It feels like 1976 all over again. I remember that year as if it was yesterday. That was the year of the gigantic battle of Ronald Reagan versus President Gerald Ford for the Republican Presidential nomination. And in November, that was the year Jimmy Carter was elected President.
Fast forward to 2008 and there are sharp similarities between the two years. Obviously, they are not exactly alike. For example, the GOP Presidential nomination was decided in February when Sen. John McCain came out on top in the primaries.
But the similarities are eerie. First, the incumbent Republican President was very unpopular. Ford was unpopular because of the deep recession and pardoning ex-President Richard Nixon. President Bush is unpopular because of the economy and the war in Iraq.
Second, the United States faced implacable foreign foes. In 1976, the U.S. faced Communism as its foe. In 2008, it is Islamic terrorism.
Third, the U.S. economy is in poor shape. In 1976, the U.S. was coming out of a deep recession and high unemployment. In 2008, the U.S. is going through a mortgage crisis, high gas prices and a sharp increase in food prices.
Fourth, movement conservative ennui. After Reagan lost in 1976, movement conservatives sat on their hands and refused to help Ford. Many of us just took a political vacation. I voted in the general election, but that was it. There were only fourteen of us working in the Reagan Presidential campaign in the Alachua County (Gainesville), Florida Reagan headquarters. The fourteen of us made over 40000 telephone calls in six weeks and heavily canvassed the area. Reagan took a surprisingly high 41% of the vote in the guts of liberal territory. But the primary was very bitter. Young Republican meetings turned into brawls. Indeed, the police had to watch over our meetings because of the bitter fighting. Friendships were destroyed. I know of one Reaganite who broke off his engagement because his girlfriend was actively working for Ford. Many of us felt Carter would be a failure and then in 1980 Reagan would be elected. So we decided to sit out the race and let the Democrats win.
Republican establishment critters like the glory and glitz of politics, but they do not like the nitty gritty of campaigning. Doing the "boiler room" work is not fun. You make calls (I wonder how that works with the proliferation of cell phones in today's society.), stuff envelopes, drive workers to the polls, canvass door-to-door, put literature on cars in shopping parking lots, etc. You won't see establishment types do that. But movement conservatives have done all that and then some (I personally made thousands of calls for Reagan in that very bitter Florida primary.).
John McCain inspires no movement conservatives. Our attitude is let him lose and wait until 2012.
Fifth, the GOP is very unpopular. In 1976, only 25% of the voters identified with the GOP. In 2008, it's not as low. But it has declined since 2004. Just like the Republicans were dejected in 1976 (You could smell defeat in the air after Reagan lost to Ford.), so are they in 2008. I have met very few Republicans who are enthusiastic this year. The church I attend is very conservative and Republican. I have yet to find one person who is enthusiastic about McCain. Most of them will give them a very reluctant vote. But unlike 2004, some will sit out the election or vote third-party.
Sixth, conservatism is at a hiatus. After Reagan was defeated in 1976, the conservative movement was in limbo for a few years. Ford was a moderate squish who had no political philosophy at all. In 1980, conservatives came up with a winning platform. In 2008, conservatism has no message. The message, "we can do better than the Democrats", does not resonate with the average voter. If the GOP is going to be Democrat-lite, then why not vote for the real thing? If the Democrats win the White House, conservatives will have to come up with a coherent strategy to meet economic and foreign policy challenges.
Seventh, an outsider was elected. Nobody ever heard of Jimmy Carter when he began running except for Georgians (the state, not the country) and political junkies. But he ran on a platform of bringing back trust to the White House. He was inexperienced, serving four years as a state senator and four years as governor. Barack Obama will probably be elected. His experience is serving eight years as a state senator and four years as U.S. Senator. Like Carter, he has very little experience.
Eighth, the Democrats won the Presidency by a very narrow margin. Carter was elected with just over 50% of the vote. Obama will probably win by a narrow margin. Carter started with a huge 34-point lead over Ford and was poised to win all fifty states when the campaign began. As it turned out, he won the Electoral College 297-241. Obama will probably start with a big lead against McCain, but will probably win by a narrow margin.
Politics is strange and history often repeats itself. 2008 seems like 1976 redux.