I have a theory: half of the eight completed Presidential races since I became old enough to vote (1980 through 2008) weren’t really races at all. For those elections, the incumbent party was so strong that the other party merely went through the motions of nominating a candidate, knowing all along it was an exercise in futility, and the other guy would win:
- In 1984, the economy was starting to take off under Reagan, even as it was being hollowed out from within, and people were feeling good. The Democrats nominated Walter Mondale, Carter’s Vice-President, and pushed for higher taxes as a practical necessity, and the Republicans never let them hear the end of it. I voted for Reagan that year, and lied to my mother about it.
- In 1988: we were still feeling good about Reagan, and the elder Bush, whom I had admired in 1980, changed his tune and said that he would continue the Reagan policies. From my perspective, they seemed to be working, and I couldn’t see the Democratic approach as an improvement. I had just moved to Pittsburgh, and didn’t get to register in time, so I sat that election out.
- In 1996: President Clinton had learned to get along with the Republican Congress. He had ‘triangulated’ to the right, and the results were encouraging. The Republicans nominated Bob Dole, who was a lackluster candidate, and too old. I voted for Clinton.
- In 2004: President Bush was running as a ‘war President’ who shouldn’t be replaced in the ‘heat of battle.’ In a nutshell, his platform was, ‘I will keep you safe.’ John Kerry’s platform, in a nutshell, was ‘I am not George Bush.’ I remember Kerry’s speech at the Democratic convention, accepting the nomination: it was singularly uninspiring, as if he were relying on the fact that he was not George Bush. Many people didn’t like Bush, including me. But that wasn’t enough for most of the electorate.
One might argue that the 2008 election was similar, with the roles reversed: this time the incumbent party was weak, so they ran an old man, and nominated a woman as their Vice-Presidential candidate. (Someday, perhaps within my lifetime, there will be a serious female candidate for Vice-President or President. Hillary Clinton would be a plausible choice. But Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin were not serious candidates: they were there to try to get the women’s vote and generate attention.)
The 2012 Presidential race seems to be shaping up the same way, even though this time the incumbent President and his party are not strong. I’m bitterly disappointed, not only by President Obama’s policy directions, but by his complete lack of actual leadership. From what I can tell, I’m not alone. Yet, in Mitt Romney, the Republicans have run a weak candidate, the croniest of crony capitalists. People don’t like him, and Obama, for all his uselessness, is trending ahead in the polls.
You would have thought that, for all the opposition to health care reform, government by executive fiat, and other Obama excesses, the Republicans would have chosen a candidate who could stand up to Obama and let him have it (metaphorically of course) with both barrels. But that didn’t happen.
Perhaps the conspiracy theorists are right: there is an invisible committee of Powers that Be somewhere that actually decides who our next President will be, and the whole business of political parties and candidates and polls and elections is merely theater to amuse and distract the public.
OK, then: how do we get a real President, who will actually lead, and bring us to face our problems, even though facing them will probably be painful in the short term?