Elections of 2008 and 2012

Candidates

2008
Barack Obama (365 Electoral Votes)
John McCain (173 Electoral Votes)

2012
Barack Obama (332 Electoral Votes)
Willard Mitt (Romney 206 Electoral Votes)

I am old enough to remember segregation and the last years of the long struggle to abolish it. (Please don’t do the math.) My current home state (now one of the bluest of the blue states) only repealed its segregation laws in the early 1960s. In the state of my birth, de facto segregation was almost universally practiced until I was an adolescent. As a Catholic grammar school student in 1964 (put that calculator down now!), I read a remarkable cartoon series about a fictional candidate for president in a juvenile magazine called Treasure Chest. The cartoon hid the face of its candidate, Tim Pettigrew, until the very last page as he walks to the podium at his party’s convention to accept its presidential nomination. The big revelation was, of course, that Tim Pettigrew was a black man. (The Catholic University archives have made the entire series available in digitized form at: http://cuomeka.wrlc.org/archive/files/0487a1750455f11466b857ae3b9ea76b.pdf.) It says a great deal about the times (or my own lack of imagination) that throughout the ten episodes of this series, I had never guessed the conclusion. I was absolutely thrilled and inspired by the surprise ending. By 2008, I had been waiting for more than forty years for this story to come true.

Barack Obama first came to the attention of a broader public as the first African American to serve as president of the Harvard Law Review. In 2004, as an Illinois state senator and candidate for the United States Senate, Obama delivered the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. His eloquent address, with its emphasis on diversity of the American experience and his personal heritage (“My father was a foreign student, born and raised in a small village in Kenya… [My mother] was born in a town on the other side of the world, in Kansas.”), the common acceptance of core American values within that diversity (“what allows us to pursue our individualdreams, yet still come together as a single American family”), its denunciation of divisive forces (“the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes”), and its stirring peroration to unity (“there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America – there’s the United States of America… We are one people”), became an instant classic of American oratory. Obama won a landslide victory in his Senate race that fall (70 percent of the vote against a black Republican opponent), and also won a place on the short list of presidential “mentionables.”

Senator Obama took a huge gamble by declaring his candidacy for the presidency in the very next election, even before he had served a full term in the Senate. He faced a formidable group of opponents for the Democratic nomination, especially New York Senator (and former First Lady) Hillary Clinton and 2004’s Democratic vice presidential nominee, John Edwards. The race eventually settled into a taut two-way contest between Obama and Clinton. Obama’s unsurpassed field organization allowed him to enter the convention with a small but firm majority of the delegates, becoming the first African American to secure a major party nomination. (At the same time, Hillary Clinton absolutely distinguished herself in defeat, and Obama quickly selected her as secretary of state after he won the presidency in November.)

Obama’s opponents in the general election were Senator John McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner of war with a reputation as a maverick among the (gullible?) press corps, and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who proved (even more than Dubya) to be a charismatic but polarizing figure. The campaign appeared to be close until the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers threatened to set off a cascading collapse of the financial system. McCain responded unsteadily, announcing that he would suspend campaigning, postpone the first presidential debate, and return to Washington until the crisis was resolved. Obama’s coolly responded that he intended to continue campaigning, on the grounds that presidents should be able to handle more than one matter at a time. Meanwhile, Sarah Palin energized raucous Republican rallies with scathing denunciations of Obama that evoked no little share of hostile and even racist responses from her audiences. (In this writer’s opinion, the Tea Party movement that seemed to appear so suddenly in the summer of 2009 actually began informally in the reaction of these crowds to Palin’s rhetoric during the fall of 2008.)

Obama won a decisive victory in both the Electoral College and the popular vote. On January 20, 2009, yours truly simultaneously celebrated the realization of his dream and his birthday with 2 million of his closest friends crowded onto the Washington Mall. (Tsk, tsk, don’t ask.)

