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Young Elephant
Sunday, May 2, 2004
Short Memories, Poor Analysis and the Press

By Steven Taylor @ 1:27 pm

I wonder to the degree to which this is as unique as many analysts are currently trying to make it out to be:

amid all this sound and fury, many strategists in both parties think that “real world” developments in the economy, the struggle against terrorism and the occupation of Iraq are likely to influence the November result more than anything the campaigns do.

Source: LAT

Isn’t this just a complicated way of noting that typically it is the incumbent’s job to lose? I would submit that an incumbent and challenger never start off on equal footing and that the incumbent either has to have done something specific to warrant firing, or events have to be such that a change is deemed in the country’s best interest.

Let’s look at some recent examples where incumbents were running for re-election:

1996: What cause was there to choose Dole over Clinton, save for partisan policy preference? The economy was in good shape and there was relative peace in the land.

1992: Had the economy been booming, or at least not in recession and/or if the Cold War had not ended, Bush would have likely been elected. The fall of the Wall took foreign policy off the table and so it was all about the economy, which was outside of Bush’s control.

1984: One could apply similar logic to this race. The only question would be why such a gigantic landslide? From there we can get into personalities and policies (such as Mondale’s promise to raise taxes).

1980: Surely the economy and that pesky problem with the Iranians had something to do with Carter’s demise, not just the fact that Reagan put on a great campaign. And certainly those issues were well out of Carter’s control by the election campaign.

1976: Surely the single most important issue in that race was Watergate and Ford’s pardon (which, as least, is a specific action linked to the President. And while the pardon was of Ford’s making, the general political climate in the Watergate era wasn’t.

1968: The fortunes of the Viet Nam war caused Johnson not to seek re-election. Yes, his polcies in Viet Nam were on trial, but the degree to which he could “control” those events was small.

Now, it is the case that the incumbent president’s action concerning on-going events are key in re-election bids, but such elections are always affected by events outside the control of the incumbent, so I am not sure what is suposedly so sui generis in this election. Indeed, the economy is always beyonf the “control” of the President, despite what Presidents themselves say, and what the press thinks.

Indeed, if one wants to get simplistic, isn’t a president’s re-election always predicated on the basic issues of peace and economic prosperity? While presidential actions affects those issue, they are certainly not controlled by anyone.

The only thing different about this race than any since perhaps 1980 is that there is a major ongoing foreign policy operation underway that was initiated by the sitting president, but whose outcome is far from certain. However, this is hardly a unique event in the electoral history of the United States-indeed, it would seem that it closer to the norm than not.

Really, the fact of the matter is that elections always turn on events outside of the control of the incumbent, and when things are going poorly, or are uncertain, this gives the challenger an opening through which to attack. Part of Kerry’s challenge isn’t that thing are demonstrably bad at this point, simply uncertain. Indeed, while uncertainly provides an evenue of attack, the advantage still remains with the incumbent, as making a change at the top simply fuels uncertainty. Of course, if thing go especially poorly in Iraq or in the economy, then a clear opening for a argument for change emerges.

Still, I would reiterate: this is hardly a historically unique situation. Rather, this is just another example of the press looking so hard for a story that they ignore passed political patterns.

Filed under: 2004 Campaign

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