Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of
The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and
Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama . His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is giltroy.com. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.
Toward the end of Thursday night’s debate in Florida, which viewers were told repeatedly would be high stakes and very serious, CNN’s moderator Wolf Blitzer asked the candidates to assess their wives as potential First Ladies. Blitzer’s question was valid and relevant. For decades now, Americans have seen a presidential candidate’s life partner as a window into the soul of the man or woman seeking to lead us. Furthermore, experience shows that controversial First Ladies like Hillary Clinton in the first years of the Clinton administration can distract from the president’s agenda, while popular First Ladies like Hillary Clinton in the later Clinton years can be helpful advocates and effective buffers for their spouses. Unfortunately, Blitzer conveyed the impression that the topic was trivial, a fleeting, entertaining diversion from the weighty affairs of state at hand.
Blitzer bracketed the discussion by saying: we "want to get right back to the rest of the debate, but first, on a lighter subject, I want to ask each of these gentlemen why they think their wife would make a great first lady.” Without mentioning her first name, Carol, Ron Paul described her as wife, mother, grandmother, and “the author of a very famous cookbook, ‘The Ron Paul Cookbook.’”
Mitt Romney echoed Blitzer’s breeziness by first saying, in response to Paul’s quick list, “I've got to take a little bit more time, a little more seriousness.” Catching himself, not wanting to show disrespect to Paul on this issue, Romney said to Paul: “nothing wrong with what you said—I'm sorry.” Mitt Romney then described his wife Ann, “My wife,” in fuller terms as “a mom” but also “a real champion and a fighter,” battling her own health ailments and helping young women “in troubled situations.”
Newt Gingrich actually mentioned his wife Callista’s name and described her “artistic flair” and media savvy. Reflecting the now-classic divide between working women and stay-at-home-moms, Newt Gingrich described Callista’s work achievements but had no family tidbits to tout. The former Speaker actually was the most gentlemanly by hailing all spouses involved as “terrific.”
Rick Santorum spoke most movingly, describing his wife Karen as “my hero.” Rick Santorum described his wife both as “a mother to our seven children,” and as a nurse, a lawyer, an author, but someone who “walked away” from her profession “and walked into something that she felt called to do, which was to be a mom and to be a wife.”
In truth, each answer could have invited rich follow-ups, raising discussions of gender roles, of family dilemmas, of core values. The candidates could have discussed what it means to be a First Lady as well as the symbolic importance of the President as head of state. But the token moment had passed.
“Very nice,” Wolf Blitzer said. “All right, let's get back to the debate….”
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.
A crisis is looming for political reporters desperate for a drawn out, dramatic presidential campaign. Republican voters may be less crazy and more predictable than the conventional wisdom suggests. If Mitt Romney continues his winning streak because Republicans realize he is the most electable candidate, we might have a much abbreviated presidential nominating season thanks to voters making a rational, non-doctrinaire decision.
Anxious to keep things going, programmed for conflict, reporters have tried to place a big asterisk on Romney’s New Hampshire victory, warning that the emergence of Republicans criticizing his time at Bain Capital proves that in the week he won Romney also witnessed that which will guarantee his loss to President Barack Obama in November. History suggests otherwise. Hashing the issue out now just might inoculate Romney against succumbing to the attack in the general election.
The historical analogy most worrying to the Romney camp comes from the 1988 campaign, when George H.W. Bush decided to "go negative" after discovering he trailed behind Michael Dukakis by 17 points in the polls and was saddled with a "negative rating" of 40 percent, twice that of his opponent. In a move that would become legendary in the annals of political consultants, Bush's campaign director Lee Atwater gave his director of research James Pinkerton a three-by-five card and said: “You get the stuff to beat this little bastard and put it on this three-by-five card.” One of the negatives Pinkerton discovered was an issue Al Gore had raised during the Democratic primary campaign—the prison furlough program that enabled a convicted murderer to rape a woman and terrorize her fiancée—and the devastating Willie Horton attack ad followed.
But there's a flip side to this tale. In both 1992 and 2008, primary attacks against Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, as unpleasant as they were during the time, ended up being defused by the general election. In 1992 the Gennifer Flowers adultery allegations and the Vietnam draft dodging charge had largely lost their sting by the Democratic Convention. In 2008 Barack Obama brilliantly dispatched the Jeremiah Wright problem in March, so that it was not much of a factor in the fall.