President Obama entered office under the most difficult domestic circumstances since Franklin Roosevelt. Despite the need for decisive action to deal with the economic crisis, Obama faced an intransigent Republican opposition in Congress: the Senate majority leader, the unctuous Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, actually announced that his priority was to make Obama a one-term president. Against almost unanimous Republican opposition, Obama was able to use large Democratic majorities in Congress to finalize an automobile bailout plan initiated by George Bush, as well as to pass a massive (but still insufficient) package of spending and tax cuts to stimulate the economy, meaningful but limited financial reforms, a sweeping (but certainly not radical) reform of the health care system, and legislation allowing gay and lesbian people to serve openly in the military. But the health care bill became the flashpoint for dramatic confrontations and protests, especially at congressional town hall meetings, instigated by the new “Tea Party” movement during the summer of 2009. Sarah Palin, among many others, charged that the bill contained a “death panel” provision that would allow bureaucrats to withhold treatment from elderly or chronically ill people. At the risk of beating a dead (ahem) horse, this is Palin’s original statement, which she has never disavowed, despite being resoundingly and repeatedly refuted by people who actually know what they were talking about:

The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.

(Dear reader, decide for yourself wherein the evil actually resides.)

Along with his domestic accomplishments, Obama fulfilled his promise to withdraw American troops from Iraq and to establish a timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan. But by that summer of 2009, it had become clear that the original euphoria over Obama’s election among one part of the population was in danger of being overwhelmed by a ferocious backlash from another part. This backlash not only stood resolutely (and often, as in the case of Palin, mendaciously) against Obama’s policy initiatives, but also featured an almost unprecedented (with the possible exception of Bill Clinton) level of vitriolic personal attacks against Obama, who was variously accused of being one or more of the following: a non-citizen (despite all documentary evidence to the contrary), a socialist (which made real socialists laugh out loud), a secret Muslim (which was apparently a secret even from Obama himself), an anti-colonialist (George Washington wasn’t?), a friend of terrorists (who ordered the death of Osama bin Laden??), and generally anti-American (which alone provided ample material for the study of psychological projection). Meanwhile the economy sputtered along, struggling to sustain a recovery from the deep recession that had begun with the financial crisis of late 2010. The midterm elections of 2010 were a disaster for Obama and the Democrats, as their diverse constituency failed to turn out at the levels of 2008, while conservatives turned out in droves. The Democrats lost 64 seats and control of the House, and barely retained control of the Senate.

Almost everyone agreed at the beginning of 2012 (most especially, perhaps, his own nervous supporters) that Obama was in real danger of being defeated for reelection, especially because the economy’s recovery continued to sputter along. As it turned out, Obama had the good fortune so often displayed by Bill Clinton: excellent political judgment in his choice of enemies. The Republican nomination campaign featured (with the possible exception of the marginal Jon Huntsman) a collection of candidates determined to prove their bona fides along the political spectrum from far right to far, far right. The eventual Republican nominee, Willard Mitt Romney, was forced to disavow his moderate record as governor of liberal Massachusetts (“I was a severely conservative Republican governor”) in general, and specifically his signal accomplishment in Massachusetts, passing a health care reform bill that had become the model for the hated “Obamacare.” (This term had originated among Tea Party conservatives as a slur against Obama’s health care reform. Obama’s characteristically cool—but sadly belated—response: “I have no problem with people saying Obama cares. I do care.”)

