2012 - 2008 = 1960
How the GOP campaign could not have been better scripted
“We’ve just been kicked in the groin.”
It is Christmas week, 1959, but for the Nixon/1960 campaign it might as well have been the darkest days of winter. Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York has just announced his withdrawal from what is projected to be a bloody battle against Vice President Richard Nixon for the presidential nomination, and by extension, the position of standard-bearer of the GOP. According to Theodore H. White, in Making of the President 1960, the above quote was the response of a member of Nixon’s personal staff upon hearing of Rockefeller’s withdrawal.
To the dismay of the Nixon campaign, for the next seven months, Nixon would run uncontested. All the while the national spotlight would be focused almost exclusively on an intensely hostile, lengthy campaign battle for the democratic nomination. For over half a year the nation would watch as an untested junior senator tried to secure the nomination by fending off nine other challengers, including perhaps the most powerful senate majority leader in U.S. history, Lyndon B. Johnson, as well as Adlai Stevenson and Hubert Humphrey, both skilled and experienced national campaigners.
Anyone listening to the talking heads on television for the last two months might be surprised with the above reaction. If there has been one consistent point thrown around by the pundits and political class, it is that there was only one winner from a GOP primary battle: President Barack Obama. From the whose who of political operatives to talk radio commentators, it seems that there is near universal consensus that Obama’s campaign would have liked nothing more than for a prolonged primary battle, while the GOP establishment looked on in horror at the spectacle that would unfold.
If voters are said to have a short memory, then the media must have short term memory loss. The political punditry seems to have forgotten, a similar, if not increasingly bloody campaign took place four years ago. The 2008 democratic contest pitted an untested junior senator successfully battled a political heavyweight for almost the entire primary season. No one can argue that the intensity and length of the 2008 campaign did not help candidate Obama in the general election which followed.
If the Obama campaign was indeed rooting for a prolonged GOP nomination battle, it needs some new political advisors quickly. In fact, from a Republican perspective, the GOP 2012 campaign could not have been better scripted.
The truth is, a prolonged campaign battle, if handled correctly, is perhaps one of the most advantageous occurrences for a presidential campaign and political party. It was true in 1960 and exponentially more accurate today. This is because in today’s 24 hour news cycle, where “breaking news” and soundbytes reign supreme, media coverage and exposure is the lifeblood of a campaign. For a ratings-obsessed media, a bloody contest beats out a “no-contest” any day.
It must be said that the 2012 GOP campaign has been a major advantage to the GOP and its presumptive nominee. One of the main criticisms directed at Governor Mitt Romney is that he seems to be robotic and stiff. It is hard to imagine a positive outcome of a nearly yearlong campaign between Romney and one of the most effective campaigners of our generation, Obama. Additionally, voters have been exposed to the positions of not only Romney and the other GOP candidates, but the rumored VP candidates as well, including Chris Christie and Paul Ryan, both fiscal conservatives who have taken bold steps to try and jump-start the economic recovery. Contrast this with the coverage of Obama’s accomplishments as of late, namely a historic 414-0 defeat of his budget in the house.
Romney has also honed his argument distancing himself from Obamacare, and now sounds credible when enumerating the differences between the federal power-grab and his state-first solution. Romney has also been vetted more thoroughly, and past attacks will hold less weight when used again, this time in the general election contest. Lastly, the campaign was good for the country.
Political candidates who run without opposition tend to accomplish less when in office. They are complacent and had not previously had to enumerate positions to which they could be held to later on. It can be said that Governor Ronald Reagan’s 1976 primary battle with President Gerald Ford cemented Reagan’s positions, and thus Reagan conservatism was born. When Reagan was finally elected in 1980, he accomplished a great deal in his first four years.
Similarly, Obama was forced to focus on reforming healthcare, a major piece of legislation. These outcomes are in stark contrast to the anemic accomplishments of the democratic supermajority which swept into power nearly unopposed in the 2006-2010 period. Those two congresses failed to address any significant issues and kicked the debt and entitlement issues down the road for the later generations. Should Romney emerge victorious in November, precedent dictates that he will be expected to pursue major goals, especially the issues of tax and entitlement reform.
So while you can look forward in the days ahead to hearing the talking heads recycle anew the “fallout” of the Santorum vs. Romney fight, remember the elections of 1960 and 2008, their eventual victors, and how the country might benefit as a result. You might also ask yourself if you know more about Herman Cain’s tax-reform plan than Obama’s.
A. J. Edelman is a member of the class of 2014.