Political Animal


March 06, 2012 4:40 PM 1980 And All That

By Ed Kilgore

In an effort to cheer up Republicans who may have read George Will’s column suggesting they forget about the presidency and focus on winning Congress, the Wall Street Journal’s William McGurn hauled out conservatives’ favorite comfort blanket: Barack Obama is another Jimmy Carter, 2012 is another 1980, and hard as it is to imagine for his acolytes today, Ronald Reagan was once thought to be a sure general election loser, too (or at least by the New York Times, whose 1980 editorial suggesting that Republicans were blowing a big winning opportunity is abundantly quoted to establish the premise).

McGurn then laboriously goes through parallels between 1980 and 2012: there was an incumbent Democratic president in place; there were turbulent, divisive GOP primaries; there was a party split that produced an independent candidacy; there were early polls showing Reagan losing to Carter by double-digits; there were MSM journalists saying the nominee an the party had gone too far to the right; there were candidate gaffes. Anticipating the most obvious objection to the hypothesis, McGurn has this deft maneuver:

[T]he parallels to 1980 take you only so far, and Mitt Romney is no Ronald Reagan. Still, at this same point in his campaign for the GOP nomination, neither was Reagan. The President Reagan we rightly admire for bringing down the Berlin Wall, reviving the U.S. economy, and attracting into the GOP millions of disaffected Democrats was still to come.
And he got there by transcending the conventional wisdom rather than allowing himself or his message to be limited by it.

Message to Mitt: hang tough and do not “move to the center.”

This is all well and good, I suppose, and you certainly can’t fault Mitt Romney for failing to make every effort to identify himself with St. Ronnie and the incumbent with Jimmy (see today’s Romney op-ed on Iran).

But in racing through the parallels between 1980 and 2012, McGurney fails to note the many rather important differences.

Yes, the economy sucks right now, with unemployment presently over 8%. But in 1980, America’s unemployment rate was nearly as high (7%), and we also had, as old-timers remember with a shudder, a 14% inflation rate and a prime borrowing rate of 15%. The chronic condition of the economy, known as “staglation,” was psychologically debilitating and even more frustrating to policymakers than today’s recession. Americans were definitely looking for something, anything, new, and Reagan offered that through an agenda of supply-side tax cuts and deregulation, approaches which had not, at that point, demonstrated their shortcomings and downsides.

Is Obama’s political situation really just like Carter’s? Well, there is this little matter of Carter facing a brutal, extended, divisive primary challenge from Ted Kennedy, which he barely survived. By the time of the Democratic Convention, when Carter’s approval rating was in the low thirties, there was a serious effort by major party leaders to unbind delegates and dump the president. This sort of intraparty heartburn does not look to be in the cards for Obama.

McGurney mentions John Anderson’s independent candidacy as a big problem for Reagan (presumably as a parallel to talk about a Ron Paul third-party run), and it was at one point. But by the general election stretch run, with Anderson bleeding support daily, the independent was heavily drawing such support as he retained from liberals—probably many of them the same people who voted against Carter in the primaries—and was running on a message well to Carter’s left (I happened to hear Anderson speak in California in October, when a big part of his pitch was his support for gay rights, a really unusual position in those days).

And then there was another Carter problem that has been long forgotten: when he was elected in 1976, a big part of his coalition was white southerners—and southern-inflected voters elsewhere, particularly in the midwest—voting for him as a matter of regional pride (in many case reinforced by religious identification, given his outspoken evangelical affiliation). As is generally the case after a “historic” breakthrough win, Carter’s regional and religious pull slackened greatly in 1980; he certainly did not benefit from endorsements by George Wallace and Jerry Falwell, as he did four years earlier. You could try to construct a parallel with Barack Obama’s historic levels of African-American support in 2008, but African-Americans are not exactly swing voters (as white southerners most definitely were in 1980), and even if there is a small dropoff in African-American turnout, it will affect the results on the margins, and most emphatically in states Republicans expect to win anyway.

I could go on with the many differences between 1980 and 2012, between Carter and Obama, and between Reagan and Romney, and between the America of that day and this (there was not, you might recall, much of a Hispanic vote in 1980), but you get the idea. Yes, if out of the blue inflation and interest rates explode, and Democrats become radically disaffected with Obama, and Americans Elect gets a candidate attractive to liberals on the ballot, and the African-American vote turns heavily against the president, and Mitt Romney becomes a symbol of fresh thinking—then you’ll have a good parallel case for another 1980 result this November.

Republicans are welcome to continue to comfort themselves with this sort of reasoning, but as Will said, they really do need a Plan B.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • martin on March 06, 2012 4:55 PM:

    Ummmm, Hostage Crisis?

    And for the kiddies, it is "StagFlation" (sure that was just a typo)

  • sick-n-effn-tired. on March 06, 2012 4:55 PM:

    Those stupid rubes would love to get into their time machine.

    Everyone got their news @ 6: 30 or from the morning paper.
    No internet , no pesky cellphone cameras recording every bonehead move , no social media to turn the tide against suppression...ya those were the days .

    News flash - we ain't goin' back.

