Friday, August 27, 2004
Forgive me, but I think Niall Ferguson's piece in today's Journal is just silly.
The thesis, as I take it, is that the incumbent party, faced with a challenge from a weak opposition and running a so-so candidate itself, should surrender, the better to come back strong in the following election.
He specifically thinks that the GOP would be better off losing this election to the very unappealing John Kerry than winning and then getting routed in 2008 after four more years of Bush bungling. And he draws the analogy to John Major's victory in 1992, which was followed by a disastrous term and the destruction of the Tories in 1997.
He goes further. Eisenhower should have lost in 1956, or the Democrats wouldn't have won with Kennedy in 1960, and gone on to glory with Johnson.
Okay, I'm thinking to myself. Was Kennedy's first term so great? Bay of Pigs. Cuban Missile Crisis. Yeah, he was popular. But was he hugely successful? By the standards Ferguson sets for Eisenhower, I'd have to say not. So . . . presumably Johnson should have surrendered to Goldwater, the better to assure a Democrat resurgence in 1968?
And Clinton. He had a pretty lousy first term. Lost the House and Senate to the GOP. Failed to enact his health plan. Fled from Somalia, dithered over Bosnia. Not much of a record to run on, you'd think. Better for the Democrats to let the sclerotic and idea-free Bob Dole win, and come back swinging in 2000 with, I dunno, Bill Bradley, or Al Gore, or Bob Kerrey, or Dick Gephardt.
And Nixon. What, precisely, did he accomplish in his first term? The Vietnam War dragged on. Inflation was rising, and the market struggled. There were urban riots, rising crime, all kinds of domestic strife. Shouldn't Nixon have surrendered to McGovern in 1972, the better to lay the groundwork for a Reagan resurgence in 1976?
And yes, what about Ronnie. The deepest recession since the Great Depression. All kinds of Administration scandals. The withdrawal from Lebanon. The big hike in Social Security taxes. Huge deficits. Yeah, the economy was booming by the time he was running for re-election. But could anyone say that Reagan's first term had been an unblemished success? That his leadership style was universally applauded? I think you can clearly make a case for Reagan taking a dive in 1984 to the inept Mondale, the better to pave the way for a [fill in the blank] resurgence in 1988.
I'm also fascinated to know how the Democrats benefitted from losing in 1976, or how the Republicans benefitted from losing in 1988. Reagan was, in 1980, considered pretty extreme. If Ferguson's theory held, the Democrats should have benefitted mightily from his victory. Instead, Reagan moved the country in his direction. Similarly, though less dramatically, Clinton rehabilitated the Democratic Party, and made it a force again in national elections. Yes, he presided over the loss of the House and Senate to the GOP, and the loss of many governorships. He didn't change the overall tides of American political history. But he did make a Democratic President thinkable again. He saw California become as solid for the Democrats as it had once been for the GOP, massively changing the Electoral College calculus that used to give the GOP a supposed "lock" on the Presidency. And, in certain ways, he definitely pulled the country in his direction. A lot of GOP teeth-gnashing about Bush's political correctness or apostasy on certain issues (e.g. affirmative action, the Medicare bill) reflects in part how Bill Clinton's two-term Presidency changed the terms of debate, and moved the country in a more Democrat-friendly direction.
To the extent that there's any underlying coherence to the argument, what Ferguson is really saying, I think, is that Presidents should be limited to one term. Then, by definition, the party isn't locked in to a weak incumbent as a nominee, and has to fight out in the primaries disagreements that otherwise would fester in a second term. But the downside of such an arrangement is that every President becomes a lame-duck, and lame-ducks generally have less political clout than politicians who can go to the voters to ratify their decisions. The exception, of course, is systems (like the old Mexican system) where the President picks his own successor. Is that what Ferguson would want? I doubt it.
In the end, all Ferguson is saying is: he doesn't like Bush. So he's got a tough choice: a guy he doesn't like from his own political corner, or a guy he doesn't like from the other political corner. Yeah, that's a tough choice. But it's not the basis of a theory about how to build a party, or win elections over a long term. Those Republicans who think that Kerry would be better than Bush because either will fail, so why not let the other guy bear the blame, are being too clever for their own good. They may indeed be very disappointed by a second Bush term. They shouldn't kid themselves that therefore, ipso facto, they'd be in a better position after four years of John Kerry.