Campaign contrast is ‘crisis’ vs. ‘continuity’


Drivel, more drivel and nothing but drivel.

That summarizes the bromides, superficialities and outright fabrications which emanated from the recently concluded presidential nominating conventions — both Republican and Democratic.

"Stronger Together" was just as platitudinous and nonsensical as "Make American Great Again." Hillary Clinton is exhorting Americans that they should be more unweak and less untogether, and Trump is telling them that they should be less ungreat.

Of course, Obama’s 2008 "Change We Need," Bush’s 1988 "Stay the Course," Nixon’s 1972 "Four More Years," Kennedy’s 1960 "Get America Moving Again," Eisenhower’s 1952 "Corruption, Communism and Korea" and Roosevelt’s 1932 "New Deal" and were equally simplistic and equally meaningless. Americans are suckers for slogans and metaphors. Specifics are optional, and invariably ignored.

The only presidential candidate (or president) in the last century who won on a non-vague promise/slogan was Woodrow Wilson in 1916: "He Kept Us Out of War." Wilson then, after winning, got America into World War I.

In Philadelphia, Clinton and the Democratic speakers were full of adjectives like fighting, investing, changing, building, compromising, reckoning, defending and liberating. One would never guess that American has had a Democratic president for the past 8 years. "I’ve been fighting for change for the past 40 years," Clinton shouted. Hey, let’s give her 4 more years. In Cleveland, Donald Trump spewed another torrent of adjectives. He is going to fix it, change it, do it . . . he is going to build the wall, reduce the $19 trillion national debt and ensure world peace.

Conventions are about campaign positioning and projecting each party’s strategy. They lay the groundwork for the election. The "message" must be loud and clear, and redundantly repeated.

In any presidential contest, there is either a choice or a referendum. If the incumbent is running, it is a referendum. The challenger must seize on every issue that provides political mileage and put the incumbent regime on the defensive. If there is no incumbent, it’s a choice, but the burden is on the candidate of the incumbent party to effect either separation from or integration with the outgoing administration. That’s Clinton’s problem, as it was with Republican John McCain in 2008, Democrat Al Gore in 2000, Republican George Bush in 1988 and others. In her acceptance speech, she boldly promised "real change for America," but she spent most of her oration uttering generalities and excoriating Trump’s "bigotry and bombast." To win, Clinton must persuade voters that Trump’s image is fuzzy and contradictory and that his competence and character are questionable. In effect, Clinton must make Trump the issue and the election a referendum on him.

Trump will win if he persuades voters that America is in a "crisis," while Clinton will win if she persuades voters that what America needs is "continuity."

From a historical perspective, a non-incumbent candidate from the incumbent party can win by a strategy designed to embrace, distance or demonize.

1836: Andrew Jackson was retiring after 8 years, he was enormously popular, and there was no "crisis." Democrats like to boast that Jackson and Thomas Jefferson were the "founders" of their party, but they ignore the fact that Jacksonians were limited-government conservatives, fervently for state’s rights, had no qualms about slavery, and opposed a federal banking system and expenditures for internal improvements such as roads and waterways. The Whigs were the liberal party, favoring a bigger federal government. Jackson, a frontiersman from Tennessee, a militia general and the hero of New Orleans, had the quaint notion that no government was the best government. Jackson’s anointed successor was his vice president, Martin Van Buren of New York, who won in 1836 by wrapping himself in the Jackson mantle. The "Panic of 1837," caused by monetary shortages, ensured Van Buren’s defeat in 1840.

1860: Abraham Lincoln is renowned as the "Great Emancipator," but when he ran for president as a Republican his stance was not to abolish slavery, but simply to contain it in the South and not allow it in the Western territories and states. Democrats Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan occupied the White House from 1853 to 1861, and they were known as "doughfaces" — Northern men with Southern sympathies. "Do nothing" was their policy. When Stephen Douglas of Illinois, who wanted to be president in 1860, concocted the notion of "popular sovereignty," allowing any new state to vote to be free or slave, the country exploded, the Democratic Party imploded, splitting into north and south factions, and abolitionists were energized. The country was in a "crisis," secession was a reality, and there would be no more "continuity." Douglas got 1,375,157 votes, to 1,866,352 votes for Lincoln, and the Civil War was on.

1896: Originally the "liberal" pro-government party, the Republicans evolved into the pro-business, high-tariff party over the next three decades, while the Democrats remained the agrarian, conservative, low-tax, low-tariff, anti-government party, dominated by farmers and Southern segregationists in Washington. Democrat Grover Cleveland, New York’s governor, won the presidency in 1884, lost it in 1888, and won again in 1892. That was ill luck. The economic "depression" of 1893-95 collapsed farm prices, prompting an epidemic of foreclosures.