  • Anonymous on March 06, 2012 4:55 PM:


  • Marko on March 06, 2012 4:56 PM:

    ...and Mitt Romney becomes a symbol of fresh thinking-

    All those other things might happen. But this? Fuhgetaboutit

  • T2 on March 06, 2012 5:01 PM:

    " as old-timers remember with a shudder, a 14% inflation rate" .......yes, and anyone with money in the bank was getting 14% interest on it. Now you get Jack. The banks are making a killing off our savings and realize they don't have to give us squat. I don't think they're in a rush to go back to 5.5% CD's. Thanks to Federal Reserve, they won't have to.

  • estamm on March 06, 2012 5:05 PM:

    As another person mentioned... the Iran hostage crisis. As someone who watched Nightline fairly often then, that was HUGE HUGE HUGE. While I barely recall the Kennedy primaries, I vividly recall the hostage crisis. 1980 was also the first year I could vote, and I actually voted for Anderson. I despised Reagan (actually wore a black armband to school the Wednesday after he was elected), but really didn't care much for Carter, although in retrospect I wish I had voted for him (not that it would have made any difference). But GEEZ, to not mention the hostage crisis is bizarroland.

  • Mimikatz on March 06, 2012 5:16 PM:

    The Iran hostage crisis was the death blow to Carter. That and the 18% inflation. Yes, kiddies, money market accounts once paid 18% a year (at least for a few months) in interest. Inflation can't be underestimated. Unlike unemployment, it hits everyone, and especially the older people who vote the most heavily. And then there's the little matter that Obama isn't really weak at all. That is just a GOP projection or fantasy. He is tough cool, decisive and not above ordering people to be killed, whether by Seal teams or drones. The idea that he is weak, especially coming from people who are too timid to stand up to Rush Limbaugh is just absurd.

    This isn't like 1980 at all.

  • cwolf on March 06, 2012 5:18 PM:

    @ martin on March 06, 2012 4:55 PM:
    Ummmm, Hostage Crisis?

    The Hostage Crisis was picked up, guided by Henry Kissinger and others who bribed the Iranians to extended the crisis past November 1980 in exchange for weapons. This resulted in the secretly negotiated the "Arms for Hostages" solution to Reegan's electoral shortcomings. This activity later dovetailed into Reagan's paranoia of the "commie" Nicaraguan movement where he spent their ill-gotten $$$ from Iran weapon sales to finance the terrorist group known as the Contras.
    Years later and after a zillion denials, Reagan went on TV and admitted his lies and other criminal activities but excused himself & others(with executive pardons) by wrapping his warmongering in the flag.

    Also, re the election, Carter looked like a pile of crap on a TV stage opposite the feeble-minded but smooth Reagan, who was a reasonably polished drama queen of an actor. He was no Gregory Peck but he easily duped the peanut farmer into looking like the butt of a dumb joke.

  • Barry R on March 06, 2012 5:22 PM:

    Don't count your chickens yet ...

    I agree with your analysis, and I am very hopeful that us good guys will win this election, BUT there is a lot of clock to run out between now and November. We should be focusing on getting the job done, and not counting our chickens before they have hatched.

  • Anonymous on March 06, 2012 5:23 PM:

    ... when [Carter] was elected in 1976, a big part of his coalition was white southerners—and southern-inflected voters elsewhere, particularly in the midwest—voting for him as a matter of regional pride...

    UNLIKE 1980, there's no reactionary segment of Obama's core constituencies that the Reichwing can poach. 1976 was the last time we saw the Fundievangelical vote swing measurably Left; and their drive ever Rightward, beginning in 1980, was the end for the progressive evangelical vote until very recently. There are very few Obama voting pillars who can be similarly enticed away, if you'll forgive the generalizations: the young remain relatively energized, the African-American vote is solidly in the President's corner (Michael Steele and Herman Cain notwithstanding), the Hispanic/Latino vote is being scared INTO supporting him thanks to all the anti-immigrant nonsense, and the GOP just recently blew it with thinking women (if not most women) thanks to Issa and Limbaugh. In short, in 1980, Carter lost a major support base thanks to religio-political pandering; in 2012 the same pandering is scaring a lot of voters INTO Obama's camp instead of away.

    This is looking less like 1976 - and more like 1948.

  • 2Manchu on March 06, 2012 5:29 PM:

    I blame disco. There's a horror that I can't erase.

    And "The Empire Strikes Back" that summer gave everyone a darker outlook on life (the Rebels lose the Battle of Hoth, Han gets captured, Luke loses a hand, it just seemed like the good guys couldn't get a break).

  • Objective Dem on March 06, 2012 5:35 PM:

    I want to add a comment about the hostage situation. I remember Nightline doing a daily count "Day ###" of the hostage crisis. I think papers also had daily counts. The other aspect of the hostage crisis is Carter tried a rescue mission that failed. There are still questions on whether or not the Reagan campaign encouraged Iran to keep the hostages until after the election (See October Surprise in Wikipedia)

    Since George Will was mentioned at the start, it is important to mention his role in electing Reagan. There was a lot of concern about Reagan going into the debates. George Will helped prep Reagan for the debates using a debate book stolen from the Carter campaign. George Will on the night of the debate was a news commentator who talked up Reagan's performance without disclosing his role prepping Reagan.