By the time he had secured the nomination, Romney had taken “severely conservative” positions on immigration, taxes, national security, and every other prominent issue. His attempt to re-reinvent himself as a moderate in the fall campaign (“It’s almost like an Etch a Sketch,” said one of his top advisers. “You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”), seemed to be having some success when he dominated an uncharacteristically lethargic Obama in their first debate. But the efforts of some Republican state officials to make voting more difficult for Democratic constituencies, an avalanche of negative advertising sponsored by anonymous wealthy Republicans allied with Romney, and a series of increasingly mendacious official political advertisements from the Romney campaign itself seemed to shake the 2008 Obama coalition out of its lethargy. (In the opinion of this Ohio native, Romney lost the crucial state of Ohio by running one false advertisement too many—accusing automobile companies that had benefited from Obama’s automobile bailout of moving jobs from the United States to China. The only little problem was that the ad’s Ohio audience, with its extensive connections to the automobile industry, already knew that this claim was false, and several automobile executives publicly denounced its dishonesty.) The turnout of African Americans, Hispanics, other minorities, young people, and women matched or exceeded their turnout in 2008. Their support for Obama also matched or exceeded the levels of 2008. The increasingly powerful Hispanic community supported Obama over Romney by almost 3 to 1.
As a result, Obama won a surprisingly convincing victory with over 51 percent of the popular votes and 332 electoral votes. Characteristically, Romney had apparently been so confident of victory that he had not even bothered to prepare a concession speech in advance, and it took over an hour and a half after the results were clear before he conceded defeat. Apparently, a small part of Obama’s ancestry on his mother’s side is Irish. (See http://www.origins.net/help/resarticle-obama.aspx.) If so, O’Bama seems to have inherited the proverbial luck of the Irish.

Elections of 2000 and 2004

Candidates

2000:
George W. Bush (271* Electoral Votes)
Albert Gore (266* Electoral Votes)

2004:
George W. Bush (286 Electoral Votes)
John Kerry (255 Electoral Votes)

Even at the time, it was obvious that the tumultuous aftermath of the 2000 election posed one of our worst electoral crises (perhaps exceeded only by the Electoral College tie of 1800 and the secession crisis subsequent to the 1860 election).  From the perspective of twelve years on, we can now see that this election ushered in a period of creeping political crisis, legislative gridlock, and a polarization of the electorate comparable only to the divisions leading up to the Civil War.

The campaign, conducted in the shadow of Bill Clinton’s intern indiscretions and subsequent impeachment, pitted the charismatic (at least to some) but lackluster Governor George W. Bush of Texas against the dull (at least on television) but accomplished Albert Gore.  Bush promised to restore dignity and honor to the White House.  Gore unfairly carried much of the burden for Clinton’s personal failings, and he was even more unfairly vilified by a press corps that actually lied by accusing Gore of being a serial liar.  (The mind boggles, but the press corps’ lies during the 2000 campaign are exhaustively and excruciatingly documented by the indispensible Bob Somerby at http://www.howhegotthere.blogspot.com/.)  It may not be too much to say that the press corps’ misconduct was the first sign that our political system was beginning to go off the rails.

The next sign of longer-term trouble was the crisis over the vote count in Florida, on which (despite Gore’s 500,000 vote margin in the national popular vote) the outcome of the election depended.  Butterfly ballots, hanging chads, and dimpled chads revealed a startling level of inconsistency and incompetence in the conduct of our elections. After six weeks of court hearings, dueling talking points, and even a “bourgeois riot” organized to intimidate vote counters in Miami, the Supreme Court ruled in Bush’s favor and effectively handed him the presidency.  However, the court decision did not so much resolve the crisis as become the basis for further polarization, both because it was decided on a “party-line” vote (by an institution supposed to be above party) and because, contrary to basic legal principles, the decision was characterized in the majority opinion as unique to the occasion and not a precedent for future decisions.  (“Our consideration is limited to the present circumstances, for the problem of equal protection in election processes generally presents many complexities.”  Indeed.)

Thus began the dubious presidency of “Dubya,” who quickly became the hero of conservatives (especially religious conservatives) and the nemesis of liberals and Democrats.  Despite this, Dubya enjoyed a period of nearly unanimous support after al-Quada’s terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  But after an inconclusive campaign against al-Quada’s strongholds in Afghanistan, which culminated in the escape of al-Quada leader Osama bin Laden over the mountains into Pakistan, Dubya ordered the invasion of Iraq to remove the danger supposedly posed by Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.  There a quick conventional victory against Iraq’s overmatched conventional forces soon bogged down in a lengthy struggle against an unconventional insurgency.

