This morning the Washington Post published a column stirring a lot of discussion in the blogosphere, as the hours tick by before the voters decide the elections that constitute the first major referendum on the Barack Obama presidency. It was co-written by Douglas Schoen, a well-known pollster for Democratic candidates, and Pat Caddell, who more or less invented in-depth interpretation of poll data on the Democratic side of the aisle in 1972 when he worked for George McGovern. (By that time, H.R. Haldeman had developed that discipline to a high degree as President Nixon’s chief of staff, but Caddell’s approach was still groundbreaking.)
After working as Jimmy Carter’s White House polling guru, Caddell stopped working for Democrats in the late ’80s, and has since been a barbed critic of the party’s complacency and tendency toward elitism. It hardly needs to be said that the forty-fourth President and the present leadership in Congress has given him a lot of examples to point to.
The column includes this paragraph:
We write in sadness as traditional liberal Democrats who believe in inclusion. Like many Americans, we had hoped that Obama would maintain the spirit in which he campaigned. Instead, since taking office, he has pitted group against group for short-term political gain that is exacerbating the divisions in our country and weakening our national identity.The culture of attack politics and demonization risks compromising our ability to address our most important issues – and the stature of our nation’s highest office.
This writer would be inclined to agree with that, except that it is preceded by this sentence, which explains the article’s title (“Our Divisive President, Redux”):
We can think of only one other recent president who would display such indifference to the majesty of his office: Richard Nixon.
Later on, they say:
Indeed, Obama is conducting himself in a way alarmingly reminiscent of Nixon’s role in the disastrous 1970 midterm campaign. No president has been so persistently personal in his attacks as Obama throughout the fall. He has regularly attacked his predecessor, the House minority leader and – directly from the stump – candidates running for offices below his own. He has criticized the American people suggesting that they are “reacting just to fear” and faulted his own base for “sitting on their hands complaining.”
Pat Caddell, as he notes in the column, was on the “enemies list” that George Bell and Chuck Colson assembled – indeed, he says he was the youngest person on it at age 22. So one can understand his irritation at RN, but there’s still the problem of making a historical analogy not really supported by the facts.
On Election Day 1970, the GOP lost twelve seats in the House of Representatives. In the Senate, it scored a gain of one seat, supplemented by James Buckley’s election on the Conservative Party line in New York, since he caucused with the Republicans. If the Democrats lose twelve seats in the House on Tuesday and get back up to 60 seats in the Senate, the sound of champagne corks popping in Georgetown will be so loud as to shatter the windows in Martin’s Tavern.
Before that day forty years back, much of the media had been predicting much bigger losses. Nixon presided over a nation mired in recession. He had had two Supreme Court nominees defeated in the Senate. He was the commander-in-chief in an unpopular war. The nation had undergone the trauma of Kent State and was dealing with massive and sometimes violent demonstrations, and generational and social polarization. With all that, it was remarkable that the Republicans came through with as little damage as they did.
(A better analogy for Schoen and Caddell to make would be the 1966 elections, when the Democrats lost 47 seats in the House and three in the Senate due to voter dissatisfaction with the massive costs of President Johnson’s Great Society programs. But the problem there is that Richard Nixon played a very big role in the GOP gains that year, which helped secure his position as the Republican front-runner in 1968. I have the feeling that neither Schoen nor Caddell are quite ready to acknowledge that if the GOP really scores in a big way on Tuesday, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin will come to be seen as having had a role this year that was similar to Nixon’s in ’66.)
Another point where the analogy to 1970 breaks down is in the suggestion that RN’s relations with the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill were as bad as Obama’s with the Republican leadership nowadays. It’s true that there wasn’t much affection between the Nixon White House and then-Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and Whip Ted Kennedy, or with House Speaker John McCormack.
But Nixon did have cordial, and sometimes friendly, relations with a number of the Democratic chairmen of the Senate and House committees, and other senior lawmakers (mostly, but not all, Southern), based on ties that went back to his days as a Representative and Senator. These included Richard Russell, John Stennis, Wilbur Mills, James Eastland, John McClellan, Joe Waggoner Jr, and numerous others. In the White House, Nixon worked closely with Daniel Moynihan, a lifelong Democrat, and John Connally, who was in that party when he was Secretary of the Treasury. President Obama has not developed relationships with prominent Republicans of this kind, and his rhetoric in the last few months has hardly suggested an inclination to start next January.
So it must be said that, while the best example for our President to follow should the GOP gain substantially next Tuesday is the one President Reagan demonstrated when he cultivated his friendship with Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, he could do worse than to emulate some of RN’s efforts to further bipartisanship.
Senator Edward Kennedy (left) and President Nixon (right).