It’s human nature to assign blame in situations that go wrong. Sometimes, we look for problems in others. Too rarely, we look for problems in ourselves; especially, it seems, for those on the political left.
For the Democratic Party, at the loss of every presidential election cycle for almost 50 years, it’s been the former. They have historically looked outward, not inward, blaming the GOP for some dirty tricks, a fast shuffle, a quirk, a happenstance, or an accident of history, rather than examining their own policies and candidates. In short, they don’t blame themselves.
Reagan’s attitude to American exceptionalism, his promise to be tougher with the Soviets — that’s what appealed to the people.
In 1968, former Vice President Richard Nixon successfully ran against Democrat Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota. While the popular vote was less than a percentage-point difference, the electoral vote was a washout: 301 for Nixon, 191 for Humphrey, and 46 for George Wallace. Nixon largely appealed on a platform to end the Vietnam War. It was a “Secret Plan,” many asserted. Except, there was no plan, at least on his campaign platform. He explicitly had “no gimmicks or secret plans” to end the war.
However, even today, many believe this “Secret Plan” led to his victory in the election. “Even though Richard Nixon didn’t have one, the notion that he had a secret plan to end the Vietnam War helped him win the presidency in 1968,” said Walter Wells in 2006. Yet there was sharp division of the Democratic Party at that time. Segregationist George Wallace was chosen as the nominee for the American Independent Party, and he took many southern Democrat votes, and ultimately won 10 million of the 73 million votes cast. It may be this division of the Democratic Party, along with the association of the Democrats with the Vietnam War under the Johnson administration, that led to Nixon’s victory.
Skip ahead to the election of 1980. Former governor of California Ronald Reagan won by 10 points and 8 million votes over incumbent president Jimmy Carter. What caused such a landslide? To some liberals, Ronald Reagan and his staff struck a secret deal with Iran to hold off the release of 52 American hostages before the election, a major source of contention with the Carter administration and the American people. The thought was that if Iran, with the support of Reagan, could hold off the release of hostages, then that would keep the American voters unhappy with Carter, guaranteeing a victory for the Californian.
A lot of paranoid liberals have dined out on this “October Surprise,” even as the phrase was originally coined by Reaganites, fearful that Carter would negotiate a last-minute deal to get the hostages home before the November elections. There was a lot of evidence that Carter had already politicized the crisis.
Lyndon LaRouche started this conspiracy mere months after the election, and it was touted by some in the media, including Gary Sick in a 1991 editorial in The New York Times (natch) in which he said he conducted “hundreds of interviews, in the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East” to substantiate this story. Nothing else came of it, and there was no proof beyond hearsay. A 1993 House report stated “there is no credible evidence” behind it, and thus it did not help the GOP nominee’s chance of winning. For one, Reagan’s popularity did not jump ahead of Carter’s until after their sole debate on October 28, 1980, only a week before the election. Reagan’s attitude to American exceptionalism, his promise to be tougher with the Soviets — that’s what appealed to the people.
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Because Carter lost does not mean that there was a grand conspiracy to contact foreign governments to change the election. It was Carter’s incompetency as president, coming in as an outsider to clean up D.C. only to be entangled in it; it was the downward spiral of the economy (with the portmanteau “stagflation” coming into popular use); it was détente’s failures in the wake of Soviet aggression; it was all of these and more that led to Carter’s loss.
Reagan’s eight years as president were effective and for the most part popular, so it is no surprise that, in the 1988 election, Reagan’s VP, George H.W. Bush, was elected with a landslide victory in both the electoral and popular vote. At one point during the campaign, supporters of the Bush campaign ran an ad criticizing Democratic nominee Mike Dukakis about convicted murderer Willie Horton.
Horton, who was released on a “weekend pass” as part of then-governor Dukakis’ rehabilitation of criminals, ended up kidnapping a couple and brutally raping the wife. It was an effective though controversial campaign ad. However, they ignored the basic fact that Dukakis just didn’t have the backbone — nor the enthusiastic support of Reagan’s Democratic supporters that Bush did. They ignored Reagan’s legacy, the strong economy, the strong national identity, and Bush’s eight years as Reagan’s veep.
In the 2000 election, it came down to Florida and the recount. Fewer than 600 votes initially placed George W. Bush ahead of Vice President Al Gore, putting Bush just one electoral vote over the necessary to win the election. When the Supreme Court ultimately settled in Bush’s favor, protests erupted — and erupted up to the inauguration. Thousands protested in D.C., chanting “not my president” and “Bush stole the election.” Signs calling him a racist and illegitimate lined the streets. One said, “Restore Democracy and Count all Votes.”
Rows of police in riot gear had to hold back protests. As NBC’s Maria Shriver reported live on the news, she saw “very few actual pro-Cheney signs or pro-Bush signs here … Quite an angry crowd.” It was a major protest that many reporters hadn’t seen before in an inauguration. Later studies show that Bush still would have won with both a full and limited recount. But the real issue was that Gore lost much of the Midwest and South, including his home state of Tennessee. Gore seemed to have ignored in his campaign the middle-class American, whom Bush successfully wooed.
The 2004 election with Bush and John Kerry, while not nearly as close, also had purported trouble with vote counting, as a recount was ordered after a plethora of issues in Ohio. It’s possible Kerry’s failure to forcibly confront the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth allegations of his Vietnam service distortions was enough to tip the scales. For years, Democrats have convinced themselves that Ohio voting machines were rigged, thus delivering the state and the national election to Bush.
And now moving to the 2016 election.
Rumors abound and will continue to abound for the foreseeable future about Donald Trump’s dealings with Russia and Vladimir Putin. From conspiracies of voter fraud and the hacking of the Democratic National Committee to Russia having supposed compromising material on the 45th president, all hear about Russia’s influence in the 2016 election.
Hillary Clinton herself, in mid-December, said: “This is not just an attack on me and my campaign, although that may have added fuel to it. This is an attack against our country. We are well beyond normal political concerns here. This is about the integrity of our democracy and the security of our nation.” One can imagine at a 2016 Trump campaign meeting someone shouting out, “Hey, let’s call the Russians! They know all about American campaigns!” Only a deeply disturbed paranoiac would suggest such idiocy.
It all distracts from the actual problem of this highly contested, highly divisive election: There was a deep-rooted frustration in America that was not touched on in the Democratic platform. Pennsylvania had three counties that previously voted for Barack Obama vote for Trump. In Wisconsin, that number was 22; Michigan, 12, and in Iowa, nearly a third of the counties went from Democratic last election to Republican. The number of red-to-blue counties was inconsequential.
See a pattern here?
In 1968, they blamed Nixon’s supposed Secret Plan. In 1972, George McGovern lost because someone broke into Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. In 1980, it was a fake back-door deal to keep the hostages in Tehran, delivering the election to Reagan. In 1998, it was Willie Horton ads. In 2000 and 2004, it was Florida and Ohio polling stations. In 2016, it’s the Russians. All of these look outward, not inward, to the problem of Democratic losses. A moment of self-reflection can do wonders for an individual — it can do even more for a political party.
Craig Shirley is the author of the new book “Reagan Rising: The Decisive Years, 1976-1980,” and three other books about former President Ronald Reagan. Scott Mauer is his researcher.