Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Echo Chamber of History

By Mitchell

I’ve got this whole political thing figured out.

It’s not 2008. It’s 1964. And John McCain is Barry Goldwater.

Think about it for a moment. The similarities are there, and they’re more than the fact that McCain and Goldwater both come from Arizona and have white hair. And if you understand these similarities, if you understand the way history repeats itself, you’ll understand what just might happen in the next four years.

  • McCain, like Goldwater, pictures himself as a “straight shooter.” (Remember Goldwater’s campaign theme, “A Choice, not an Echo.”) His opponents, as did Goldwater’s, think of him more as a “loose cannon.”
  • McCain, like Goldwater, faces enormous opposition from one wing of his party. Just as the liberals accused Goldwater of seeking to destroy the Republican Party, the conservatives now make the same claim against McCain.
  • And McCain, like Goldwater, seems determined to do everything he can to antagonize his intra-party opponents, to the point that one has to ask whether John McCain really wants to be elected president, or just wants the chance to lord it over the other side.
How else can one explain the almost pathological urge McCain has to poke his finger in the other fellow’s eye, to speak with the most inflammatory language possible, to disregard any chance that might presently exist to make a conciliatory statement toward the conservative wing of the party? Quite frankly, I can’t come up with another rational explanation for his behavior.

John McCain is not, dare I say, a stupid man. He’s seen the polls; he knows the GOP faces an uphill fight in November. Undoubtedly, he counts on Clinton Derangement Syndrome as a party unifier. But he has to know that Hillary’s victory in the Democratic race is no sure thing, and that the smart thing to do would be to start building those bridges just in case Barack Obama wins the nomination. Obama has, let’s face it, a lot of advantages that Hillary lacks; his lean, confident visage appearing opposite McCain’s scowling, snarling, nasty, brutish and short appearance at a debate would be like revisiting the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960. If McCain doesn’t know better than that, I’m afraid I’ve given him credit for being smarter politically than he really is.

Barry Goldwater had also seen the polls, had known even in 1963, when he had planned to run against John F. Kennedy, that it would be an uphill fight. Following Kennedy’s death he briefly considered giving up the race altogether, knowing it was unlikely the American people would go for the idea of three presidents within 14 months. When he did jump in, it was with the fatalism of a man who knows his victory is destined to be a pyrrhic one. He ran a crusade, rather than a campaign, seeking to purge the Republican Party of its liberal elements and create a movement that was pure to its cause, welcoming those who agreed with him and inviting the rest to go to hell. You’re either with me or against me, he told Republicans. Many opted for the later. Sound familiar?

Lyndon Johnson jumped all over Goldwater and what was left of the Republican Party after its disastrously fractious convention in San Francisco. The Daisy ad was only shown once, to devastating effect, but in the end even that might have been overkill, using a howitzer to destroy a gnat. Goldwater won only 38.5% percent of the vote, and carried but six states – five from the Deep South, rabidly against Johnson’s civil rights legislation, and his own Arizona. The Republican Party was left in an absolute shambles: Democrats controlled the Senate by 68-32, and the House 295-140 – both veto-proof margins.

Now, while I’m not predicting this kind of disaster for the Republicans in November 2008, I don’t think you can rule it out, either. So, with this bleak outlook, where does this leave the GOP entering 2009? In the same place it was in 1965 – with work to do.

And work, they did. In the 1966 midterm elections they staged a remarkable comeback, gaining 47 seats in the House and three in the Senate. It is true that the party in power generally loses seats in the midterms, and the increasing unpopularity of the Vietnam War also played a role. However, a large share of the credit has to go to one man who spent 1966 tirelessly campaigning for Republican candidates through the country, building up a storehouse of support and IOUs along the way: Richard Nixon.

Nixon emerged from the 1964 debacle as the elder statesman of the GOP. He introduced Goldwater at the convention and campaigned for him that fall, earning goodwill from conservatives while maintaining respect from liberals. Although Goldwater remained the titular head of the party following the election, this was all but meaningless; he’d given up his Senate seat in Arizona, his choice for national party chairman was ousted, and the party itself was deeply divided.

Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Into that vacuum stepped Nixon – still immensely popular with many, well-versed in the issues, tireless in his support for the party and its candidates. He remained, as he had always been, controversial, with the reputation of being a loser (having lost not only the presidency in 1960 but the gubernatorial race in California in 1962), polarizing (the liberals never did forgive him for the Alger Hiss affair), shifty (“Tricky Dick” didn’t start during Watergate, after all). Yet, despite these perceived drawbacks, the GOP coalesced around Dick Nixon. He entered the 1968 race with a base of support no other candidate could match; thanks to his efforts the South held firm for him, when they might naturally have been expected to side with his conservative rival, Ronald Reagan. He fended off the challenges of Reagan and Nelson Rockefeller and won the nomination on the first ballot, then defeated Hubert Humphrey in November.

Can the Republicans hope for a similar turnaround in 2012? Well, as we all know, history is nothing so much as an echo chamber, and the one who looks to the past in order to glean clues about the future is often far ahead of the game. A great deal of this will depend on the Democrat in the White House, of course. Should Clinton emerge with the victory, we could see more parallels to the 60s; for all her anti-war rhetoric, she appears to be the Democrat most likely to continue prosecution of the war in Iraq, and with her cahunas (and ego) it’s hard to see her allowing the Iranians to push her around. Should things go well, she’ll be hard to beat in four years, and deservedly so. Anything less than that, however, and the anti-war liberals completely take over the Democratic Party, leaving the outlook not dissimilar to 1968.

If Obama wins, there’s an even more recent parallel: although many compare him, in terms of youth and magnetism, to Bobby Kennedy in 1968, there are others who compare him, in potential, to a different candidate – Jimmy Carter. You’ll recall that after four years of Carter, the Republicans didn’t do too badly.

Either way, history suggests a reason for the Republicans to remain optimistic about the future, despite the current dismal outlook. To truly have a chance in 2012, however, they desperately require one thing above all: a leader. Someone to speak for the party in the media, to energize the base and rally the troops, to campaign for Republicans nationwide and hold the administration’s feet to the fire.

Who might this be? McCain’s running mate might fit the bill, depending on who it is and whether or not this person had come through the campaign without being tainted by defeat or antagonizing activists in either wing of the party. A tall order, but parties have traditions of looking at former running mates as potential candidates, so anything’s possible.

Also possible is that McCain’s rivals, particularly Mitt Romney, might come to the fore. Romney is, after all, available, and a few more years of proving his bona fides to suspicious conservatives wouldn’t hurt. Mike Huckabee, having been tarred somewhat by the same brush that has gone after McCain, is less likely, although he may emerge as an evangelical leader. Rudy Guiliani, having wasted his political capital, may well be reduced to a campaigner for others – a spear-carrier, but no longer a general.

It’s more likely, however, that we need to look elsewhere for the one who will ultimately unify the Republican Party. Following our model, we should be looking for someone who continues to maintain a large base of support, can articulate the issues important to the Republican faithful, is respected by a sizeable number of people within the party, is an effective and energetic campaigner for candidates around the nation, and is not seen as being part of a 2008 fiasco. As was the case with Nixon, the apparent drawbacks – a polarizing, occasionally brash personality, personal foibles, a retreat after embarrassing election defeat – are not necessarily the obstacles that one might think on first blush.

And so we are left with the man to whom history would suggest the Republicans can and must turn, the man who in 2010 will emerge as the leader of the minority party and in 2012 will be their presidential nominee.

I give you Newt Gingrich.

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