Sunday, July 12, 2009

History Lesson

Judge Smails provides some important historical background. To this I'll only add what The Votemaster often says: in politics, a week is a long time.

You wrote:
Honestly, I don't think the identity of the Republican nominee matters a whit -- the election will be 100% a referendum on Obama. If we have been attacked by terrorists, he loses. If we haven't been attacked by terrorists and the economy is still in the shitter, he loses. Otherwise, he wins.

I agree, in general, with the first sentence --- an incumbent Presidential election is usually a referendum on his policies (1996 might be an exception). The second sentence, however, strikes me as a bit off-center, for two reasons:

(1) I think a terrorist attack --- especially one that happens soon (say, in the next 6-12 months) --- would not hurt the Democrats as much as is popularly perceived. My guess would be that another major terrorist attack would demolish what's left of the civil libertarian element in America, on both left and right, rather than demolish the Obama coalition. Besides, he's already strongly in the right-wing of the Democratic party on the issue, and he can't be that far from the center of the Republican party. (I know it hurts liberal ears to hear/say that, but rendition/indefinite dention/state secrets/military tribunals/enhanced interrogation,etc.) That may or may not be bad for America (I would say it is), but I'm pretty sure it's not a disaster for Obama's electoral colation.

(2) More importantly, events matter. Presidential elections are hugely contingent, and 4 years is a lifetime in politics. I would say that the 2008 election was a massive historical exception, in the sense that it truly felt like a rematch of the same two basic coalitions from 2004, with changes in public opinion but few intervening events. Go back beyond that, and I can't find an election in my lifetime (except perhaps 1988) that wasn't strongly structured by events that were impossible to see during the first-year of the previous term (where we are now).

1980 election: In summer 1977, the Afghanistan invasion and the Iranian revolution / hostage crisis had not yet happened, nor had the stagflation hit its peak yet.

1984 election: In summer 1981, the economy was still getting worse. The recovery and boom of 1983/1984 were not particularly expected. Nor was the massive re-opening of the arms race.

1988 election: In summer 1985, the crack (non-)epidemic had yet to explode. Same with Challenger. And Iran-Contra. And the Reagan-Congress deals on immigration and tax reform.

1992 election: In summer 1989, the fall of the Soviet union had not happened, Germany was not reunified, we hadn't fought a war in the Middle East, and there was no recession on the horizon.

1996 election: In summer 1993, health care was going to pass, the Democrats would always control Congress, and who the hell thought anyone would ever shut down the government?

2000 election: I never thought in summer 1997 I would see a President impeached in my lifetime.

2004 election: Remember what a big deal Bush's stem cell speech was in August 2001? People were actually talking about that like it would affect the 2004 election.

Anyway, my point is not to take on the underlying structure you present: the public perception of the President's handling of the economy, as you point to, is a basically contigent event taht will always be an important factor. Same with the incumbent President's perceived ability to defend the nation and pass his highest-priority policies. But my guess is that at least a few of the main issues of the 2012 election are things we have yet to ponder seriously as possible election issues.

I mean, who cares about terrorism and the economy if Pakistan and India start a nuclear war that results in Chinese imperalist invasions in South Asia? And if that sounds far-fetched, go reread the list above.