In many ways, the upcoming U.S. presidential election between Barack Obama and John McCain is historically groundbreaking. In others, it’s a rerun of 1980: Reagan versus Carter. The similarities aren’t immediately apparent, but they’re definitely there. For an understanding of the modern crisis election, there’s no better place to turn than the last days of the Carter regime.
G.W. Bush’s approval ratings rest around 30 percent in the wake of the largest bailout since the Great Depression. Carter arguably fared worse in his time in office. When voters took to the booths on November 4, 1980, Carter had given voters a host of reasons to turf him.
A train wreck economy worried Main Street. The American auto industry was taking a drubbing from foreign competitors. A foreign policy guided by wishful thinking had seen America battered abroad. Watergate and failure in Vietnam bruised American faith in government. Even the issues then and now were largely the same: Carter and Reagan had back-and-forths about the dangers of nuclear terrorism, energy independence, and drilling in Alaska.
America now, like then, seems caught in a slow-motion tumble from crisis to crisis to crisis. Bush came out last Wednesday and gravely announced “our entire economy is in danger.” Carter defined his presidency with a “malaise” speech, in which he moped that “the erosion of confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and political fabric of America.” Meanwhile, gas shortages forced motorists into Soviet-style queues. In 1979, says American historian Robert Collins, nearly 80 percent of Americans agreed that America was morphing from a land of plenty to a “land of want."
America had never seemed weaker in the twentieth century. Reagan was later able to declare “it’s morning in America” after a landslide victory that saw him carry 44 states to Carter’s six. When the sun was still high in California, and voters stood in line at the polls, Carter had already conceded defeat from a hotel in D.C.
For all the incumbent Carter’s faults, though, the election wasn’t decided until polling day. Reagan’s politics represented a wholesale shift from business as usual in Washington. Voters seemed reluctant to back an agent of change. Republican victory ultimately came down to a poor showing by Carter in a late debate.
The lesson for 2008: Though current polls may provide a false clarity, Obama versus McCain is not over.
Of course, while the atmospheres of 1980 and 2008 might be similar, they’re not identical. McCain is not Bush. This election is, in theory, a zero-incumbent election.
Both campaign teams show an intuitive understanding of their particular challenges. For Obama, reassuring voters of his competence and drawing an equals sign between Bush and McCain is the surest road to the White House. His debate coaches understand. At Ole Miss, Obama criticized Bush by name 10 times and painted McCain as his right hand man. (McCain, for his part, didn’t utter the name once.) The left-leaning moveon.org has taken the criticism a step further with their website www.bush-mccainchallenge.com, which quizzes voters on whether they can tell the two apart.
McCain, taking a page from Carter’s playbook, has tried to label his opponent as a radical. Carter repeatedly denounced Reagan as being so right wing that he was somehow more Republican than Republican. McCain branded Obama as a pork-barrel politician who’s so far to the left, that “it’s hard to reach across the aisle.” McCain supporters are less tentative in their criticism. “Obama is a S O C I A L I S T,” says one commenter on his site. Countless others brand him as some sort of Marxist bent on nationalizing industry. The Republican blogosphere has no shortage of anti-Obama vitriol.
It’s telling that third parties are leveling most of these attacks. For the quasi-incumbent McCain, the safest place would seem to be above the fray. When an upstart Ted Kennedy threatened to unseat Carter in the primaries, Carter benefited from Iranians taking American hostages in Tehran. The crisis, Carter said, demanded so much attention that he could no longer campaign, and Kennedy’s support quickly collapsed. A lackluster McCain might think his moves to shun the press, and his claim to suspend the first debate over the economic crisis would give him some of that statesmanlike, apolitical aura.
The strategy so far has fallen flat—Obama has surged ahead in battleground states after proving a competent debater on foreign policy. It remains to be seen if sitting on the sidelines and running out the clock will stop McCain from bleeding votes. McCain’s long tenure in Washington and association with the Bush administration certainly give Obama much to criticize.
The risk is that a pessimistic Obama might find some of his shine darkened by the grey pall covering Washington. One Capitol staffer described a scene of chaos and “Republican insurrection” in the cafeteria there in the wake of the bailout deliberations. For the upcoming debate Obama, like Reagan, would benefit from retelling some of America’s favorite fictions: America will ultimately prevail if only because it’s America; the problem is the current administration, not them; and, in general, brighter days are ahead
There’s sometimes no accounting for American taste, though. After an evasive, sometimes incoherent performance at last week’s Vice-presidential debates, Palin was rightly called out by the Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson for ignoring the moderator and her “mangled syntax.” South of the border, however, even the stalwartly liberal New York Times called her the winner.
Ultimately, punditry is about as exact a science as craps. For all the factors damning Carter, his defeat may have come down to his meek, Oliver-esque demeanor during the final debate, contrasted with one good Reagan line: “are you better off now than you were four years ago?” In tough times, it can all hinge on a moment. Keep watching.
Richard Vanderford is a New York-based freelancer. His last piece for Maisonneuve was Goodbye, Prince of Darkness: Journalist Extraordinare Robert Novak Makes His Exit