January 23, 2015 by Thomas Hauber
Political writer Hunter S. Thompson pointed out in “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail in 1972, ”… that any candidate in a standard two-party election could get 40% of the vote.” What Thompson seemed to be describing was a default measure of the balance in a two party system. Forty percent of both parties (or eighty percent of voters) would dutifully vote the party line in good times or bad. A forty percent showing rarely wins and only a few candidates in presidential elections have ever lost by that much. Thompson concluded to avoid disastrous defeat neither party would nominate anyone more than 20% different from the other. There was an inherent practical balance in the system. It’s not that there weren’t differences then, or that candidates or positions weren’t more than 20% different from each other, it’s just that the result of most fights was a compromise that was rarely 20% off the current version of the political center. No party or faction got exactly what it wanted. Deals were made hence the term “broker model” of politics. Congressmen from various regions got together in hallways, back rooms (and smoke-filled rooms), on golf courses and steam rooms and cut deals with one another. The Congressman or Senator was not so much an ideologue as a horse-trader, a broker, for sale to the highest bidder or the squeakiest wheel. The majority was usually served even if it wasn’t in the public’s best interest, but policy was made and things got moved along. It’s how it was done. In this model there is a depersonalization of issues and ideology. When extraordinary circumstances or ideologies takes hold of a party it is increasingly possible for a fringe to gain control of the nominating process and place comic figures at the head of a ticket. Invariably such a ticket will be resoundingly defeated even though they can still get 40% of the vote. This explains the events of 1964 that went completely off the rails in 1972. Following the JFK assassination, LBJ took advantage of the Kennedy legacy to pass the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 while trouncing the disorganized Republican Party’s iconoclastic nominee Barry Goldwater. Goldwater received only 38% of the vote, challenging even the Thompson rule. A year later LBJ pushed Voting Rights and Medicare legislation through Congress, issues that had been blocked for decades by an unlikely coalition of Southern Democrats and Midwest Republicans. The Vietnam War ended LBJ’s reign and the Democrat’s lopsided edge. Johnson declined to run in 1968 leaving the party disorganized. In 1968 George Wallace led a states-rights segregationist revolt into a third-party movement that split the Democratic party winning five southern states while taking a surprising 13.5% of the vote. Richard Nixon slid into the White House with only 43.4% of the popular vote besting the Humphrey/Muskie Democratic ticket by less than by one percentage point and a half a million votes. In 1972 the growing anti-war movement took advantage of a further conflicted Democratic party to nominate Senator George McGovern for President. Fourteen others vied for the Democratic nomination at one time or another including 1968 losers Ed Muskie and Hubert Humphrey, congressional hopefuls Scoop Jackson (WA), Shirley Chisholm (MA) (the first Black to ever seek the nomination), Patsy Mink (HI) the first Asian, Congressman Wilbur Mills and cartoonish characters, L.A. mayor Sam Yorty and Alabama Governor George Wallace. McGovern survived the primaries and a chaotic convention to secure his party’s nomination but was crushed in the general election. In fairness to McGovern, his candidacy was doomed by his Vice-Presidential choice of Thomas Eagleton who was later found to have received shock treatments for depression. George stood by Eagleton but in one of the most classic and least tolerated waffles in campaign history dumped Eagleton two days later along with all hopes of the Presidency. In one of the worst drubbings in modern political history McGovern won only one state and DC but still got 37.5% of the vote. The Forty percent rule was challenged again but reaffirmed the party faithful willingness to sacrifice itself for a cause. Cracks that appeared in the broker model in 1964 and 1972, widened during the Reagan years when Conservatism began to take hold. In a world full of conflict, a conflict adverse Jimmy Carter won only six states in 1980 losing the electoral vote to Ronald Reagan a resounding 489 to 46, but still got the obligatory 41% of the faithful vote. A note on deal making: With House and Senate numbers equalizing with the Reagan sweep, the long-standing Democratic advantage (winning seven of Nine Presidential elections since FDR) began to slip and with it the end of the cooperative model. Republicans, inured to dealing, no longer had to. Reagan, sensing his advantage, was unwilling to compromise or concede his righteous path. The power of the Reagan revolution forced a move to the right for Democrats and the temporary return to deal making that would characterize the coming Clinton years. In 1992 Bill Clinton beat the tax-waffling incumbent George H.W. Bush by a sizeable electoral vote but with only 43% of the popular vote. Like Nixon in 1968, Clinton benefited from another third-party movement, the Independent party of Ross Perot, who won no electoral votes but took a whopping 18.9% of the popular vote, the highest since Teddy Roosevelt’s 27.4% “Bull Moose” party in 1912. Despite Perot’s showing, the party faithful still accounted for over 80% of the popular vote Taking Democratic policies craftily toward the middle, Clinton co-opted the opposition’s issues: balancing the budget, reforming welfare, easing business regulation (repealing the Glass-Stiegel Act) and allowing industry and media consolidation and passing Perot’s pet peeve NAFTA. Dealing had returned. No wonder Clinton’s eight years were so popular; he gave everybody including business pretty much what they wanted. The Supreme Court legal battle over the fate of deadlocked 2000 election ended all hope of continuing cooperation and political compromise. Bush v. Gore landed us with George W. Bush and a citizenry bitterly divided and a Democratic Party spiritually defeated. Add the specter of 9/11 and Republicans were able to complete the temporary seizure of all three branches of government. The second administration of George W. Bush further solidified the ideologue model. George crowed he had “political capital” and he was going to spend it. It was his way or the highway and he gave no quarter. His no-prisoners policy likewise hardened the Democratic leadership who vowed to get even. Following Obama’s election in 2008 and the narrow advancement of his National Health Care Agenda, the extremely contentious Republican leadership, further emboldened by the Tea Party, openly announced a new strategy: obstructionism. Instead of legislators defining their role as a mediator of group compromise, their role was now to obstruct the will of the majority at any cost, even when it is law. Democrats answered by employed unilateral executive action and parliamentary shenanigans to ramrod appointments and administrative policy through With the American voter contentious and angry and both party leaderships full of spite, malice and revenge, we now have partisan voters willing to line-up against anything the other party proposes. On almost any issue put before the American public half of the voters are for, the other half against. It doesn’t seem to matter if the election is for the Presidency or a local school board or if the candidates are Elmer Fudd or Bugs Bunny. If the Bush’43 presidency was a one-way street, the second Obama administration is a dead duck with Obama ironically now inheriting a reverse obstructionist role by virtue of his veto power over what is now a majority Republican legislative agenda. What will 2015 bring? What will a winning strategy for 2016 look like? State Party caucuses are less than a year away.