The stalemate in Iraq, along with the failure to find the weapons that had been the pretext for the invasion, gave Democrats hope that they could oust Dubya in 2004.  They nominated Massachusetts Senator and Vietnam War hero (later Vietnam protest leader) John Kerry.  But Dubya’s political Svengali Karl Rove turned Kerry’s virtues against him in a series of televisions advertisements that questioned his war record as a Swift boat commander in Vietnam.  These Swift boat ads set a new low for political mendacity, but the political press corps revealed its indolence and self-absorption by failing to expose the many lies in the ads until their damage to Kerry was irreversible.  Kerry lost the popular vote by 3 million votes, but would still have won the election if he had carried the state of Ohio.  The many irregularities of the voting in Ohio (e.g., a more generous supply of voting machines in Republican areas than in Democratic areas) increased the festering doubts of many about the legitimacy of our voting processes.

Dubya went on to a disastrous second term, featuring a pathetic attempt to privatize Social Security, a pointless national controversy about whether it was ethical to allow an irreversibly comatose woman named Terry Schiavo to die, a thoroughly botched response to the tremendous destruction wreaked on New Orleans and the

Gulf coast by Hurricane Katrina, and culminating in the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression.  Good times!

*OK, set aside hanging chads, dimpled chads, overvotes, and undervotes.  In the absence of the Palm Beach County’s infamous butterfly ballot alone, there can be little doubt that the outcome of the election would have been:

Albert Gore 291
George W. Bush 246

 

The Elections of 1992 and 1996

Candidates:

1992
William Clinton (370 Electoral Votes)
George Bush (168 Electoral Votes)
H. Ross Perot (0 Electoral Votes)

1996
William Clinton (379 Electoral Votes)
Robert Dole (159 Electoral Votes)
H. Ross Perot (0 Electoral Votes)

In the eighteen months from March 1991 to November 1992, President George Bush went from a record 91 percent approval rating in the opinion polls to the lowest percentage of the popular vote for an incumbent since William Howard Taft.  Bush’s achievements were in foreign policy, from his deft response to the fall of Communism to his skillful assembly of a coalition against Iraq in the Gulf War.  His downfall was failure to respond to a relatively mild recession, or even to appear to be very much concerned about it (“Message: I care”).  He compounded this problem by going back, inevitably, on his rhetorically effective but ill-advised pledge against new taxes (“Read my lips”).  Public frustration over partisan squabbling (the Clarence Thomas hearings) and political gridlock (budget battles and a rising deficit) was also growing enough to win the improbable Ross Perot the largest vote for a third-party candidate since the “Bull Moose,” Theodore Roosevelt.  Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton translated a unique combination of superb political skills and policy wonkery into a solid Electoral College majority (built on only 42 percent of the popular vote).  Once in office, Clinton’s wonkery got the best of his political skills for a while with his too-complicated-by-half health care reform proposal, and he promptly suffered a humiliating defeat in the 1994 congressional elections.  But Clinton has always displayed excellent political judgment in his choice of enemies.  He maneuvered House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his new Republican majority into overplaying their hand by forcing a government shutdown over a budget battle.  The Republicans had to back down, and Clinton was in perfect position to win reelection against Robert Dole in 1996.  Of course, during the government shutdown a young intern came to the Oval Office with pizza…

The Elections of 1980, 1984, and 1988

Candidates:
1980
Ronald Reagan (489 Electoral Votes)
Jimmy Carter (49 Electoral Votes)

