Think of this as Volume 18, Number 33 of the newsletter I have written weekly since March, 1997. Enjoy.
By this time we know the President's personality. We know how he will react to events. Satirists can “do” him. Their program has been enacted, and none works perfectly. Defending any President in their sixth year is exhausting. Ask Democrats in 1998, or Republicans in 1986.
Right now we're playing what I would have called, a decade ago, the 1974 Game. That year represented the six year mark following the election of Richard Nixon, which was the election that transformed American politics for a generation. Take Nixon's votes, add Wallace's, and you get an unstoppable coalition. Ronald Reagan and both Bushes would take full advantage. It defines Republicanism to this day.
But it doesn't have to turn out the way it did for Nixon. Despite Republican fever dreams there is nothing in Barack Obama's record to merit impeachment. Especially in comparison with his predecessor, whom those attacking him now defended.
Another way of looking at the question is to say we're now playing the 1938 Game. This was FDR's sixth year. He had taken his foot off the deficit gas, he'd succeeded in re-making the Supreme Court to the party's long-term benefit, but the economy was in recession, Hitler was on the march, and many Americans (far more than history admits) were marching with him, or at least suggesting he had a few good ideas, because the German command economy was booming while ours was stagnant. What happened next was predictable. The President suffered his worst-ever defeat – 72 House seats gone and 6 in the Senate.
Yet another way of looking at it is to say we're now playing the 1902 Game. As long-time readers know, I consider 1896 to have been the turning point for the progressive generation's politics, and William McKinley to have been a far more important figure than any now believe, an unheralded progressive. He was eclipsed by Theodore Roosevelt as Nixon was eventually eclipsed by Reagan. Roosevelt validated McKinley's direction as Reagan did Nixon's. Roosevelt set the course for his generation as Reagan did for his. Roosevelt did pretty well in 1902, holding his advantage in the Senate and losing little ground in the House.
It's important here to review the difference between a Nixon and Reagan, a McKinley and Roosevelt, so we can understand where Barack Obama fits into the broader sweep of American political history. Obama represents a turning point. He came to office at a time of great crisis. He is a Crisis President. In this he's just like Nixon, just like McKinley, and for that matter just like our two greatest Presidents – Lincoln and FDR. Existential crisis has a way of concentrating the national mind, and creating lasting change. This is what happened in 2008, although Washington won't know that until that change is validated.
Validation, in this case, means the election of a President who will show that the Crisis President's changes have legs, that they have indeed caused the country to change, and that a new coalition can cause political knees to jerk reflexively. This is what Reagan did for the Nixon coalition, and what Teddy Roosevelt did for McKinley. While Nixon and McKinley were alive, politically or otherwise, there was great dispute among reporters about whether they were a passing phase or something permanent. The validation of Roosevelt and Reagan convinced a generation of reporters that they weren't, that the changes they represented were permanent, and a whole generation would go by before that assumption was challenged.
Which brings us back to the current moment. The immediate crisis has passed, but the new coalition needs validation before anyone will buy that politics has indeed changed. We see this in reaction to what happened in Ferguson – conservatives went quiet for a while until polls seemed to indicate the Nixon coalition might still be alive – expect more full-throated stuff like this in the days ahead.
What's missing for Democrats in all of this, as is true with Iraq, Ukraine, and many other issues – is simple inspiration. Democrats are as tired of Obama personally as Republicans, as tired as they were of FDR in 1938. They wish they had, like 1902's Republicans, a newer more energetic leader to rally around.
Instead we have Hillary Clinton, who for all her strengths has an enormous past to bear up under, a history going all the way bak to Watergate of all things. Do you know any inspirational leaders from the 1970s who were politically active in the 1930s? Any from the 1930s who were active in the 1890s? It's unprecedented. And Clinton's careful approach to issues, a natural thing given all that history, makes it even harder to see her as a Validation President.
Yes, Reagan was active in the 1930s, but in a completely different way. He came up as a Roosevelt Democrat in 1930s Hollywood. Prosperity and his usefulness to the Republican moguls of that era made him into a clay they could mold for their own greatness. That's not Clinton's history. She was an intern on the 1974 impeachment committee, was First Lady as her husband created an anti-thesis to the Nixon Thesis of Conflict . To many conservatives it's like running Hanoi Jane Fonda for President in 2016, because their kids say “Jane who?” It's true that William McKinley rose to the rank of brevet major during the Civil War, but again he was the Crisis President – Roosevelt's whole political conceit was that he was just a kid then.
The point is that, right now, Hillary Clinton is assumed to be the validation to Barack Obama's Thesis of Consensus and until recently polls showed the 2016 election to be less a selection than a coronation.
But I don't see how it can be that way. We need inspiration, not a program. We need a Reagan, a Roosevelt, not a Nixon, not a McKinley. We need what Obama himself had in 2008, what Bill Clinton offered in 1992, charisma. Hillary doesn't have that.
So the 2016 election is going to be much more interesting than people realize. I think Hillary is going to search for an inspirational VP, and that this person – whoever they turn out to be – will prove far more important to what our grandkids learn of our history than she will.
That's what 1976 looks like from 1974, anyway. It's always possible we could get the Republican version of Jimmy Carter.