Thursday, July 25, 2013

Cruz/McGovern

I'm very late at getting to this, but the great Steve M. took on my weekend column on Ted Cruz, and I did want to respond to part of it.

Not the part where Steve argues that I'm wrong about the possibility of a Cruz move to the center in the event he was to win the nomination. I'll stand by what I said, but there's no way to know, and he may certainly be correct. We're in the realm of speculation in choosing between "Cruz is what he is, and would only be more so after a successful nomination campaign" compared with "Cruz would be more able to move to the center than Romney/McCain types." And I'll readily concede that reputation (which is what matters here) may be sufficiently sticky that moving to the center wouldn't help even if it happens, and he might be stuck with a reputation for extremism regardless of what he does in the general election.

No, the part I want to respond to is about 1972. I said that a large part of Nixon's landslide was the fundamentals; Steve argues (with links, which I'm not redoing here):
OK, stop right there. Nixon beat McGovern because Nixon was "a popular president during good times"? As Rick Perlstein notes in Nixonland, at the beginning of 1972 Nixon had a 49% approval rating, and the Harris poll showed him beating Ed Muskie by only 1 in a three-way race with George Wallace, who was expected to run as a third-party candidate. Unemployent and inflation had increased significantly in Nixon's first term, as had the crime rate; Perlstein notes that the movies in the theaters -- Dirty Harry, Straw Dogs, The French Connection -- depicted rampant crime. Oh, and the war was still going on, and the country was still racially polarized. No, we weren't happy campers in 1972 reveling in peace and prosperity. We were just sold on the notion that Nixon was the uprightest of citizens holding the line against dirty hippies like George McGovern. That's largely why Nixon rose in the polls throughout 1972 and crushed McGovern.
I strongly disagree. It's correct about January 1972; in fact, as I've said, Watergate makes sense in the context of what looked like it might be a close election at that point. But not about November 1972. It was a very good economic year (Nixon was no Carter-like fool; he, like LBJ before him, did everything he could to goose the economy during an election year). The trips to China and the USSR early in the year were major events, and the war was winding down all year, too. That, and not the contrast with McGovern, was surely why Nixon's approval rose in the first half of 1972.

Beyond that, it's not clear that reputation for ideological extremism was McGovern's main problem that year. The Democrats really were fundamentally split; Nixon's sabotage made it worse, but the divisions were real and painful. There's nothing remotely like that on the Republican side right now; there's no significant group or faction that might walk or sit out the campaign if Cruz wins the nomination, so that nominating whoever the GOP '16 version of Muskie or Humphrey would prevent it. And then there's the campaign's troubles beyond ideology, including the chaotic convention and the disaster with the VP slot.

Again: I definitely think that reputation for ideological extremism cost McGovern and Goldwater (and Reagan). But the 1972 and 1964 elections weren't primarily about the out-party candidates,

16 comments:

  1. Wonder if this misses the point about Cruz and his ambition a bit - what if his goal isn't to actually win the presidency? I mean, obviously he would want to win, but doesn't he seem to be happier being the center of attention of the far right wing? As it is now, he is in a perfect position because he never really has to make any difficult decisions because he knows there are enough others who will do that. I suspect that people like Cruz, Lee, etc, will be much happier if they remain a true minority rather than actually having to deal with the responsibility of power.

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    1. Well, that's true. You could also argue that never having had power, he may not realize the responsibility that it confers. The Tea Party is not really about governing, after all; it's about putting into law the ideas the think tanks like ALEC hand you.

      Sometimes I think that the modern Republican party has really embraced outsourcing a little much.

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    2. Hey, Obama is the center of attention of the far Left wing, so that's obviously not much of an issue for a presidential candidate.

      And I'm wondering if the average Tea Party member even knows what ALEC is? In fact, I'm wondering if anybody but you lefties knows who ALEC is? ;-)

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  2. I don't think Cruz could ever tack to the center for one simple reason: he's never even visited the periphery of the center before. Legislatively or rhetorically. So no elite would ever buy it--especially the media. McCain and Romney had long histories of real accomplishment and rhetoric in and around the center, so no matter where they had veered to since, they always had a reservoir of at least semi-believability that they could tap when trying to inch back to the center. Cruz has no such flexibility.

    Now, the fact that he is such a blank slate could theoretically be an advantage. But he would have to show a nimble political skill, and a willingness to sign on to at least one of the barest of consensus measures in the Senate, to even plant the seed of credibility for a later move to the center.

    But I do agree with you that, even without any of that, there's no reason to think that given the right fundamentals he couldn't end up in the WH.

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  3. "The Democrats really were fundamentally split . . ."

    Ah, yes, I can recall the "Democrats for Nixon" ads on TV.

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    1. Really. Just google "democrats for nixon". It was a substantive part of Nixon's '72 campaign, with ads, position papers, etc.

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    2. Lead by McGovern-loathing, ex-LBJ loyalist John Connally, who served as Nixon's treasury secretary prior to stepping down to help charter Democrats for Nixon.

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  4. Valid point about Cruz being unlikely to split GOP voters. But I never argued that he would, or that he'd lose in a landslide.

    Obama succeeded in painting both McCain and Romney as somewhat extreme, and he won two non-landslides as a result. I think Hillary Clinton would do the same to Cruz and beat him decisively -- but not overwhelmingly, because the vast majority of older white voters are still knee-jerk Republicans on Election Day. Still, it would be enough to sway voters in the middle, and (especially) younger voters, because I still think Cruz would never mess with the brand he's building so effectively.

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    1. So what do you think would happen if a more moderate Republican was nominated again? There's a lot of research suggesting that parties eventually moderate their stances when they've been out of the White House for >3 terms. My subjective impression of the Republican echo chamber, however, is that the base hungers for a true conservative to run.

      But what if Gov. Christie wins? Do you see Sen. Cruz or another Tea Party favorite running as well?

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  5. I like when you end your posts with a comma. It really adds some tension....

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  6. I don't see any substantial faction of the GOP bolting if Cruz wins the nomination--but I could see McCain (if he's not planning on running for re-election to the Senate or thinks he can win as an independent a la Lieberman) backing Hillary. I am not saying that this would have a gigantic effect, but it would have some on independents (and even on some remaining moderate Republicans who voted for Romney in 2012).

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  7. Hey, this is off topic, but I'm curious about the jab at Jimmy Carter. I've been lurking for a few years, and I know Prof. Bernstein thinks Carter was a bad president, but I've only seen posts about it here and there. Is there a post or series where he really lays out the anti-Carter case? Or are there links to other sites, articles, or books I could read?

    I don't really doubt Carter was a bad president, but I'd like to learn why Bernstein feels that way b/c I give him vastly more credit than the right wing hacks who usually push that argument.

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    1. https://www.google.com/search?q=site%3Ablogspot.com+plainblogaboutpolitics+carter&oq=site%3Ablogspot.com+plainblogaboutpolitics+carter

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    2. Well, remember, it was the Left who put Carter down, and this blogger is likely just continuing on with that leftist line against him.

      Not to say that Carter was a good president, as he wasn't, and he was temperamentally unsuited for the job. But it was the Left who rebelled against him, and crippled his presidency, leaving him wide open for a Reagan haymaker in 1980.

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  8. Jonathan,

    As an uber right-winger, I'd bolt if Rand Paul was the nominee. And I don't think I'd be alone. Hell, if the nominee was Hillary I may also vote for her. And it would be the only time in my life I've voted Donkey for president.

    For now I'm not at that point with Cruz. Mainly because I hope 1) he fades away and 2) he's brighter than he seems (didn't he go to Harvard?)

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