1984
Ronald Reagan (525 Electoral Votes)
Walter Mondale (13 Electoral Votes)

1988
George Bush (426 Electoral Votes)
Michael Dukakis (111 Electoral Votes)

Jimmy Carter’s administration produced well-crafted policy initiatives to deal with things like the energy crisis, civil service reform, and deregulation of the airline and trucking industries. The initiatives were, however, not always politically astute, and Carter lacked the ability to wheel, deal, cajole, and flatter enough to get his way.  He had some significant achievements in foreign policy, including the Panama Canal treaty, recognition of China, the Camp David peace agreement, and the campaign for human rights.  But he was probably doomed as soon as he made a speech that seemed to blame the voters for America’s economic problems in the midst of a gasoline shortage.  (He did not actually use the word “malaise,” but the speech quickly got that label.)  His fate was certainly sealed, however, by the humiliating hostage crisis with Iran.  In 1980, Republican Ronald Reagan used his skillful delivery (“I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green”) and exquisite sense of timing (“There you go again”) to overcome fears that his views were too extreme.  Carter suffered the first defeat by an incumbent president since Herbert Hoover.  He went on to become our most distinguished ex-President since John Quincy Adams.  Reagan got off to a rocky start as the country entered a stiff recession, but his tax cuts and increased military spending helped to stimulate a recovery, as well as his sunny disposition even after an assassination attempt (“Honey, I forgot to duck”), won the country over.  In 1984, the Democrats reached rock bottom as a presidential party when former Vice President Walter Mondale won only his native Minnesota against Reagan.  There was nowhere for the Democrats to go but up, and although Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis brought the party half-way back in 1988, he was unable to prevent Vice President George (“Read my lips: no new taxes”) Bush from winning Reagan’s third term.

 

The Election of 1976

Candidates:

Jimmy Carter (297 Electoral Votes)
Gerald Ford (240 Electoral Votes)

The 1976 election took place in the shadow of what Gerald Ford called “our long national nightmare.”  Ford, of course, was specifically referring to the agony of Watergate and the prolonged death throes of the Nixon administration.  The nightmare, however, had really begun with social divisions over civil rights and political strife over Vietnam.  Watergate, with its plumbers, wiretaps, enemies lists, and general dirty tricks, was the expression of the Nixon administration’s conviction that dissent and political opposition were illegitimate, and hence appropriate targets of police-like monitoring.  After Nixon, Gerald Ford was a calm and reassuring, if uninspiring (“Whip Inflation Now!”), president.  His pardon of Nixon, however, did little in the short run to heal the country’s wounds, especially since it was not accompanied by similar pardons for draft dodgers and other dissidents on the other side of the political and social divides.  Then along came Jimmy Carter with a promise of “a Government as good and as competent and as compassionate as… the American people.”   Ford fought off a strong challenge from Ronald Reagan in his own party, and was closing a huge gap in the polls when he said (in a presidential debate, no less), “I don’t believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union.”  Still, the vote was close, and only the South’s return to the Democratic fold to vote for a native son allowed Carter to squeak by.  Carter issued a limited pardon for draft dodgers on his first full day in office.

The Elections of 1968 and 1972

Candidates:

1968
Richard Nixon (301 Electoral Votes)
Hubert Humphrey (191 Electoral Votes)
George Wallace (46 Electoral Votes)

1972
Richard Nixon (520 Electoral Votes)
George McGovern (17 Electoral Votes)

The 1968 presidential election was a wild campaign in a tumultuous year.  Vietnam, violence, protest, populism, civil rights, and civil strife were all part of the mix.  In 1968:

–Richard Nixon made his comeback from the political wilderness all the way to the White House.

–The incumbent president, winner of a landslide victory just four years before, was forced into a humiliating withdrawal by two unconventional challengers from his own party.

–The assassinations of a civil rights leader and a presidential candidate shook the country and the political process.

–The third party candidacy of George Wallace demonstrated the power of conservative populism and a politics of resentment.

–The Democratic Party tore itself apart at its Chicago convention, but then nearly came back to win the election.

–The three-way general election was one of the closest in history, and the winner had the smallest share of the popular vote since Woodrow Wilson in 1912.

Remarkably, 1968 ended with the first images taken by astronauts in orbit around the moon, including a picture they took by pointing their camera back toward a tranquil blue globe a quarter of a million miles away.

Nixon’s domestic policies in office were surprisingly liberal: His initiatives included the Environmental Protection Agency, generous cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security, and the Philadelphia plan for affirmative action (requiring “goals and timetables”).  His opening to China surprised both anti-communists and anti-anti-Communists, and probably pleased the latter more than the former.  But his conduct of the Vietnam War prolonged and intensified the country’s divisions.  In 1972, the Nixon political machine obliterated the anti-war and ultra-liberal candidacy of George McGovern, but set the stage for Nixon’s own downfall by treating dissent and political opposition as suspicious, even criminal, activities.