    For the younger people reading this, you should look at the actual history of Reagan instead of reading the right wing myths. He was really awful.

  • cwolf on March 06, 2012 5:47 PM:

    "Yes, if ... Mitt Romney becomes a symbol of fresh thinking..."

    That's the funniest thing I've read all morning.

  • Ron Byers on March 06, 2012 5:50 PM:

    Not only isn't Romney Reagan, Obama isn't Carter. Obama is a far better politician. Back in those days Reagan was selling a brighter future. Carter was asking us to wear sweaters and tighten our belts. As near as I can tell Romney is selling gloom and doom. Obama is selling a brighter future for everyone.

    Hope trumps fear and hate.

  • SecularAnimist on March 06, 2012 6:00 PM:

    I remember watching Carter and Reagan debate on TV.

    After the debate, in which Carter was articulate, compassionate, competent and confident, and Reagan smirked and stumbled and bumbled and babbled and spewed incoherent nonsense, I said "Well, that's it for Reagan. After a catastrophic and painfully embarrassing debate performance like that, he's toast."

    The next day, headlines proclaimed Reagan's smashing debate win, and he skyrocketed in the polls.

    That's when I knew that America was doomed.

  • jim filyaw on March 06, 2012 6:00 PM:

    as much as i hated the gipper's administration (james watt, anne burford, cap weinberger, oliver north...), i have to admit that carter was the most obnoxiously sanctimonious, patronizing chief executive since woodrow wilson. obama may seem aloof at times, but never inflexible. go ahead, repubs, keep feeding each other your increasingly absurd mythology about telepromters, birth certificates, madrassas and so on. come november, you'll be asking if anyone got the number of that truck that hit you.

  • thebewilderness on March 06, 2012 6:05 PM:

    Romney just declared he would emulate the Reagan policy in dealing with Iran. Sell them weapons, I guess.
    His ignorance is stunning.

  • citizen_pain on March 06, 2012 6:37 PM:

    Reagan is a flaming liberal to these tea party fuckwads, and there is no such thing as a Reagan democrat anymore, so Romney's choice to draw a comparison is about as dumb as him actually writing an op-ed about it.

  • Col Bat Guano on March 06, 2012 8:38 PM:

    As a sort of added bonus from the hostage crisis, was the gas crisis of 1979. It gets pretty hard to vote for the incumbent when the price of gas goes from 50 cents to $1.25 over the course of two months. Not to mention the joy of waiting in endless gas lines. Plus, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan again made them look far more dangerous than the reality. Carter never stood a chance.

  • Anonymous on March 06, 2012 9:44 PM:

    Jimmy Carter was a more liberal president.

    Let's make ti clear: Clinton and Obama's policies are socially liberal but fiscally moderate CONSERVATIVE, sometimes called "Third Way"

    Historically and globally, 40% for the top earners' income tax is fairly LOW (relatively speaking). It was 75% under Carter and 50% most of the Reagan administration. Other developed countries' tax on top rate is 50% to 40%.

    Moderate conservative economics like Obama's emphasize free international trades, public-private partnership, infrastructure investment and relatively low tax and limited federal government. He is open to lower corporate tax and break with some of the unions' laws to liberalize economic and educational system.

    Obama is no more liberal than the past presidents. he is just black.

    Clinton passed welfare reform with moderate tax increase and NAFTA.
    Bush Sr raised tax (which Reagan lowered too much previously) and invested public money for clean water act and American disability act.

    Bush Sr and Clinton then got attacked and near-destroyed by the far right of Gingrich and Buchanan. Obama is now attacked by Tea party.

    What happened to the Grand Old Party?
    Even Reagan and Bush Jr are not conservative enough according to the current republicans.

  • RT on March 06, 2012 10:02 PM:

    "This is looking less like 1976 - and more like 1948."

    I was thinking 1984, but I'll take 1948.

  • Bonnie on March 07, 2012 1:01 AM:

    As I remember it, Reagan had most of the unions behind him because of his time as SAG president. Few union people thought he would fire the air traffic controllers if they struck. The air traffic controllers even campaigned for him.

  • Peter C on March 07, 2012 9:39 AM:


    You are taking their spin much too seriously. Reagan was their salad days; he's the last residually popular Republican. They long to remember these glory days and shift the focus back to when they were powerful and popular and away from their current record of staggering incompetence, mismanagement, petulance, zealotry, and boorishness.

    Republicans will make any favorable argument that they can, regardless of how specious and desperately delusional it is. Their hope is that people will take these arguments seriously and look at matters from their perspective. Even if the argument is dismissed after careful consideration, they succeeded in persuading you to adopt their frame.

    I think the correct response to this sort of '2012 = 1980" idiocy is to point out how very desperate and pathetic it is that they should have to go back all the 32 years to find something which might remind Americans of something positive when they've had power for 20 of those 32 years. They want control again, but want us to forget the six years from 2000 to 2006 when they had COMPLETE control and triggered the worst economic colapse since their last giant fiasco - the Great Depression.