Friday, August 10, 2012

The Arc of History

History really is a funny thing, isn't it?

I've been studying history all my life, but I have only recently (well, comparatively speaking) come to realize certain things about it.

I always realized those things, I guess, but in a compartmentalized sort of way. It is only recently that I have seen how subtly intricate is the link that binds them.

And I can say that it does help to connect the dots. It puts things in context.

See, I have always believed that history really does repeat itself. It doesn't do so precisely — well, not usually — but, at least in hindsight, it is possible to see the repetition.

Every presidential election year seems to inspire articles from people that demonstrate the similarities between that year and some year that preceded it — which, in turn, provides some kind of predictive advantage.

See, all this happened in the year XXXX. That means it will happen again this year. That is the logic of such people, and it is flawed.

For some reason, the 2012 campaign seems to have inspired more than its share of such historical speculation, which seems rather odd because we've never had a non–white incumbent seeking re–election before. From that standpoint, it seems to me that we're really in uncharted waters here. Whatever Obama has done or not done as president, it seems he is always being judged in a racial context — by both his supporters and his foes.

But it isn't just the racial element that makes this campaign different. The fact is that no two elections are the same. There might be similar factors, but there are always differences. Different times, different candidates, different issues.

For awhile, when Barack Obama was frequently being compared to FDR, I heard his supporters arguing that his bid for a second term would be a lot like Roosevelt's campaign for a second term in 1936.

They continued to make the case for that scenario even when Obama's approval ratings slipped well below the level most political scientists consider viable for electoral success.

There has been no real way to compare pre–election job approval numbers for Obama and FDR because such surveys were not being conducted in 1936.

However ...

FDR overcame bad poll numbers, too, I have heard Obama's supporters argue, which is true — but it is also misleading. Polling really was embryonic in those days, and pollsters only sampled people with access to telephones or cars.

Millions of Americans could afford neither and, therefore, were not polled — but they showed up to vote on Election Day.

More recently, I've heard the 1936 analogy used to explain why Obama, in spite of a jobless rate that historically means sure defeat for an incumbent, will win. With an unemployment rate that is currently 8.3%, Obama faces the kind of obstacle that only one president in modern times has been able to overcome.

That president was FDR in 1936, but it is important to remember that, when Roosevelt was elected in 1932, roughly one–quarter of working–age Americans had no jobs. The unemployment rate was still in double digits when Roosevelt won his second term — but it was dramatically lower than it had been when he took office four years earlier.

The unemployment rate under Obama has been worse — at times, dramatically so — on every day of his presidency than it was the day he took the oath of office.

The comparison to Roosevelt simply isn't plausible.

I've also heard the 2012 campaign compared to the 1948 campaign, in which an unpopular president, Harry Truman, defied the polls and won an upset over Republican Tom Dewey.

But polling wasn't much more sophisticated in 1948 than it was in 1932. Pollsters saw a significant lead for Dewey in October and stopped polling under the assumption that the election was a done deal.

Thus, they missed the surge in Truman's direction late in the campaign.

I've been intrigued by how both Obama's campaign and Mitt Romney's campaign have drawn inspiration from successful campaigns run by the opposition in modern times.

Obama, for example, undoubtedly would like for 2012 to resemble 1984, when Ronald Reagan was re–elected by a landslide in spite of a jobless rate that exceeded 7.0%, but I have heard no economists who believe there is a chance that something like that could happen this year.

If that outcome isn't likely, Democrats probably would settle for a narrow victory like the one George W. Bush enjoyed eight years ago.

And that does seem like the playbook they're following.

Bush achieved his victory with a series of negative ads that raised doubts about John Kerry's greatest strength, his service during the Vietnam War. Obama already has spent millions of dollars on negative advertisements intended to raise doubts about Romney's greatest strength at a time of economic distress, his success in the business world — but with little movement in the polls to show for it.

(That scenario, I expect, has additional significance for Obama — an incumbent running for re–election against a bland, wealthy candidate from Massachusetts.)

Romney would like for 2012 to be more like 1992, when an incumbent president was defeated by another governor. The economy is worse now than it was 20 years ago, but there was a very popular independent candidate in that race, a factor that — so far, at least — has not materialized this year (and we're running out of time for it).

(Frankly, I have always wondered if Ross Perot's campaign really made that much of a difference in the ultimate outcome. Exit polls at the time indicated that, if Perot had not re–entered the race that fall, 40% of his supporters would have voted for President Bush, 40% would have voted for Bill Clinton and 20% would not have voted at all.)

Mostly, though, Romney and his people seem to draw inspiration from 1980, when Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter. There was a third candidate in that race, too, but he didn't draw nearly the support that Perot did and had no real influence on the outcome.

That scenario may be possible, although there are still a few noteworthy differences.

For one, Carter was beset by both economic adversity and a hostage situation. The anniversary of the takeover of the American embassy in Iran happened to fall on Election Day, which may well have pushed some fence–sitters into Reagan's column at the last minute.

Obama has plenty of economic issues working against him, but he seems to be on reasonably stable ground with voters on his foreign policies. Something could happen to make voters question the wisdom of those policies, but, right now, Obama is highly unlikely to face the same kind of double whammy that Carter did.

And there is another factor about 1980 that must be considered. Many people romanticize that time and confuse the Reagan of the campaign trail with the Reagan he became in office.

I am really not certain how that kind of variable might be applied to this year's campaign, if at all.

In 1980, the popular impression of Reagan was that he was a crazy old man who would start a nuclear war with the Soviets, and the Carter campaign used that relentlessly.

The record shows that, in eight years as president, Reagan never fired a single nuclear weapon at anyone. True, he was a hawk on military matters, and he favored a strong defense, but he launched no nuclear wars.

Nevertheless, there was a nugget or two of truth in the charge that he would be a reckless commander in chief. Reagan did have something of a history of being defiant when challenged. He could be angry at times, as he was when he protested at the debate in New Hampshire that he was "paying for this microphone."

Republican primary voters responded to that kind of show of strength. It contrasted with Carter's apparent timidity. But Democrats and independents had to be won over. At a time of tension with the Soviet Union, Reagan frightened many voters.

How well did Reagan succeed in neutralizing those fears? Well, his aw, shucks approach to his one and only debate with Carter — and his "There you go again" response to the president's insistence on repeating his negative charges — reassured voters that Reagan was not the loose cannon they had been told he was.

The popular image of Reagan today is of an amiable, kindly man whose presidency produced a booming economic recovery, which was what most Americans wanted in 1980 — along with the release of the hostages.

But there probably will be no similar foreign crisis this year — unless it is of an economic nature.

However, I have heard talk from some people that an October surprise is already planned — in Iran. Oh, the irony!

History does not repeat itself, Mark Twain supposedly said, but it does rhyme.

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