, stagflation, whining about the national malaise, and all those other things Carter was blamed for weren't exactly like said meltdown and the mishandling of the Iraq War, but there is a lot to the comparison.
To some extent, of course, 2008 was like 1932. FDR and the Democratic congressional candidates won a huge negative landslide against the perceived cluelessness of the incumbent about what to do about the Depression.
Progressives would like to think that 2012 will be like 1936. The "negative landslide" of 1932 was supplanted by a "positive landslide" in an ususually ideological election. Voters seemed to endorse the NEW DEAL or progress based on bigger and better government.
But the Democrats also won big the Congressional election of 1934, whereas 2010 was clearly a repudiation of the President's main addition to big government--Obamacare. Voters these days really don't think bigger government can cure what ails them. In that key sense, they're just not Progessives. It's true that they may not want smaller government either That's why the Democrats are doing well by seeming to defend the status quo on Medicare. The election of 2012 isn't going to give the president a Progressive mandate, just as it won't give a Republican a mandate to implement the whole Ryan plan immediately. If the race were between Obama and Ryan, the key swing voters would choose reluctantly and without that much enthusiasm.
The fundamentally conservative nature of the voters--not wanting Progressive movement toward bigger government or libertarian progress toward smaller government--might mean that they're nervously happy with DIVIDED GOVERNMENT or GRIDLOCK. The president, in this scenario, gets reelected, but the Republicans retain control of the House and maybe pick up the Senate (lots of vulnerable Democratic seats this time). This semi-conscious perception might be why the best and the brightest Republicans--like Mitch Daniels--aren't running in 2012. It is also probably why the swing voters might well go with Obama over Ryan. It would be imprudent, their judgment might be, to give either party both of the political branches right now.
2012 won't even be like Reagan's victory in 1984. The Gipper won by a huge landslide, but the victory was partly personal, partly ideological. The outcome was certainly a reward for the perception that, due to the president's influence, America was back both economically and as a force for good in the world. But it wasn't a mandate for that much change. The victory didn't extend to the Republicans coming anywhere near taking over the House. Still, Reagan's landslide was a very significant step in the transformation of America into a center-right--or not particularly Progressive--nation
As far as I can tell, Obama's margin in 2012, assuming a mediocre or better Republican opponent, will be less than the one he gained in 2008. He's won very few new converts, and a lot of moderates, independents, Obamacons, and downscale voters who gave him a chance now regret it, for a variety of reasons. In this respect, his situation is loosely like the one Bush faced in 2004, except (a big except) the president has a nine million vote margin to play with. Even Bush, remember, managed to get reelected by his people racheting up the turnout in key states. Obams probably won't be able to do that, simply because his get-out-the-vote effort was so remarkable (and so expensive) last time. It's hard to top a really effective effort.
So 2012 is looking somewhat 1996. The president became unpopular because of an ill-considered health care reform (HillaryCare and ObamaCare--it's important not to forget, of course, the complications to this narrative coming from the latter actually passing). The result was his party took a thumping in the off-year election. But the president outwitted Republican Congressional leaders who tried too much too fast--who overestimated their own mandate. AND: Instead of making 1996 ideological contest, the Republicans were stuck with the dull, inarticulate, "responsible" mere competence of Bob Dole, who was just too old.
But 1996, don't forget, was a time of quite extraordinary peace and prosperity, and the president found it is easy to take credit. He also responded to divided government with an ideological flexibility that led to ending welfare as we knew it. He and Speaker Gingrich were about to sit down and negotiate their way to entitlement reform we could have believed it, when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. (Is the Obama adminstration overdue for a scandal? Yes, I know it won't be the president's sexual misdeeds this time.)
It remains to be seen how America will look on both the peace and the prosperity fronts in November, 2012. So a Republican victory is far from inconceivable, assuming the party fields a credible candidate.
I just saw a Republican comment that it looks like another Bob Dole year for our party. The truth is that Dole--who was an excellent senator--is looking good compared to the Republican candidates in the race so far. More on that soon.
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