On April 13, at Swampland, a blog at what’s left of Time magazine, Joe Klein took Bill Galston at the New Republic to task for daring to write that Barack Obama’s successful reelection will be difficult “if the people don’t approve of his record.”
That’s about as non-controversial as it gets — but not for good ol’ Joe, who called Galston’s assertion “political science mythology.” Klein proceeded to offer three elections (2008, 1988, and 1976) which supposedly showed that a president’s record in office doesn’t matter. Readers can and should be forgiven for wondering why he chose those three campaigns, given that none of them involved incumbents seeking reelection.
In the interest of bringing Klein up to speed, let me remind him of three of the four most obvious relatively recent instances when the incumbent president’s record was of the utmost importance (the fourth is Bill Clinton’s defeat of Bush 41 in 1992, which was built on Clinton’s lie about “the worst economy in the past 50 years,” Bush’s breaking of his “no new taxes pledge,” and, most critically, the quixotic candidacy of Ross Perot).
In 1980, Jimmy Carter was seeking reelection against challenger Ronald Reagan. Carter’s administration was busily producing inflation, unemployment, and high interest rates all at once, a trifecta once thought impossible. It wasn’t the “killer rabbit” that did Carter in, just as it won’t be Obama’s youthful penchant for eating dog meat; it was the brutal economy. Despite a third-party effort by John Anderson which probably pulled more votes away from Reagan than Carter, Reagan won in a landslide.
In 1984, Reagan was the incumbent. All the Gipper needed to do to win against the hapless Walter Mondale was:
- Demonstrate that his age wasn’t an issue — which he did, while wisecracking that he wouldn’t hold his opponents’ youth and inexperience against him.
- Plaintively ask: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” For the vast majority of Americans, the answer was a resounding “Yes.”
What resulted was a 49-state Electoral College rout.
In 2004, George W. Bush sought reelection against John Kerry. While the challenger had many shortcomings, not the least of which was his failure to remember who was president in December 1968 (Kerry referenced something said by Dick Nixon, but the president at the time was still lame duck Lyndon Baines Johnson, making his “Christmas in Cambodia” story an obvious fable), the election was really about Bush’s record on the economy, his prosecution of the Iraq War, and his progress in the overall War on Terror. The country was very divided on the matter, but Bush prevailed.
So while it would be nice from Joe Klein’s (and Barack Obama’s) perspective if the 2012 campaign were about, oh, I don’t know, Obama’s well-recited movie introductions, Michelle Obama’s frequent TV appearances, and their kids’ vacations (oops, we’re not allowed to talk about that), the 2012 campaign – like it or not, guys — will be primarily about what Obama has and hasn’t done during his first term.