Friday, September 28, 2012

Nixon's the One

By the way, speaking of that Politico story:
Others have overcome innate political limitations on the way to the White House, including George H.W. Bush and Richard Nixon.
Did Bush have below-average campaigning skills for someone at that level? His electoral record is pretty mixed. He couldn't win statewide in Texas in two tries during an era in which Texas was competitive but still leaned Democratic. His 1980 presidential run wasn't a winner, but was hardly an embarrassment. He captured the 1988 nomination...but as a sitting vice-president; he certainly didn't win as easily as, say, Al Gore did in 2000. His 1988 general election run strikes me as about par for the course, as does, really, his 1992 race -- combined, I don't think he stands out as either particularly impressive or awful. For whatever it's worth, he did a fair amount of party-building in Texas, so that might count as a plus.

Going back to 1980: he finished a clear second in a field that included Howard Baker, vice-presidential nominee Bob Dole and John Connally -- and he gave Ronald Reagan at least a bit of a scare for a while. That's pretty good!

But Richard Nixon? All candidates have "limitations," but Nixon was a terrific campaigner. Beat an incumbent to win a House seat. Jumped rapidly to the Senate -- and jumping from a House seat to the Senate in California isn't easy. No, he didn't defeat JFK in 1960, but barely losing during an era in which Democrats had a solid edge for the WH isn't a particularly bad result. He won both Republican nominations he sought (1960 and 1968) easily. He didn't win by much in 1968 against Humphrey, but overall it's hard to say that he did worse than reasonably expectations would have predicted in his three presidential general elections.

What I think this gets to is that some in the press have a very narrow indeed version of what constitutes political skills -- although remember that Nixon, in particular, was thought to be great on television right up to the debates in 1960, and one can make a pretty good case that he actually was pretty good on TV throughout his career. So even when it comes to things such as "good at giving speeches on TV" our memories and judgments are not very good guides sometimes. And "good at giving speeches on TV" just isn't that crucial a skill for electioneering. It's something, but I doubt if it would turn out to be that big a deal if we had a good study of it. Forming coalitions and alliances, having good judgement about policy and party actors, hard work, knowing how to work a room, willingness to put up with the indignities of the campaign trail, and plenty of other things matter, too.

Anyway, I mostly wanted to make the point about Nixon being good on TV (which, I should say, I mostly am cribbing learned from Garry Wills).* I think part of this is because both liberals and cynical sophisticated reporters were, shall we say, unmoved by the mawkishness of the Checkers speech, and so the fact that it was an enormous success and saved his career has been forgotten. Part is because of the 1960 debates, I suppose; part is because the hatred between him and the press really was mutual, especially by the end (enemies lists will do that!), and so they had a hard time seeing what many American saw in him. But whatever that was, it sure worked.

*I'm really overdue for re-reading Nixon Agonisties; I've looked through it on and off, but haven't fully re-read it in quite a few years now. On the other hand, I've had the Wills book on Julius Caesar at the top of my pile for a few months now and haven't gotten to it, so I'm not sure when any re-reading will actually happen. Anyone know how good the Julius Caesar book is?


  1. Ever since you pronounced Romney an "adequate" presidential party nominee in February, I've been after you to supply a list of party nominees since 1972 or so who were "inadequate." I hope I'm not being a troll here, I'd really be interested in your answer. Implied in my question is that most of the people who ended up running were adequate, so that the distinction isn't very useful -- plus I had a sense that Romney was not up to the standard of adequate even in the spring. I suppose right now he'd be judged as inadequate, although that's just perception right now. We'll see how we feel in November.

    So I ask again: what duly nominated candidates for president were inadequate since 1972? (Or so.)

    1. I think basically it's ideological distance that matters -- so the big two are McGovern and Goldwater, as far as inadequate go. I might be persuaded to add Carter. The rest? I think they're all okay, and their personal skills and abilities probably don't shift the needle more than a point or two in one direction or the other.

      Caveats about 2008: if you want to call McCain's choice of Palin something inherent in him, then I'll accept that and you can chalk that one up against him; OTOH there's his popularity with the press and his reputation as a moderate, which presumably were plusses. Also, there's evidence that race-based voting cost Obama some votes, although if you think Obama was otherwise a pretty capable candidate then perhaps the net Obama effect might have been smaller.

      But, yeah, nominating Newt (or probably Santorum, or Bachmann, etc.) would have been a disaster for them, while I suspect Romney will basically get what was there for him to get, given everything else.

