Friday, November 12, 2010

Choosing or Supporting Presidents

In my lifetime, at least during that time period when I have been very aware of the political process, I have come to the following two conclusions relating to the election of Presidents in the United States and to the support or lack of support they receive during their presidencies.

The first conclusion is that the United States has either a center or center-right bias in terms of politics. Most Americans want to live their lives in peace, pay their bills and taxes on time, be respected as human beings, be patriotic, support the less advantaged, and enjoy their families. To me the major reason the Tea Party arose over the past year or so is that a lot of people felt
that they had lived their lives following these behavior patterns and that, somehow, they were being penalized for acting that way.

In the same vein, populism has never won national elections. Even the Clintons realized this as is reported in Robert Rubin’s book “In An Uncertain World.” To me Al Gore lost the election of 2000 because his campaign for the presidency took a “populist” turn. Otherwise, he seemed to be a certainty.

The second conclusion I have reached is that presidents are elected more by who people vote against rather than who they vote for. I would contend that the last president who was voted into the White House on the basis of people voting “for” them was Dwight Eisenhower. Not only was Eisenhower extremely popular as an individual, he was the face of the World War II victory.

But, let me give you my reasoning. John F. Kennedy was elected because people voted against Richard Nixon. Lyndon Johnson was elected because people voted against Barry Goldwater. Richard Nixon was elected because people voted against the very liberal and populist Hubert Humphrey. Richard Nixon was re-elected and re-elected by such a large majority because people voted against George McGovern. People voted against Gerald Ford because of the Nixon “thing” and elected Jimmy Carter.

Ronald Regan then became president as people voted against Jimmy Carter. Ronald Regan was re-elected and won by such a large margin because the electorate voted against the liberal Walter Mondale and the very liberal Geraldine Ferraro. George H. W. Bush was elected because people voted against the very liberal Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis.

Bill Clinton won over George H. W. Bush because people were tired of Republicans and voted against Bush. Clinton was also centrist enough to not frighten anyone (I had a good Republican friend tell be before the election that Bill Clinton would be the best “Republican” Democratic President we would ever see…and he was right!) Clinton was re-elected and re-elected by a large margin because people voted against Bob Dole.

Above, I gave you the reason why I believe that George W. Bush was elected in 2000: people voted against the “populist” Al Gore. Bush was re-elected because people voted against the very liberal John Kerry. And, the obvious conclusion one can draw from this is that in 2008 people voted against George W. Bush and what he and the Republicans had come to stand for. Obama was neither threatening enough to prevent his election, nor the election of a Democratic Senate and House of Representatives.

Where do we stand after the mid-term elections which took place recently? My interpretation: people perceive President Obama and the Democratic Congress as too far away from their center or center-right leanings. They seem too “populist”. Second, they voters voted against the Democratic President and the Democratic Congress.

To me, this second point is very, very important. When people believe that they are “elected in” because of either who they are or who their party is, they develop a hubris that almost immediately plants the seeds of their downfall.

If someone from the “left”, or from the “right”, gets elected and takes the position that “The public overwhelmingly gave me a mandate to carry out my program”…they are in trouble. Early on they discover that the “centrist” electorate didn’t really give them a “mandate” they just voted the other “guys” out. As the new president then tries to get his program enacted he runs into quite a bit of difficulty and he also finds his popularity rating declining. These are tendencies are tough to overcome in the next election.

Failure occurs, not because of the president’s inability to popularize his program. It is not the president’s inability to be more political. It is not because the president had been “too substantive” or “too serious”. It is not because the American people are under stress and don’t think clearly.

It is because the American electorate is center to center-right in its political leanings and that the new president is in office, not because he and his program were elected overwhelming by the people, but because they voted against the other guy.

Rather than carrying the election-day hubris into the Oval Office, maybe a new president needs be a little more humble about the reason he was elected in the first place.