Richard Reeves: The Fifth 'Pivot Point' Election

Roundup: Historians' Take

"Do Elections Matter?" That was the title of a conference of historians, journalists and other interested parties sponsored by The New York Historical Society last week. The answer, of course, was "yes" — and this one matters a good deal more than most.

The tone of the day's talk was set at the beginning by Akhil Reed Amar, a professor of law and political science at Yale. In a presentation I agreed with, Amar raised the possibility that the 2008 election could be remembered as the fifth "pivot point" election in the presidency's 219-year history.

In Amar's reading, history was changed and the United States was headed in new directions by the elections of 1800, 1860, 1932 and either 1968 or 1980, depending on whether you believe the conservative ascendancy we are living through right now began with Richard Nixon in 1968 or with Ronald Reagan in 1980. (I would choose 1980.)

In the 12 years following adoption of the Constitution, the new nation was governed by its Federalist founding fathers, led by George Washington and John Adams. Then, in 1800, Adams was defeated by Thomas Jefferson, a founding father but not a Federalist. Then, until 1860, the presidency was held by the Democratic Party created by Jefferson and institutionalized by Andrew Jackson — a reign interrupted only briefly by a few relatively unimportant Whig administrations.

In 1860, the new Republican Party, led by Abraham Lincoln, took office and held power for 72 years — with a couple of Democratic exceptions, Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson, neither of whom ever won 50 percent of the vote — until the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. Then, I would argue, with the exception of the above-party presidency of Dwight Eisenhower and the aborted presidency of Richard Nixon, the New Deal Democrats basically ran the country until the election of a Republican, Ronald Reagan, in 1980.

And for all practical purposes, Reagan is still president, represented now by a diminishing imitator, George W. Bush.

That is the thesis. Amar then expanded the idea by arguing that the "pivot point" elections were quite similar to each other — and to the election of 2008. Each of them, he says, was marked by the same conditions: economic decline, over-reactive wars or war talk that led to repression of civil liberties at home.

In 1800, John Adams ended Federalist rule by over-reacting to war fever and pushing through the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were the repressive Homeland Security laws of their day. The Jefferson-Jackson era lasted until the 1850s, when the country moved toward civil war because Democrats, many of them Southerners, proved incapable of finding a national policy to deal with the issues of slavery. Lincoln's party reigned until economic collapse led to the Great Depression and the election of Franklin Roosevelt. Failed wars in Southeast Asia and the Iranian hostage crisis led to the elections of Nixon and Reagan. The Democrats managed to elect two presidents in the Nixon-Reagan years, but neither of them, Jimmy Carter nor Bill Clinton, ever won 50 percent of the vote.

Amar believes that a significant inertia was produced after each of those pivot elections; the ideas that made presidents of Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan produced issues that kept their constituencies alive and well for years, even decades, after their own administrations.

And now 2008. The country is engaged in two unpopular and probably unwinnable wars, the economy is in dangerous decline, and civil liberties have been aggressively repressed by the Bush administration in the name of the war on terror.
Therein, historically, lies the strength of the candidacy of Barack Obama. Despite his obvious political talents, it is hard to imagine a young, black two-year senator rising toward the presidency if his Republican opponent could have preached the winning doctrine of peace, prosperity and low taxation.

But there is no peace. There is no prosperity. And, whether through taxes or borrowing, the voters are going to foot the bill for the misjudgments and mistakes of the last eight years. The next question, in Amar's terms, is how solid a coalition and how many Democratic terms might follow an Obama victory — or, to be consistent, a Bush-Reagan defeat.

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