Monday, March 10, 2008

Reagan vs. Nixon
At the office the other day we were trying to come up with a Republican parallel to the Obama/Clinton contest, reinvigorated after the Clintons' victories last week in three primaries and likely to be sustained by the shamelessness of the former First Family as well as the media's interest in a horserace. Putting aside the remote possibility of the Republicans, always deferential to authority and ready to fall in line, engaging in a nomination battle that not resolved early in favor of the front-runner, it can be done. You just need an inspirational, potentially transformational candidate on one side, and a very well-known, highly polarizing political institution on the other.

The analogy is Ronald Reagan versus Richard Nixon. It actually could have happened in 1968, if Reagan's first fledgling presidential run had been somewhat more in earnest. The parallels to the battle between Obama and Clinton are almost spooky.

Reagan, like Obama, had come to national attention with a widely seen speech in praise of another presidential candidate; his "A Time for Choosing" was a sensation, and impelled not a few Republicans to wish it was the former actor, rather than the rhetorically impaired Senator Barry Goldwater, on the ballot in 1964. Similarly, Obama's "Audacity of Hope" keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention provided a stunning contrast with John Kerry's overly mannered acceptance speech. And while many view Obama with skepticism for his short resume in elected office--half a term in the U.S. Senate, eight years as an Illinois State Senator--he looks like Henry Clay compared to Reagan in 1968, when he entered the presidential lists a year after winning his first political office as California's governor. None of this even gets into the similarity between the critique of Obama today and Reagan in 1980, noted by the right-wing writer Stephen Hayes (who warns his fellow Republicans not to repeat the Democrats' '80 mistake of underestimating the guy with the sunny rhetoric) among many others.

The Nixon/Clinton comparison is a bit more of a stretch, though Matt Taibbi at least thinks it works. Certainly both were hated by half the country, but supported by a large chunk of their party establishments. Both had eight years in someone else's White House which they somewhat dubiously claimed as experience, though Bill Clinton certainly has been more amenable to his wife's taking credit for Clinton administration accomplishments than President Eisenhower had been for his #2. Both are certainly open to charges of secrecy and dishonesty. (Okay, Nixon's actually open-and-shut; but Hillary more than holds her own here.) Both tried to secure the nomination by calling in chits from the party establishment and leveraging name recognition and brand loyalty from lower-information voters. Both were willing, if not absolutely eager, to kneecap rivals within the party. (What Clinton has done to Obama lines up pretty well with the doubts Nixon sowed in 1964 about Goldwater and four years later about both Reagan and Nelson Rockefeller.) Both offer a platform of "knowing how to get things done" on behalf of a constituency overlooked by the press and elites.

And both seem fueled by paranoia and resentment--at the press (ironically enough, in this respect; had it been Obama who'd lost 11 straight contests, or failed to release his tax returns, the frenzy would have been decisive) and other enemies--more than anything else. Here's Taibbi on Clinton's stump speech:

At one event I attended in Iowa, she railed against the Republicans who tried to crush her over health care, the Chinese who tried to stifle her over her "women's rights are human rights" speech, a pharmaceutical industry that bucked when she passed a law requiring that drugs be tested for use on children, and a press that tells lies about her. The speech conveniently ignored the fact that Hillary (a) takes more money from Big Pharma than any candidate in the race and (b) voted to keep most-favored-nation trading status with China despite her human-rights concerns, and that she and her husband were bogged down in a scandal involving campaign contributions from the Chinese.

Hillary's campaign is and always has been presented as a pitched battle for political survival against bitter enemies, and no reporter who has watched the way she stage-manages every last utterance and generally treats the press like a gang of rattlesnakes (which they are, of course) can possibly fail to appreciate the similarity to Nixon's own troubled, hypervigilant relationship with the fourth estate.

In a much lower-profile contest than either this year's Democratic nomination battle or the tragic debacle that was the Democratic race that year, Nixon beat Reagan, and a host of others, for the 1968 nomination because Reagan wasn't quite ready for prime time and because Nixon didn't face as much grass-roots or institutional opposition within his party as Clinton has in hers. And their contest, such as it was, didn't do any lasting damage to the Republicans for the fall campaign or beyond. From where we sit today, neither outcome seems likely this time around: Obama's pledged-delegate lead and strong campaign still make him the favorite, but the Clintons' desperate scorched-earth tactics are likely to leave deep wounds, to the Democrats' ultimate disadvantage in a year they should be poised for easy victory. The willingness to tear apart others for personal tactical gain could be the signature Nixonian trait.

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