The folks in Bill Clinton’s White House see November’s election as a replay of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 electoral triumph. But they may be overlooking a more obvious parallel: Richard Nixon’s landslide in 1972.
Until his campaign moved into gear, Nixon’s popularity, like Clinton’s until recently, was low–stuck at the “nemesis figure of 43 percent,” as Theodore White recounted in The Making of the President, 1972. But, again like Clinton, Nixon was fortunate in the choice of his opponent. By fall of 1972, in full contest with the hapless George McGovern, Nixon was enjoying 60 percent-plus popularity.
Though Nixon had no Gennifer Flowers growing in his home garden, he had been plagued by allegations of unethical–or at least unattractive–behavior dating back to his earliest political days in California. Still, while the public might think twice about buying a used car from either “Tricky Dick” or “Slick Willie,” most people seemed willing, then as now, to make an independent judgment about the incumbent’s ability to govern–especially when weighing it against the capacity of his challenger.
Both presidents came into their second-term election campaigns having governed against type: Nixon, the Republican, proposed to establish a federally guaranteed income for all families with children. He extended the food-stamp program nationwide and established a federal benefit floor for the elderly and disabled. Urged on by a Democratic Congress, he signed a pile of big-government initiatives. These included a 20 percent increase in Social Security benefits, plus automatic cost-of-living adjustments; the “black lung” disability benefit program for miners; and creation of the Environmental Protection Agency as well as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Grants for low-income housing programs, needy college students, the arts and humanities, urban renewal, mass transit, community health, and worker training gushed from the federal Treasury. When inflation jumped in the summer of 1971, Nixon didn’t fool around with balanced budgets, tight money, or other conservative nostrums; he slapped on wage and price controls. (“,” he had remarked a few months earlier.)
Democrat Clinton, on the other hand, having set off leftward at the start of his first term, soon reversed course. Under strong pressure from the GOP Congress in his third year in office, he submitted a plan that purportedly would balance the budget in seven years–at the price of deep domestic spending cuts. Later, on the campaign trail, he declared his devotion to school uniforms, youth curfews, tough crime control, and kiddie-safe TV programs. Where Nixon would have doubled family welfare rolls, Clinton signed a bill that promised to deny benefits to most welfare recipients after five years. “The era of Big Government is over,” Clinton proclaimed in his 1996 State of the Union address.
The challengers to both presidents were undermined by the rise of noisy extremists in their respective parties who alarmed many mainstream voters. For McGovern, it was the hard left, abetted by the hippie fringe–Bella Abzug, along with Abbie Hoffman. For Dole, it is the religious right and noisy populists–Ralph Reed, with Pat Buchanan looking over his shoulder. The 1972 Democratic platform was a wish list compiled by every liberal–even radical–group in the country, who carried their banners across the floor of that year’s party convention. Southern whites and blue-collar workers deserted the party, and its fund-raising capacity was debilitated for years to come among big donors and small givers alike.
The GOP had its 1996 convention under far better control, but the fractures, made evident during the contentious primaries, were no less deep. Debarred by his own party from running on his record of fiscal and social moderation–and with Clinton pre-empting much of the conservative agenda–Dole sought, as McGovern had in 1972, an eye-catching proposal to set him apart from his competitor.
And, like McGovern, Dole was enticed into an untenable choice, not by his party’s fringes, but by ostensibly responsible establishmentarian elements. For McGovern, it was the liberal professors of Yale and Harvard who persuaded him to embrace his misbegotten $1,000-a-person “demogrant”–a cash-welfare plan that would have put half the country on the take. For Dole, the damage was done by a coalition of pinstriped supply-side enthusiasts and Nobel laureates from Chicago, Harvard, and Stanford. These worthies lured the red-ink-wary Dole into espousing an across-the-board 15 percent tax-rate cut that even the average voter (not to mention most of Wall Street) could spot right off as a budget buster.
With the economy rebounding smartly from the brief 1971 recession and inflation temporarily in check, even the unpopularity of the raging Vietnam War couldn’t shake the power of Nixon’s incumbency. McGovern’s big blip in the polls came earlier than Dole’s post-convention gain. His gap with Nixon, according to White, narrowed briefly to 5 percentage points after a string of primary victories. The disastrous Democratic Convention, however, left McGovern a then record-setting 23 points in the hole. Dole got a bounce out of the well-orchestrated Republican Convention, but soon fell back into a double-digit deficit. With the gap still of landslide proportions in most polls, Dole has been written off, correctly or otherwise, by the pundits. (See this week’s “Horse Race.”)
Finally, lest their opponents’ weakness not suffice to produce a landslide, both incumbents got further help from a third-party candidate: Nixon from George Wallace, who drained white Southern support from the Democrats, and Clinton from Ross Perot, who likely will drain white suburbanites from Dole.
Beyond the election, the parallels may break down. Nixon’s Watergate sins (dismissed by the public on the eve of the election as, at most, the work of overzealous campaign aides) caught up with him in his second term. Clinton’s Whitewater and assorted other troubles, having been more thoroughly aired in his first term, may have run their course. In any case, it’s hard to imagine Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, accepting bundles of cash in his White House office as Spiro Agnew did.
It’s not so hard, however, to imagine the GOP following the pattern set by the Democrats after 1972: pulling themselves together momentarily to field a winning centrist candidate four years later–and then thwarting his ability to govern (as the Democrats in Congress did Jimmy Carter’s)–thereby producing an era of domination by the opposition for the next two decades.