Will (the Election of) 2012 Be Like 1996?

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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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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