Change and Counter-Change [McGehee]
Back in 2008, then-PW contributor Karl wrote a series of posts about a pattern he had discerned in American elections since the end of the Second World War: that every 16 years — starting in 1960 — there has been a “change” election where the Democrat presidential ticket has benefited from an exploitable public fatigue with recent Republican governance.
In 1960 the outgoing incumbent president, Dwight Eisenhower, was 70 years old, having been a five-star general during a war that had ended 15 years earlier — while the Democrats’ nominee, Sen. John Kennedy, was 43 years old with an attractive wife and an abundance of youthful energy. After eight years of presidential golf games and a perception of decline in America’s defense posture (the mythical “missile gap” that Kennedy’s campaign knowingly lied about), the tanned and confident Bostonian defeated the shifty-eyed and poorly-shaven Vice President Richard Nixon despite their being only four years apart in age.
In 1976, after Vietnam, Watergate, a presidential resignation and pardon, the midwestern placeholder who succeeded Nixon was defeated by a Southern Democrat who touted his “born again” Christian values and pledged never to lie to the American people. Jimmy Carter, 11 years younger than Gerald Ford, won.
In 1992, after a twelve-year run of GOP residency in the White House, Democrats and the media (but I repeat myself) hyped a faltering economy as the worst in 50 years and offered up another southern Democrat who portrayed himself as a centrist. Bill Clinton, 22 years younger than George H.W. Bush, won.
Karl’s point was that in 2008 the historical patterns put the eventual Republican nominee at a disadvantage in November — and the fact John McCain was older in 2008 than Eisenhower was in 1960, while Barack Obama was only 47, only added to that disadvantage when the voting actually began.
But each of these instances of the historical pattern was different from every other instance; events of such magnitude, following a pattern on such a time scale, have to be dependent on larger trends that combine over the course of, say, a half century to make them arise and recur as they appear to have done. And when the events in question involve people making decisions, people will learn from what happens each time.
One cannot discuss the “change” election of 1992 without also discussing what happened in the congressional election of 1994. Bill Clinton entered office with both houses of Congress comfortably in Democrat hands, but after only two years the Republicans won majorities in both houses, due in no small part to a campaign engineered by then-House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich. There was much hope afterward that Clinton would go down to defeat for re-election in 1996 — but the energy of the counterrevolution was spent by the end of 1995. I believe this was because the outcome in 1994, while exploiting public dissatisfaction with such things as Hillary Clinton’s health-care task force, was mostly driven from inside the Beltway. And Gingrich’s attempt to implement the promised changes that led to the change in congressional leadership was blunted mostly by the Republican-led Senate under Bob Dole who went on to be the Republican nominee in 1996.
This, in my opinion, is why top Democrats and their supporters in the media expect Barack Obama to be re-elected on Tuesday: the counterrevolution of 2010, they are sure, was a onetime reaction to 2008 and has passed into history, its energy and commitment no longer a factor in 2012. After all, the Republican nominee for president in 2012 is just another warmed-over “his turn” also-ran from 2008, much like Dole had been a failed challenger in the GOP primaries in 1988. History, they believe, will simply repeat itself.
History doesn’t repeat. It rhymes.
What the failure of the so-called Gingrich Revolution of 1994 demonstrated was that real change doesn’t come from the top down. The top was the problem for congressional Republicans before 1994 and — as the Senate’s intransigence in 1995 showed — after. And while Democrats and the media (BIRM) tried in 2010 to portray the Tea Party movement as organized by right-wing think tanks and GOP-funding corporations, that was never the truth.
I’m not the first to argue that Tea Party energy will unexpectedly(!) impact this election. I think that to the extent Karl was right about the pattern he described back in 2008 the Tea Party may be the first sign that the coalescing demographic and political trends that created the pattern may be about to dissipate.
If you haven’t already voted, you’d better. History will bite you in the ass if you don’t. And history has great big sharp teeth.