Blogs > HNN > The Dems are so 20th Century, and the Republicans, so 19th Century

Jan 21, 2008 1:46 pm

The Dems are so 20th Century, and the Republicans, so 19th Century

[Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. ]

So far, the Democratic contest is feeling very twentieth century and the Republican contest is feeling very nineteenth century. As the Democratic contest becomes a battle of two titans, it is becoming a nationwide fight between two political stars with national constituencies. This was characteristic of some of the great nomination battles of the last half-century, be it Richard Nixon versus Nelson Rockefeller in 1960 or Walter Mondale versus Gary Hart in 1988. But the more wide-open Republican contest evokes comparisons with the fragmented nomination contests of yesteryear – only in those days the constituencies were often state or at best regional and today they are less geographically-based.

While much of the focus recently has been on race and gender in the Hillary versus Obama contest, the simple fact that the two have that iconic, Cher-like, famous-enough-to-be-known-by-one-name status, suggests that we are also talking about the politics of celebrity. Let’s face it. Despite Hillary Clinton’s claim to be the candidate of “experience” both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have pretty thin resumes. Obama is famous for being a newcomer. Neither has any real executive experience. Hillary Clinton is pretending that in the 1990s she was the co-president she hoped to be rather than the frustrated first lady that she was.

Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have resumes more similar to George W. Bush than to his far more experienced father, former Ambassador to China, former CIA director, former Republican National Committee Chairman, and former Vice President George H.W. Bush. Hillary Clinton became senator from a state in which she had never lived, because in the modern world, celebrity is transferable. In 2000, she showed she could apply her considerable name recognition and iconic status from the 1990s and parlay it into a New York Senate seat. Barack Obama had a more conventional march to the U.S. Senate from the State Senate, but without his rock-star-like rocketing to great fame as a result of his 2004 convention speech and his brilliant book marketing, he would be yet another workaday senator, accumulating seniority before making his big presidential play. Of course, the embarrassingly futile, failed candidacies of Senator Joe Biden and Senator Chris Dodd show just how much the modern American voter (and reporter) values Senatorial seniority – along with the resulting experience and wisdom.

So far, the three Republican victors most resemble the various regional warlords who would show up to quadrennial party conventions in the 1800s, hoping either to be the critical kingmaker or, better yet, actually be crowned the party’s temporary king. With Mike Huckabee having won the Iowa caucus, John McCain having won New Hampshire, and Mitt Romney having won Michigan, we are even hearing some analysts speculate that this year’s convention may actually be relevant for the nomination of the party’s standard bearer, rather than simply celebrating a democratic coronation. Each of the three winners represent a different dimension of the legendary, multi-dimensional Reagan coalition that has dominated the GOP – and shaped American politics – for more than a quarter century. Huckabee represents the evangelicals, McCain represents the national security types and possibly the neocons, and Romney represents the business and technocratic types. Or, to think about it in a slightly different way, if the three were auditioning for parts in a play about Ronald Reagan’s famous first-term advising triumvirate, Huckabee would play the true believer, Ed Meese; McCain would play the savvy PR guy Michael Deaver, and Romney would play the emissary to the corporate and Wall Street types, James A. Baker III. Analysts looking at the Republican side are also wondering if this wideopen field will make room for Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani as well.

Regardless of how it plays out, it seems clear that the George W. Bush years have strained the Reagan coalition. The challenge for the next nominee is either to revive that broad-based coalition or transform it, finding a new political formula that works. The Democrats have the easier and yet harder time. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are mainstream Democrats. Neither nomination would threaten Democratic business as usual. Then again, as a party that has only fielded two winning candidates since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 – Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton – maybe it is time for a more dramatic change on that side of the aisle too.

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R.R. Hamilton - 1/22/2008

I thought this was a great article -- very perceptive! I think Prof. Troy might have mentioned that this is the first election since 1952 where there is neither a sitting President nor a sitting Vice-President running.

I agree with Prof. Troy that if any of the top candidates are nominated, there will be little enthusiasm for them from two of the three major wings of the GOP that he identified. An interesting idea for a new article is figuring out who could be a VP nominee to best help the different winners.

Gil Troy - 1/22/2008

Thanks to Michael Green for understanding both the content of my posting and the tone. The JFK-LBJ comparison is an interesting one, but at the end of the day, are we really talking "Cv" or "skill-set"? Especially in retrospect, but even in 1960, LBJ was so much a legislative creature of the cloakroom, and JFK was clearly more a man of speeches and visions. Now, to stick with the analogy, who made the better president? JFK made people feel good, LBJ, at least in his 1964-1965 Great Society incarnation, got the job done. At the end of the day, I think that both Hillary and Obama have demonstrated far more skill as modern celebrities than as legislators, and, as I said, both had minimal executive experience.

Robert Lee Gaston - 1/21/2008

In the future they may give this presidential campaign a name. For instance, Lady Macbeth and the nine dwarfs may be a fitting title of the saga. We will be able to sit around the back yard grill and scare little children be recounting the tale.

Michael Green - 1/21/2008

First, to the comments above. Professor Troy did not say McCain was specifically 19th century, but that the Republican fight echoes the kinds of campaigns where there were favorite son candidates. For example, in 1860, Lincoln had an increasingly national name, but he wasn't really much more than a favorite son candidate from Illinois who was in the back of other people's minds if their favorite didn't pan out.

Second, I am curious as to why a very thoughtful, essentially non-partisan essay inspired such partisan comment. I expect that in response to some of the bilge that the right wing disgorges on this site, but not here.

Finally, Professor Troy, a thought: granting the thinness of the resumés, Clinton does have a longer involvement in national affairs than Obama and is more respected as a senator (both of them went to the Senate to run for president, but Clinton seems to have done more with her tenure). Wouldn't an apt comparison be 1960, when John Kennedy had an undistinguished Senate record but was a far better and more attractive presidential candidate than Lyndon Johnson, who would have to be considered one of the giants in the history of the Senate chamber?

Jason Blake Keuter - 1/21/2008

Laissez-faire is an idea that dates back to the late 18th century but it is less anachronistic than the statist views that pass for "progressive". The untold story of the variant strands of socialism and communism is that they coopted liberalism and misrepresented themselves as part of a path forward to greater individual liberty and proclaimed real liberalism a fraud.

The evangelical vote is really a by-product of the Roe v. Wade best you could trace it back to the 1920's and the rural vote against big city modernism, butt the evangelicals were not the only cultural conservatives against whom the "progressives" fought - the big city immigrants were as much a target and had much more in common with rural anti-modernists than they did the patrician progressives. These would be the famed Reagan Democrats - historically champions of local government as much as the South.

And the cold war war hawk is far from the 19th century foreign policy which was infinitely more isolationist. In this case, McCain is more FDR than Grover Cleveland - or whichever President the author fails to refer to in order to back up his claim that McCain somehow is the 19th century.