In fact, John Kerry might have become president in 2004 had his primary opponents done a better job of attacking him more viciously. When Kerry ran for the Democratic nomination in 2004, he ran as a war hero and was treated as such. The Republicans “Swift Boated” him effectively during the general campaign, turning his war record into a liability. Had Democrats tried that tack during the primary, Kerry might have been able to pull the patriot card on them and deflected the attack—just as Romney has to continue pulling the capitalist card on Republican critics, to squelch the criticism and try to unite his party behind free market values.
The Swift Boat campaign could inspire a great attack and a great defense on the Bain Consulting issue. The Swift Boat campaign was so effective because the attackers mobilized dozen of fellow veterans, who stood there condemning Kerry. If I were running against Romney, I would look to get as many individual, heartbreaking stories of job loss on tape, and then try to get as many of his victims as I could together in a room for a day of melodramatic, tear-jerking filming. If I were running Romney’s, I would look to get as many individual, heartwarming stories of job creation on tape, and then try to get as many of his beneficiaries as I could together in a room for a day of melodramatic tear-jerking, filming.
Romney has to look at these attacks as opportunities—to preempt attacks that might appear again from Democrats and to strut his stuff, as they say. Attack ads are sometimes just what a candidate needs to come to life. Romney has to demonstrate that he is winning these primaries because of his skills and vision, and not simply backing into the nomination, if indeed, he is “the one.”
Mitt Romney’s margin of eight votes highlights just how small and unrepresentative the sample at the Iowa caucus is - -and how marginal that exercise should be. My third grade class presidency was decided with a larger margin. And, once again, the state that made Pat Robertson a viable candidate – albeit temporarily in 1988 – and has made ethanol subsidies a pork barrel standard, has given us the “gift” of Ron Paul. That 21.4 percent of .004 percent of the American people wants this extremist with a racist past does not say much, although Paul’s popularity with the younger voters could be a worrying harbinger.
The big news from this small sample, of course, is Mitt Romney’s continuing stasis. Barack Obama’s campaign people should be studying Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign. Back then, Bob Dole was the inevitable, Republican establishment candidate, dutifully nominated because of his electability, who failed to beat an eminently beatable Democratic incumbent. Romney’s people are going to have to work harder in rifling through the historical files. The candidates who have unseated incumbents in the last half-century – Bill Clinton in 1992, Ronald Reagan in 1980, and Jimmy Carter in 1976 – were blessed with two advantages Romney lacks. First, each of the incumbents faced a tough nomination fight – Pat Buchanan ran against George H.W. Bush in 1992, Ted Kennedy combated Jimmy Carter in 1980, and Reagan opposed Gerald Ford in 1976. Furthermore, Clinton, Reagan, and Carter, in their winning campaigns, were able to generate an excitement among rank and file party members, and core committed partisans, that we have not yet seen propelling Romney.
At this point, the 1980 results, which were more an ABC – Anybody but Carter – vote than a referendum for Reagan, offer the most optimistic path for Romneyites (or should we call them, with a nod at Newt Gingrich’s McGovernik remarks, Mittniks?). Romney has to try casting Obama as Carter redux, failing to manage the economy, inspire Americans, or defend the nation affirmatively abroad, hoping to win the not Yoko but ONO vote – Only not Obama.
Meme Alert: We are now being told that Republicans are Divided. How is this shocking news at the start of a presidential nomination fight when Republicans have yet to choose a candidate? Isn’t that what the election process is all about, starting divided, fragmented, tied to many candidates, and then, through the democratic process, rallying around one nominee, then one winner?
Housekeeping Detail: This is the relaunch of my Blog which covered the 2008 campaign in detail, but has been much quieter lately as I finished a book. As in 2008, I will post at least weekly through the presidential campaign, trying to provide some historical context to the discussion. My goal is to avoid three Ps – polemics, partisanship, and predictions –and provide a valuable fourth one, perspective. This entails not only rifling through historical files as I did above, but locating this important, nationwide democratic conversation in the broad sweep of American history and presidential campaigning history. I know dear readers, from last time, that if I ever deviate from the mandate, you will be there to chide me, correct me, and help me redeem myself. And we’re off…..