By Thomas J. Basile
Everyone’s a pundit in a year like this one, and those who’ve long been talking about the upcoming election have heavily debated whether 2012 will be similar to 1980. Conservatives are rightfully driving the line that it’s high time for another Reagan-style revolution in response to an unpopular, liberal president, a down economy and poor national mood gripping the nation. With an enormous opportunity to recapture the White House this year, Republicans should forget 1980. The electorate is going to approach this race much more like they did in 1968 and the GOP would do well to take notice now.
To be sure, there are a lot of parallels between the Obama and Carter Administrations. Jimmy Carter campaigned against the “imperial Presidency,” and for “making government more competent.” As president his sense of arrogance led him to be his own chief of staff in what became an insular, incompetent White House. Carter presided over an economy in turmoil marked by sky-high energy prices, double-digit inflation and double-digit unemployment. A placating, rudderless foreign policy capped off what is widely considered a failed presidency. Carter seemed to be managing decline at best and a bungling, overwhelmed president at worst.
Similarly, Obama rode a strong wave of anti-Bush, anti-war sentiment into office, promising “hope and change” including millions of new jobs, tax cuts for virtually everyone and a commitment to getting the economy moving again after a devastating recession. None of which has materialized.
But 2012 could very well be more like 1968 than 1980 especially when it comes to how voters view the country and approach both the primary and general elections. There are clear similarities between then and the waters President Obama and the Republicans will be navigating this year.
In 1968 the Democratic Party was in crisis. As now, many Democrats didn’t like their own President. The hope and optimism of the Kennedy years had faded. Lyndon Johnson, who was never supposed to be President, rode the wave of nostalgia, raw emotion and loyalty for a fallen John F. Kennedy into office. After the ‘64 landslide and Johnson’s further escalation of the Vietnam War, reality set in for many Americans who felt betrayed by a President who wasn’t the product they originally bought. They felt betrayed by the Democratic Party. It was an era of sit-ins and protests. It was a time of angst and uncertainty as American values seemed to be slipping through our fingers.
Today, as Obama’s support gets softer among key demographic groups, there is a feeling in Democratic circles that they’re just stuck with him. Rank and file Democrats are expressing their buyer’s remorse almost as freely as independents. Democratic voter registration efforts in key swing states which were widely successful in 2008 have taken a beating, with more than 1 million voters in states Obama won leaving the party. In 2012, it is likely the GOP will pick up the US Senate, and keep its House majority as it wages a pitch battle against a President with historically low approval ratings.
Today, the Occupy movement has become our latter day version of the 60’s anti-war protestor. The images Americans have been seeing on their televisions haven’t been much different than those back in ‘68. Occupiers are busy recruiting in these cold days of winter for a new round of protests that may make 2012, look much like that of 1968 - riots at the Democratic National Convention, unrest on college campuses and protests clogging the streets of major cities.
We see the same scenes of long-haired, angry, hoards of mostly young people running headlong into police barricades, camping in public spaces and ranting against the American system. For the majority of Americans, it was and is unseemly. This time, they will be directing their ire at the entire system, and most certainly at the current occupant of the White House.
Most people forget that a year after the Summer of Love, as the Hippie movement gained traction, Americans elected a Republican President.
True, in 2012 we have an incumbent President and it is not an open election. However, the driving force for change in the White House in 2012 is the same as it was in 1968. People are becoming desperate on both sides of the political spectrum. In ’68 traditionalists and the hippies were at odds. Today, the free market, fiscal conservatives and the progressive “redistributors” on the left are clashing while the economy teeters on the brink of another recession.
That means that some unusual things might happen. The Republicans may end up nominating someone who is slightly more moderate in approach to problem-solving. As with Nixon, who went on to win in ’68, Americans from a broad cross-section of the voting population will cast their lot with someone who is credible, safe, and steady if not the sharp ideologue or engaging character they would ordinarily choose. For independents and conservative Democrats this means abandoning the soaring rhetoric of Obama for a more reliable Republican alternative.
This is why Mitt Romney’s numbers have him holding steady in early GOP primary states and ahead or tied with President Obama nationally.
In 1968, the country sought and found some balance in Nixon. Like Romney, he was a well-known commodity who said the right things to the base. Nixon believed that a strong, right-of-center America made the world freer and safer. He was no apologist for our values and utilized diplomacy in a way few Presidents have to exploit new opportunities for growth in our power militarily, economically and politically. On the domestic front, Nixon was a moderate conservative. He was a policy wonk who, while wanting to move the country to the right, deftly analyzed the nation’s needs. He wasn’t afraid to do bold things. Given the triple threat of oppressive debt, spending and taxation that is killing the American dream for so many, that is certainly what Americans are looking for today.
Romney too, may have the ability to move the nation back to the right, without scaring the heck out of the left. Coupled with a more conservative southerner on the ticket, that could be just the right formula for victory again.
1968 was also a tight three-way race which is entirely possible in 2012. To be sure, Obama is no Hubert Humphrey and certainly no George Wallace. He’s a good campaigner and his most redeeming quality as a politician at this point is his ability to raise big money.
Republicans may pick a different kind of nominee – one who is not cut from the cloth of the strict conservative base – one who’s “relatability factor” is perhaps lower than usual – but who can latch on to the extreme anxiety of the general electorate and bring steady leadership back to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
As a political year, 1968, punctuated by assassinations, foreign war and domestic violence, has virtually no match in American political history. It should be our hope that 2012 will not bring the turmoil we saw more than 40 years ago. But whether it’s 1980 or 1968, this year looks to be another bad year for the president.
Thomas J. Basile is a Republican commentator, professor and former Executive Director of the New York State Republican Party. He was one of only two American conservatives featured in Time Magazine’s 2011 Person of the Year edition about political activism around the world. Learn more about him at www.TJBasile.com.