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Presidential Politics

Clint Reilly

The biggest electoral prize on the globe is in the balance. Already the 2008 presidential candidates are breaking records for money raised. Newspaper editors and television news assignment desks are deploying their top journalists to cover the race. The Sunday morning television hosts Tim Russert, George Stephanopoulos, Brit Hume et al are chasing the contenders like hounds after a rabbit. Presidential politics provokes punditry in the way a herd of elephants kicks up clouds of dust. For humble voters, seeing clearly can be daunting. Nevertheless, behind the personalities, strategies and ad campaigns – there are four consistent criteria that a lay person can use to predict who will become the next President.

Let’s take the issue of character. In the 1980 Presidential primary, incumbent President Jimmy Carter was challenged by Sen. Ted Kennedy. The unpopular president, who subsequently lost the general election overwhelmingly to Ronald Reagan, branded himself a “President with Character.” The theme implied that Kennedy lacked it — an obvious reference to Mary Jo Kopechne, the young woman who drowned while driving late at night with the married Kennedy in a car that plunged off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island at Martha’s Vineyard. Carter easily defeated Kennedy.

A powerful criterion in presidential elections is effectiveness. In a nationally televised presidential debate with incumbent President Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan looked into the camera and asked the American people one question – “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” Of course Reagan knew that record inflation, a hostage crisis in Iran and a sputtering economy had convinced citizens that America was on the wrong track. Reagan won a landslide victory. Bill Clinton came galloping from behind to defeat George H. W. Bush by heeding the advice of his campaign manager James Carville — “It’s the economy, stupid.” Clinton exploited the economic downturn following the first Iraq War and swept into the White House.

Few issues are more potent in presidential politics than ideology. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson successfully portrayed Barry Goldwater as too dangerous to control the nuclear trigger. George H. W. Bush convinced America that Michael Dukakis was a northeastern liberal whose views on crime, taxes, social policy and national defense were out of step with the rest of the country. In his 1984 reelection campaign, Ronald Reagan accused Walter Mondale of having “the left stuff” at the time that a film about America’s heroic Astronauts –”The Right Stuff”– was number one at the box office. The outcome was a foregone conclusion.

Values surface regularly as a tested touchstone in presidential elections. In 1972, the country was under siege by throngs of young Vietnam antiwar protestors. A new spirit of sexual freedom pervaded music, film and the arts. Many Americans saw a direct challenge to their values. Richard Nixon linked George McGovern to the cultural symbols of social protest and youthful alienation and trounced McGovern. In the 2004 Presidential election George W. Bush ran a values-based campaign to defeat John Kerry. There are basically two value systems in politics. The first is right-wrong. The second is live and let live. The right-wrongers were attracted to George Bush’s conservative views on abortion, stem cells, religion and gay rights. An unprecedented turnout among fundamentalist Christians reelected Bush in enough states to provide a narrow victory. Most democrats are “live and let live” advocates who believe morality is a matter for individual conscience. But social conservatives want a system of public morality consistent with their own religious viewpoints and personal moral convictions. Bush and his chief strategist Karl Rove fed this lion to the Christians.

As we enter the 2008 presidential season, the lines of both argument and attack are as predictable as the mud that will be thrown. A warning to Hillary, Barak, Rudy, John, Mitt et al – watch out for the criteria of choice you lose on!

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