The Pendulum Effect in American Politics: 1974-2010

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One of my favorite movie quotes is from Back to the Future when Christopher Lloyd, as Doc Brown, challenges Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly in 1955 to prove his preposterous time-travel story by naming the president in 1985. When Marty replies, “Ronald Reagan,” Doc Brown hoots and says, incredulous, “Ronald Reagan, the actor? Hah!”

Before the 1980 presidential election, there were many Americans of the same opinion as the good doctor. Jimmy Carter’s presidency may have been weakened by the Iran hostage crisis, a stubborn recession and the second energy crisis of the decade, but the conventional wisdom after the primaries was that GOP candidate Ronald Reagan didn’t have a prayer. What he did have, however, was devout support from the defiantly religious, rapidly rising and well-financed “New Right.” When this movement helped steer Reagan into the White House, their influence went on to shape American politics and policy for a dozen years. The pendulum had swung dramatically to the right. Progressives and moderates were stunned. Back to the Future, indeed.

But those who were shocked either had short memories or were too young to remember another dramatic swing–to the left–in the wake of the Watergate scandal. The resignation of President Nixon on August 8, 1974, preceded by two years of a “national nightmare” and the birth of unabashed investigative journalism, gave rise to a deep and enduring distrust of government by the press and the public. This collective rejection of presidential arrogance, coupled with outrage at Ford’s pardon of Nixon, propelled a bevy of freshly minted Democrats (including Jimmy Carter) into Washington.

Let’s return to the much-touted Reagan Revolution. Characterized by trickle-down economics whose terminus mysteriously eluded its promised beneficiaries, it started to dim under the presidency of George H. W. Bush. While his prosecution of the Gulf War met with generally high marks, Bush’s tin ear toward the recession of the early 90s became his downfall. The clever and charismatic Bill Clinton wrested the presidency away from the Republicans for the first time in twelve years. While Clinton ushered in the era of the “New Democrat” that rejected some of the more liberal policies of the party’s past, the pendulum had undeniably swung back to the left.

Two short years later, Newsweek ran an article with a beleaguered Clinton on its cover accompanied by the title, “The Incredible Shrinking President.” Hobbled out of the gate by embracing the worthy but narrow issue of gays in the military, the resulting “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy proved unpopular with all sides. Most critically, it was a dangerous distraction from the average voter’s primary issue: in the immortal words of James Carville, “it’s the economy, stupid.” Enter (stage right) firebrand Newt Gingrich, The Contract with America and the GOP takeover of both houses in the mid-term election of 1994. The future looked bleak for the New Democrats.

Reports of their demise, of course, were greatly exaggerated. Two years later, Clinton’s serendipity was personified by GOP presidential candidate Senator Bob Dole. Dole’s laconic style and tepid campaign skills enabled an impeached president who had barely survived a seismic sex scandal to win the election decisively. He was greatly assisted by the hubris of the insurgent Republicans, who wrongly believed in their absolute power and greatly underestimated the rage of the American public when they shut down the federal government. That infamous standoff provided the perfect foil for Clinton, and may have been an object lesson in the benefits of enemies behaving badly.

The 2000 Supreme Court decision Bush vs. Gore, handed down by an increasingly conservative bench, effectively shifted the country back to the right. There it stayed through 9/11, two wars, an unprecedented economic trajectory and a dizzying plummet to earth. Bush’s approval ratings descended almost as quickly, and the contagion spread to GOP candidate John McCain. Suddenly the boom years of the mid-2000s turned into the worst economy since the Great Depression. This was fertile ground for Barack Obama, a relatively new face on the national scene, who first unseated the heretofore presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. Obama then proceeded to rouse the spirits of the nation–and the ire of his opponents–by evangelizing the redemptive power of hope. Progressives rejoiced as Americans embraced his promise of change.

Mario Cuomo once observed, arguably from personal experience, that politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose. The Obama administration took on the herculean task of the failing economy, rising unemployment, and the desperately dysfunctional health care system all within the first eighteen months. Ambitious? Foolhardy? Recipe for a rout in the mid-terms? Perhaps all. The rise of the Tea Party was fueled by raging opposition to the bank bailouts, TARP, and “Obamacare.” It is no small irony that the first two were on Bush’s watch, a fact quickly forgotten due to an acute case of national amnesia. Blamed for an anemic stimulus effect and unemployment entrenched at nearly 10%, Democrats “took a shellacking” in the 2010 mid-terms. Only twenty-four months after Obama’s historic victory, The Economist’s post-election issue proclaimed over a picture of an approaching posse: “The Republicans ride in.”

The ebb and flow of American politics is not unlike the old adage about weather in New England: if you don’t like it, wait five minutes. Reagan’s and Clinton’s approval ratings were both lower that Obama’s two years before their re-election. Clinton, Truman and Eisenhower all suffered similar losses in their mid-terms and were re-elected. If history is prologue, and the pendulum is primed, there may be hope yet for Obama in 2012.

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