clinton, nixon, and the difference forty years makes
I have noted previously the forty year cycle in Presidential elections, which predicts the last seven elections perfectly if one reverses the parties. Thus, the Reagan 1980 and 1984 wins parallel those of Roosevelt in 1940 and 1944; Bush in 1988 won a come-from-behind victory similar to Truman in 1948; the Clinton victories (1992 and 1996) are similar in scope to those of Dwight Eisenhower; and the contested 2000 election (Bush2 v. Gore) bears eerie similarities to the equally contested 1960 contest between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. The last three years, in which an incumbent President won re-election but had to defend an unpopular war from the confines of his ranch in central Texas, make the parallel (Bush2 and Lyndon Johnson, 1964 and 2004) almost spookie in nature.
What then of the 2008 election? The perfect parallel would be a comeback by Al Gore, who (like Nixon in 1968) would avenge his defeat eight years earlier and surge on to the Presidency. But in his absence (so far), Mrs. Clinton does pretty well. At a dull faculty presentation I jotted down the similarities betwen the Clinton 2008 campaign and that of Nixon forty years earlier. Here is what I came up with:
1. Both Clinton and Nixon are essentially running as nonideological moderates who will restore the country to sanity by ending an unpopular war and bridging domestic differences in largely unspecified ways. Nixon spoke of riots in the streets and declining respect for America overseas; Clinton speaks of an administration out of control and decling respect for America overseas. Both attempted to counteract their previous image as extremists by a series of carefully controlled, innocuous statements with relatively little substantive content.
2. Like Nixon, Clinton is especially unspecific about how she will deal with the war. Nixon claimed that he had a "secret plan" to end the war, presumably by negotiations with Russia, China, or other third parties (the war in fact lasted for his entire first term). Clinton takes both sides of the war issue but claims that she will somehow end the war in her first year in office, presumably by negotiations with Iran, Syria, or other third parties.
3. Both Nixon and Clinton were flanked by one candidate who was plainly more liberal (Rockefeller, Obama) and one who is by and large more conservative (Reagan, John Edwards) although Nixon was never seriously challenged for the nomination.
4. A vast number of people--perhaps 40 percent in each case--never really trusted either Nixon or Clinton, the election of the first (and possibly the second) doing relatively little to change this.
5. There's a Romney running around somewhat aimlessly in both races (this is admittedly a coincidence more than a substantive similarity).
None of this, of course, means that Clinton can't win. Nixon's bland strategy proved successful and he was elected to two terms, although the second ended in the Watergate scandal. (We can be reasonably sure that Mrs. Clinton will not be impeached for the same reason as her husband, although the Nixon parallel is rather less certain). One possible drawback is that the likely Republican candidates (McCain, Giuliani, etc.) are less tied to the incumbent President than was Hubert Humphrey in 1968; and even Humphrey nearly won. On the other hand, there is no likely third party candidate a la George Wallace, so that the anti-incumbent vote is likely to be more unified than in 1968.
But the Nixon parallel does suggest some of the difficulties Clinton may face if she does become President with an extremely vague platform and a large number of people who don't trust her. Like Nixon--or for that matter, like her immediate predecessor--Clinton would probably have a large number of enemies together with a broad but shallow political base, and many in her own party uncertain where she stood or what she believed in. All of these would tend to give her relatively little room for maneuver, and the possibility of quickly collapsing support if things didn't go well.
One other interesting parallel is the fate of the 1968 "also rans." While Nixon got the nomination pretty easily, both of his challengers outlasted him in politics, Nelson Rockefeller becoming Vice President during the Ford Administration and Ronald Reagan becoming, well, Ronald Reagan. Attention here naturally falls on Obama, but I wonder if Edwards may not be the sleeper candidate, either this year of in the future if Clinton fails. I've always thought of Edwards as something of a windbag: Chris Matthews memorably said that he sounded like he wanted to sue Al Qaeda rather than combat them. But he has a strong populist appeal and would immediately put in play numerous states that Clinton or Obama would have a very difficult time carrying. Is he yesterday's news, or a future President? Only time will tell.