    2. Thanks -- I appreciate the reply. That's pretty interesting, I would have settled on Mondale and Dole as a starting point, but you're probably right that they seemed worse after losing and having to endure a campaign with the "loser" tag already stamped on them at some point. Romney's going through that now. I don't think McCain's on the short list of candidates who were awful, just as you were saying. I'd sooner put Bush '92 in that group than McCain. I also think it's worth knowing why you put McGovern and Goldwater in a special category.

      So you'd be comfortable saying that there's no candidate for whom campaigning skill made any difference in the outcome? I realize that this is a slightly different point, and not quite what you said, but related.

    3. I think both Dole in 1996 and McCain in 2008 were a bit too old to be ideal Presidential nominees. Dole was 73 and McCain was 72, and in both cases looked their ages. Reagan in 1980 was 69 but looked several years younger. No one older than Reagan's 69 has ever been elected President for the first time, though of course Reagan was re-elected at age 73 in 1984. So I think a party makes a mistake when it nominates a non-incumbent candidate for President who is older than 70, especially if they look their age. Both Dole in 1996 and McCain in 2008 ran far behind among younger voters.

    4. McGovern and Goldwater because they were (basically correctly) perceived as ideologically extreme -- they were both, in fact, more extreme than other plausible nominees.

      "Any difference"? No, that's too strong. Campaigns as a whole may make a some difference, and candidate skills can be a significant part of that. But we're probably talking a point or two.

      And again McCain/Obama is a really good example of how candidate qualities/skills can be mixed.

  2. I think some of Nixon's issues stem from knowing where he ended up. The two most famous TV appearances of his that still are played often are the 1960 debate (along with the legend that he blew it) and his resignation speech. People conflate being a good campaigner with being a good President, and it's hard to have a positive image of someone when their most famous words are "Therefore I will resign the Presidency, effective noon tomorrow."

  3. Perlstein's "Nixonland" is good on Nixon's apparently innovative campaign methods, as well (like, iirc, doing a single appearance each day packaged for the national news broadcasts, while Humphrey had more numerous, but less managed, appearances).

  4. There's also the point that most of us middle-aged types were just kids back then. Nixon looked old, nasty, and sinister to me, much like any other comic book villain.

  5. That bit about press bias is really good. There's a great scene in the documentary "The War Room" about Clinton's 1992 race where James Carville is spinning to a bunch reporters at the Democratic Convention and says: "George Bush is the ultimate politician, his political skills are awesome, he may be a joke as a President but as a politician i have a great deal of respect for him." Now that's obviously Carville trying to pitch to reporters and tying a political attack (Bush is a failure) to a good horse-race buzz quote for horse-race stories for the reporters have to file every day (hint team Romney this, not have having 25 year olds scream swear words at reporters in Poland, is how it's done) but I do think that represents a view that a lot of reporters and beltway types had in 1992. A sort of "Bush will crush this hick Clinton like a bug!" combined with "oh god, I knew we should have gotten Cuomo to run, this Jennifer Flowers character has cooked Clinton's goose!" type stuff.

    @Martin That's a good question, but I'd also just point out that there are few inadequate nominees since 1972 because the modern system of selecting nominees is in part set up and maintained by parties to weed out inadequate nominees. Guys who didn't win the nomination but probably would have been considered an "inadequate" nominee if they had would be people like Jesse Jackson or Ron Paul as they both had positions that are not very popular. In a alternative universe where Gary Hart had won the nomination instead of Mondale 1984 he probably would have gone down in crushing defeat too right? That doesn't necessarily mean Mondale or Hart are "inadequate" nominees.

  6. Rick Perlstein's Nixonland is still the gold standard to me for understanding Nixon's political skills and what Americans saw in him. I'm not sure I've ever seen you post about it, but it's terrific.

  7. Dukakis was the most disastrous presidential nominee of the last 1/2 century... hands down. Stevenson was pretty bad, and renominating him was a horrible mistake, but Dukakis stands alone, because of the stakes and the opportunity that cycle.

    An extremely poor choice... an extremely poor campaigner... and with absolutely zero horse sense.

    A race that could have easily been won, as Clinton showed 4 years later, but the Dukakis nomination ensured it wouldn't even be competitive. It's hard to win sending up these Taxachusetts types... as with Kerry and now with Willard. Carter was better than most of these, by a fair margin, although he was as tone deaf as any of them.

  8. I think this preacher has it spot on and I would be suprised if he doesn't throw his hat in the political ring in the future.

    1. That guy may have a rich career ahead of him, becuause he could prove useful to the extremely rich. Just like Clarence Thomas and Condoleeza Rice.


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