Westerners’ "solution" was bi-metalism, the coining of both gold and silver currency. The presumption was that this would spur dollar inflation, thereby cheapening debt. The big banks and corporations wanted to maintain the gold standard, with no silver coinage and no inflation. The reviled Cleveland and the Republicans sided with Eastern big business. An 1896 McKinley Republican victory was viewed as inevitable, so the Democrats re-invented themselves, repudiating Cleveland and nominating William Jennings Bryan, a Nebraska populist and a silverite, with evangelical tendencies and charisma. Suddenly, the election was transformed. Bryan was the candidate of "change, " meaning no continuity.

The Eastern business and media elites viewed Bryan much as the current elites view Trump — with absolute horror. Newspapers proclaimed that Bryan was a threat to capitalism, a veritable subversive, and tens of thousands of dollars of corporate money flowed to Mark Hanna, McKinley’s manager. It was "crisis" time. McKinley won 7,035,638-6,467,946, narrowly carrying the Midwest but sweeping the East.

1920: The economic dislocations of World War I, post-war inflation and unemployment, and Wilson’s failed League of Nations made a Democratic victory impossible after 8 years of rule. For Ohio Governor James Cox, the 1920 Democratic nominee, "continuity" was not an option. He was swamped 16,152,200-9,147,353 by Warren Harding.

1952: After 20 years in power, the Roosevelt-Truman "New Deal" coalition was faltering. Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson was in much the same position then as Clinton is today: What could he promise to do that hadn’t already been done? The Cold War was festering, World War III loomed, and America wanted a general, not an intellectual. Dwight Eisenhower buried Stevenson 33,936,252-27,314,992. "Continuity" lost.

1960: After two terms of the grandfatherly Eisenhower, 43-year-old Democrat John Kennedy promised to "get America moving again," whatever that meant. It sounds like Trump’s slogan. Vigor, however, was in vogue. Vice President Richard Nixon, age 47, was stuck defending the Eisenhower record. Kennedy won 34,227,096-34,108,546.

1968: Was it "crisis" or just chaos? Riots in the ghettos, catastrophes and defeats in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson’s retirement — America was out of control. There was no way Vice President Hubert Humphrey could win on a platform of continuity, so he repudiated Johnson’s Vietnam policies, became the anti-war candidate, and lost to Nixon 31,785,480-31,275,166, with 9,906,473 votes going to George Wallace. For Humphrey, that was a miraculous comeback and achievement.

1976: After Watergate and Nixon’s resignation, how could a Democrat not win in 1976? Yet Jimmy Carter almost snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Gerald Ford didn’t pledge continuity or change. He said, "I am not Nixon." Carter won by just 40,828,929-39,148,940.

1988: While Ronald Reagan was much beloved, Vice President George Bush wasn’t, and being the "next Reagan" was implausible, so Bush, like Clinton today, went negative. He painted Michael Dukakis as inept, incompetent and a squishy liberal. Bush won 48,881,221-41,805,422.

2000: Gore’s ego, or perhaps timidity, precipitated his demise. Instead of embracing the Bill Clinton Administration, in which he was the vice president, he ignored it. There was Monica Lewinsky and there was economic prosperity . . . negatives and positives. Gore didn’t want to be Clinton’s third term, and he actually won, 50,996,116-50,456,169 over George Bush, but Bush won Florida by 537 votes and the Electoral College. "Continuity" could have elected Gore.

2008: Republican John McCain was in an impossible situation. After Bush’s foreign policy and economic failures, "continuity" was not an option. Barack Obama was hyping "change we need," so McCain "did a Ford." "I am not Bush," he pleaded. He lost 69,498,215-59,948,240.

2016: Unlike McCain, who was not a part of the Bush Administration, Clinton is indelibly tied to Obama. She can’t say, "I’m not Obama." She needs the "Obama Nation," especially black votes, and she needs the "Bernie Sanders Nation," who believe that Obama is not liberal enough. Even though she wants to "tax the super rich, Wall Street and corporations," overlooking Hollywood, she needs their money, as she will raise and spend $1 billion to get elected. She will fill Obama’s third term, but she can’t say it out loud.

The country is in "crisis." Violence and police shootings are daily occurrences. Terrorism is unabated. The deficit is $19 trillion, up $12 trillion since Obama took office. Yet Clinton’s "solution" is "stronger together." Nevertheless, Clinton looks like a winner.

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