Friday, August 13, 2010

The Carousel of History

I've been reading a fascinating piece by Steve Kornacki at in which he offers both "a hopeful example and a cautionary tale" to Democrats.

If you've been reading my blog, you have undoubtedly noticed that I, long ago, grew tired of the tendency of Democrats to blame George W. Bush for the problems they can't resolve.

That does not mean that I am a defender of Bush in any way. And if you've been reading my blog, you should know that as well. But I've never been a fan of this kind of pass–the–buck politics — not when the Republicans did it in the 1980s and not when the Democrats are doing it today.

To me, it seems like an inexcusable waste of time — especially since there is nothing new about it.

I may not always express it as well as I should, but it just seems to me that blaming the other side — even if you really and truly believe the other side deserves to be blamed — is a time–sensitive excuse. And the voters aren't as generous with time as politicians (and their diehard supporters) sometimes think they should be.

You've got to act while you have power because power is fleeting. In a democracy, nothing is permanent.

And the window of opportunity always seems to close rapidly when unemployment gets out of hand.

Many of Obama's supporters are already playing the race card. The problem — for them — is that this is not a racial issue unless it can be proven that layoffs have disproportionately affected blacks (or Hispanics or whichever racial group feels it has been discriminated against).

I'm not saying that race hasn't been a factor in some cases. But job losses have been across the board, affecting all races, all faiths, all ages, both genders. It's been an equal opportunity destroyer of American lives.

Racism, in most instances, is merely a convenient scapegoat.

Kornacki's analysis, it seems to me, is right on the money: Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush left office under very similar circumstances, Kornacki observes — "feeble economy, brutal job approval ratings, sagging national confidence." So, he continues, "they were both replaced by charismatic leaders ... whose inaugurations spawned widespread public optimism."

But grim economic data sank Ronald Reagan's midterm efforts to gain ground for his party the way he had when he was out of office. And the same thing is happening to Barack Obama.

The lesson of history is being repeated.

Kornacki says there are things for Obama and the Democrats to learn from Reagan and the Republicans of the early 1980s; in particular, "Running against the guy you replaced, no matter how unpopular he was, just doesn't work in midterm elections — especially when the economy is in the gutter."

Kornacki observes that voters agreed with Reagan's assessment of the economy in 1982. They, too, blamed Carter for the high unemployment rate, but they still gave the Democrats two dozen House seats. The Republicans owned the economy by then. They said two years hadn't been enough time. The voters disagreed.

Kornacki acknowledges the temptation to run against the last guy, but he says Democrats are "poised to learn the same lesson the GOP did in '82: It just doesn't matter."

Still using the Reagan experience as an example, Kornacki points out that the Republicans continued to hammer Carter in subsequent elections, with varying degrees of success.

In 1984, when Reagan sought a second term, the economy was doing better and the Republicans could point to a record of success. In 1988, the charismatic Reagan could not run again and his vice president, the less popular George H.W. Bush, ran with an economy that was still doing well but wasn't as robust as it had been.

And, by 1992, the economy was in a recession. The pendulum swung, and, as Bill Clinton and the Democrats trashed the culture of greed in the 1980s, polls showed Reagan's post–presidential approval ratings dropping and Carter's rising.

Actually, as Kornacki suggests, Carter's ratings had been rising for years, largely because of "his high–profile humanitarian work, which reminded Americans of the basic decency that attracted them to Carter in the first place — just as the unconventional nature of his post–presidency reminded them of a quirkiness they'd found appealing in 1976."

(Those very qualities stood in stark contrast to the administration of the last president who was elected before Carter, Richard Nixon.

(Whenever people feel compelled to bring up Carter's decency and ordinary–guy appeal, I feel it is necessary to try to explain the unique circumstances of the 1976 election. Even though Nixon never said a word publicly during that campaign, his spirit hung over things like a Shakespearean ghost. After the lies and deceit of the Nixon years — which many people felt was continued by the pardon issued by his successor — there was something very appealing about the wholesome, if quirky, Carter campaign.

(More recent generations may think they saw narcissism in the Clinton years or an obsession with secrecy during the Bush years. And they did. But Nixon excelled in both categories.)

Anyway, Carter's image seemed to have been rehabilitated in the Clinton years, but, in the ebb and flow of American politics, Kornacki points out that Reagan's admirers were alarmed by his declining popularity and "undertook a sweeping effort to repair The Gipper's image, transforming him into the god–like figure that conservatives now worship."

Consequently, Kornacki writes, there is now a new generation of "Carter bashers" — some of whom may not even have been born when Carter left office.

All of which goes to show that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

An interesting side note from Kornacki, though: "[W]hile the Carter–bashing of the '80s was intended for independents and swing voters, today's version is geared toward the GOP base. To bash Carter is to affirm the Reagan legend — and to affirm the Reagan legend is to pander to the GOP base."

So one must wonder where this analysis, while interesting, is leading us.

I think, as I have suggested, that the pendulum is always swinging in American politics. Whoever is in favor today is sure to be in disfavor before long — and vice versa.

I thought, when I was a boy, that first Lyndon Johnson and then Richard Nixon would be vilified forever.

But I have been astonished to see, in recent years, that, while the initials LBJ elicited venomous responses from young protesters I saw on TV in my childhood, not many seem to remember today what they stood for.

And, in large part because of his own rehabilitation efforts, when Nixon died in 1994, he was remembered for things other than Watergate — an achievement I never could have foreseen 20 years earlier.

"It remains to be seen whether George W. Bush will in this decade repair his personal image the way Carter did in the '80s," writes Kornacki, "or if a new generation of Bush–bashers will come to dominate the Democratic Party a generation from now."

As for Bush, the campaign to improve his standing with the public seems to have begun. Although he has remained silent in Obama's first 19 months in office, Bush's memoir is slated to hit bookstores in November, and, aside from passages that may be quoted in reviews that are published before Election Day, it seems to me Bush's book will have more influence on the 2012 campaign, perhaps giving Republicans ammunition to use against the Bush–bashers.

Nevertheless, I agree with Kornacki when he writes "we can bet on one thing: Just as Republicans didn't give up on Carter–bashing after a brutal 1982 midterm, Democrats won't be abandoning Bush–bashing after this November."

It seems to be the lesson of history that neither party can learn.

1 comment:

Babe Fasciana said...

So true, sad but so true. Thanks.