The incomparable Mark Twain is credited with the astute observation, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.” Even though there is no evidence that he ever actually uttered the words.
As we look to the 2020 presidential election exactly one year out, history is on the minds of many. But the question relates to the historical parallel and which one is applicable.
A case can be made that this election will take on characteristics of 1972. Especially so if Elizabeth Warren is the Democratic nominee running against Donald Trump, and almost regardless of whether he has been impeached by the House.
Then again, the reference point could be 1980 instead of 1972. Or perhaps 1988.
For some readers, this will be a walk down memory lane. Others of more recent vintage may regard it as ancient history. But let’s examine these three elections from the latter part of the last century and see if any of them might provide a preview of what could unfold over the next 52 weeks.
Though first off, one significant asterisk: All three of those elections ended in decisive wins. Blowouts, if you will. The 1972 contest was a landslide of historic proportions. Those days are passed and unlikely to return anytime soon. In the intervening years, we’ve effectively sorted ourselves into red America and blue America with a diminishing number of swing voters who go back and forth between the two camps. Each party’s base is too large and too hardened to make possible another 10 or 20-point margin as was common in that earlier time.
It is popular at the moment for Democrats to evoke Richard Nixon as a comparison for Donald Trump given an impeachment process and their fervent hope for a similar outcome. However, Democrats ought not to forget that while Nixon’s travails had their roots in the 1972 campaign, the impeachment hearings and subsequent resignation came well thereafter.
In 1972, spurred by the Vietnam War and the cultural tumult of those times, Democrats went all-in with a progressive candidate and platform. (In those days, “progressive” had not so entered the political lexicon and they were just called “liberal.”) A fine man who served his country admirably as a combat pilot and U.S. senator, George McGovern captured the imagination of Democrats’ youthful grassroots and its activist base in academia and beyond.
McGovern campaigned as an unapologetic, transformative liberal. While this was music to the ears of his core base, the tune was lost on the rest of the country. When the votes were tallied, the incumbent Nixon, despite zero warmth and low marks for personal character, was re-elected with over 60 percent of the vote. Nixon carried 49 states; McGovern just Massachusetts (ummm?) and the District of Columbia.
Again, there will be no carbon copy; no exact repetition. That’s not how history works. But will 2020 rhyme with 1972? Will the Democratic Party, likely in the form of Elizabeth Warren, lean hard to the left? And if so, will it pay a severe price?
While Republicans will be cheered by a 1972 analogy, they will be less comforted if instead the applicable comparison is to 1980.
That year, an embattled, some would say feckless, incumbent Jimmy Carter was thought to be in a close match with the challenger Ronald Reagan. This was not the Reagan now remembered so positively in many circles but the still-emerging Reagan who had led his party on a more conservative path but whom many voters worried was too ideological and extreme.
That presumably narrow contest blew open in the final week when the nation made a collective judgment that it was done with the incumbent and was ready for something different, anything different, regardless of whatever doubts they harbored about the opposition candidate. That consensus was late in coming, but resulted in a nine-point rejection of the sitting president. Control of the Senate tipped as well.
The potential certainly exists for a seeming replay of that dynamic if, come next November, the country is simply finished with Trump and unwilling to sign up for four more seasons of his over-the-top show. If that is the case, the Democratic nominee, whether Warren or one of the others, may well become quite palatable no matter the ideological or personal baggage they carry.
Perhaps neither the 1972 or 1980 election is where we find our bearings, but instead do so in 1988. In that election, George H.W. Bush was essentially the incumbent running for the third Reagan-Bush term against the latest Democratic hope from Massachusetts (once again, ummm?), Michael Dukakis.
Early on, Democrats were convinced they had the right horse — highly intelligent, fluent on all issues and with a reputation for competence. But that confidence crashed hard to earth due to the twin factors of Dukakis’s difficulty in connecting with mainstream, working-class voters along with a then-unprecedented and unrelenting negative campaign waged by the Bush forces.
Beyond the shared Massachusetts turf, it doesn’t require endless imagination to see the possibility of Warren playing the role of Dukakis while Trump takes some cues from the first Bush.
Inarguably, much about politics has changed over the last several decades. Many of the old rules are no more. The parties are more ideologically homogenous; swing voters are fewer; news is 24/7; information sources are fractured; social media is ubiquitous; everyone fancies themselves a commentator; cynicism is rampant. And Donald Trump is largely without precedent as the man in charge.
But while change is constant and history is made anew every day, the past is always relevant. It is highly likely that the script from 1972 or 1980 or 1988 will prove pertinent to the unfolding of 2020. What we don’t yet know is which of these three scripts will come back to life. On that, I’d hazard to say that your guess is about as good as mine.
Eric Sondermann is a Colorado-based independent political commentator. His weekly column appears every Wednesday in ColoradoPolitics. Reach him at EWS@EricSondermann.com; follow him at @EricSondermann