The Washington Post is writing in public what most conservatives have heard from some of their brethren in private (except in George Will’s case, where he also went public): better to write off the presidential election this November and move on to 2016. Granted what Will says publicly (focus on flipping the Senate and holding the House) and what the unnamed sources are telling Chris Cillizza privately (better to crash and burn now for a complete rebuild later) are not quite the same things, but I would humbly submit that neither should be entertained.
Both Will and insert-consultants-bending-Cillizza’s-ear-here cite the election of 1964, which has been stunningly rewritten as a “victorious defeat” reminiscent of the Republicans’ first ever effort to win the presidency (1856). The consultants see the ’64 race as a time when the party just hit rock-bottom and then . . .
Four years later, Republicans — showing their lesson learned — nominated establishment favorite and political pragmatist Richard Nixon. (Nixon had been defeated by John Kennedy in 1960 and declined to run in 1964.) Nixon ended eight years of Democratic control of the White House when he beat Vice President Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 election.
This analogy has so many problems that I can only assume none of Cillizza’s sources actually lived through the 1960s. Admittedly, I didn’t either, but I have reviewed the accounts of several who did, and it tells a very different story of 1968.
For one, the “pragmatic” moderates and liberals in the GOP did not want Richard Nixon as their candidate. Nelson Rockefeller was their man, without question. It was the conservatives in the party (John Tower, Strom Thurmond, and others) who pushed for Nixon to come out of his self-induced, post-1962 retirement. The 1960s equivalent of the consultants whispering in Cillizza’s ear were terrified of Nixon being nominated (he had, after all, lost the nearly unlosable election for Governor of California in 1962). We remember Ronald Reagan as the conservatives’ choice in 1968, but Reagan was a “favorite son” of California until the day the convention opened. For much of the campaign, it was the Nixon and the conservatives against Rockefeller and the moderates.
Secondly, Richard Nixon hardly helped the Republican recovery – and probably damaged it. With the exception of Zachary Taylor, no president-elect in American history ever provided less support to his fellow party nominees in the year he won. Nixon’s 1968 vote (43%) was the lowest of any president-elect in over a century. Even as he won his 1972 re-election in a massive landslide, he became the only president to never deliver even one house of Congress to his party. By the time his second term expired (without him) in 1977, the Republicans were in worse shape than they were in 1968.
Finally, the Democrats used Johnson’s full term to dramatically expand government. Medicare and Medicaid were created in 1965, two-thirds of the entitlement monster that threatens to devour us (while the former has become the Democrats’ “model” for their health care end-state). This dovetails with Will’s assertion that the right might be better off letting the White House go in 2012. Johnson’s 1964 campaign made little mention of the massive expansion of government he was planning, but that didn’t stop him from doing it anyway.
Now, one could say that Obama – faced with a GOP Congress – could do less damage. However, two of the biggest government encroachments of the “aughts” – in campaign finance and Medicare Part D – began as talking points used by Clinton to brow-beat Republican Congressional majorities.
All of this is just in the domestic realm. We have said nothing of the foreign policy consequences. After romping to victory in 1964, Johnson moved forward on Vietnam in a manner so confusing, limited, and hamstrung that the entire GOP was united against him (even Rockefeller was more hawkish than LBJ). Meanwhile, as the 1970s progressed toward the event that in Will’s mind supposedly justified the ’64 drubbing (the election of 1980), Vietnam fell to the Communists, Cambodia was bled white by Pol Pot, Central America was sucked into the Cold War (with devastating consequences), and long-time ally Iran was abandoned by the Carter Administration and seized by a radical Shiite cleric who imprisoned his own people and built a regime that is still the scourge of the region.
Is that really the model we want to follow?
I understand the frustration so many on the right have with the current field. It was one of the reasons I waited so long to make a decision myself. However, just because the nominee won’t be perfect, or the campaign may become difficult, doesn’t mean you discount the importance of an election. An elected President Ford might have made the history of Iran – and by extension, the rest of the Middle East - very different. A re-elected President Bush the Elder might have put more focus on Afghanistan as the Taliban first stretched its muscles. President McCain would have reacted very differently to the 2009 Iranian protests and Hamid Karzai’s blatant election theft that same year; dramatically rewriting recent history in both places.
So, as fashionable as it may be to think or say otherwise, elections always matter. If they didn’t, no one would miss them.
This one matters, too.
Cross-posted to Virginia Virtucon