The Pattern of the Presidency
When Al Gore lost the election in 2000 to George W. Bush, I remember thinking that there was one defining moment that really determined the outcome. No, it was not Justice O’Connor’s decisive (and her now regretted) vote in the Supreme Court that December day. It was Bill Clinton’s decision in 1995 to betray his better political and ethical instincts by letting Monica Lewinsky into the oval office one simple evening in November of that year. The whole world knows what happened after that, even if it indeed had no business knowing it. That moment, that weak decision it can be said, changed the world. Clinton had just won reelection, his approval rating was high, and he could have been a much more effective president in his second term than he was in his first had he not succumbed to this rumored chronic vice of his.
As the Lewinsky affair gained traction in the media in early 1998, Clinton became entrenched in a defensive posture that lasted a full year until he squeezed through impeachment proceedings and a video deposition that must have been the low point of his life. Somehow, he survived it all, and left office in 2000 with impressively high approval ratings considering what he’d endured.
When Al Gore began to campaign for the presidency Clinton was clearly a liability, and the media knew it. How Gore would decide to use or decline Clinton’s stumping for his candidacy overshadowed his own ideas and agenda for the new century (sound familiar?). The fact that Gore seemed to be made of wood and had the personality of Spock didn’t help much either, but he was running against a man (G.W. Bush) who by the fairest of judgments seemed himself to be an amateur executive (which historians are presumably conferring on these days). Had Clinton risen above his own base needs that evening, perhaps his support and the accomplishments of his second term would have carried the presidency for Gore in 2000. 9/11 would still have happened to be sure, being previously so well planned in the mid to late 90’s. The war in Afghanistan would have likely occurred as well. But the war in Iraq just as likely would have not occurred had Gore won in 2000.
So George Bush was elected ultimately because many Americans saw him as a man of moral certainty, one that would never cheat on his wife, who upheld central Christian American values above all. Hence the birth of the “values voter” that dominated the elections of 2000 and 2004. Moral virtue and “ascendance” galvanized the Republican base and they morphed into a stunning political machine.
There is a pattern here that emerges in the last 40 years if we look back at how we elect our presidents, and it hinges on the specific character failing of the incumbent president whether he ran for reelection or whether his vice president ran in his stead.
It begins with Johnson, who declined to run in 1968 due wholly to the disaster of Viet Nam and the success of the Tet Offensive of that year. Humphrey lost to Nixon by association with LBJ, and by a jolly face that didn’t quite resonate with voters during such a serious year. Nixon won reelection soundly in 1972, only to birth Watergate upon the electorate soon after. Ford took over, was actually an effective executive until the cameras were on him in a debate in 1976, where he appeared aloof and diffuse about global realities. Enter Carter, who won the presidency through a flannel-shirted populist campaign that presaged Clinton’s “I feel your pain” candidacy. Carter made everyone feel their roots, as if he had been grown from the ground in one of his peanut fields – a man they could relate to as opposed to Ford’s grandfatherly demeanor.
Amazingly, Carter’s term was about as bad as it gets – the gasoline shortage, the hostage crisis in Iran, and the fact the he alienated most of his own party leaders in Congress by his unbending approach to micro-managing his presidency. The “aww-shucks” peanut farmer was much more the former naval submariner than the electorate ever knew. Perhaps no one had better intentions than Carter to do well for the country, no one as sincere as him since Truman, but he lacked the central skill of politics – which is I’ll give you this if you give me that, and that alone led to his demise.
And then…Reagan, who was just unable to be dour and incapable of mussing his hair over the realities of what faced the country. Where Carter evinced what he felt an appropriate mood about the state of the union in 1980, Reagan showed swagger. Where Carter pondered, Reagan displayed an ease of certainty. Reagan was essentially a throw-back candidate, and the electorate handed him the keys as a boy would to his father just after he’d wrecked the family car.
Reagan, as historians are now meting out, fixed the family car…even if the brakes would one day fail down the road and the tires would eventually come off. He got the country moving again and gave Americans a new sense of themselves. His effectiveness was enough to secure the presidency of George H.W. Bush in 1988 (despite a poor vice presidential pick). Bush was an effective president even if he lacked the qualities that made his predecessor so beloved. He oversaw the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and built an impressive military coalition that foiled Saddam Hussein’s adolescent attempt to change the order of the Middle East during the Persian Gulf War. Much is said about his son’s eventual legacy, but it’s interesting to consider what history will say of the senior Bush in regard to letting Hussein off the hook when General Schwarzkopf called Washington asking if they wanted him detained upon surrender (which Hussein was apparently prepared for).
Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in the summer of 1991, three months before the election. Bush’s response was weak, and late in coming, which ended up alienating much of his base in the South. He was seen as a internationalist president by many voters, and Clinton seized on that Achilles Heel as he campaigned throughout August and September. Hurricanes were much more infrequent then as they are now, and Clinton knew to go toward the domestic concerns of the electorate to expose Bush’s weakness (usher in the “I feel your pain” strategy). The economy, despite the Persian Gulf War, was tanking, and Bush’s reneging on never raising taxes doomed a second term. In the November election Bush lost soundly, and thus a chance at a second term, to Clinton who won the election by assuring voters that foreign affairs were secondary to domestic ones.
Now we have witnessed perhaps the most historically significant election since 1932. What precipitated the outcome is perhaps clearer to us living now than it may be to unborn future historians. Those future historians will likely point to the collapse of the unregulated free-market economy as the lynch pin to Obama’s ascendancy, or perhaps Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. If history is any indication, those of us living through these times will later strain to be heard through our hoarse and elderly voices. We ought to tell future historians that it was competence that defined the election of 2008. It wasn’t simply the failing economy – what inherent experience does Obama, or McCain for that matter, bring to our economic conundrum? It wasn’t Iraq - because both men would and will listen to the generals charged with its orderly resolution.
It is competence that the American people voted for this election year. George W. Bush surrounded himself with ideological advisors who were not pragmatists, save Colin Powell. And in the end it poisoned his presidency. Bush believed, like Carter did, that his good intentions would override the objections of the pragmatists, cautious party-liners, and the electorate who were ultimately invested in his success. And when the events of the day revealed themselves to Bush he was ill-equipped to make the hardest decision of all, which was to step back and know that he was getting bad advice from his cabinet. That is the definition of an amateur executive. The American people knew this when they voted in the one man who may lack the resume of an established politician, but one who clearly has the intelligence to be ahead of the events that will one day define him.
—Eric Moss French