Wednesday, October 28, 2009


I thought I'd do a snapshot of my opinions and relative estimations of the campaigns of major presidential candidates [the democratic or republican nominee, plus one crazy texas fucker] since Richard Nixon resigned. It's not a comment on the merits of each candidate as president, or as putative president.

I rank them in order of worst campaign to best (and change tenses as it suits me):

Mondale '84 --

forthrightly announcing that we have to raise taxes, and that you are just the candidate to do it, is honest and honourable. in this case, honourable equaled worst.

Perot '92 --

dropping out because your daughter has been abducted by aliens in refrigerators is no way to run a campaign. imagine what his numbers would have looked like that year if he'd been sane. or run a good campaign (dissimilar concepts).

Gore '00 --

hmmmm. you succeed a generally popular president who had worn out his welcome, but left behind the impressions of peace and prosperity. you proceed to mismanage your image, your message, and your coverage in a way that loses you your home state of tennessee. and west virginia -- as a democrat. I didn't find this one too hard.

Dukakis '88 --

when you become a verb [wow, that guy really dukakissed himself. . . ] and you proceed to be tone deaf and blind at almost every turn (the tank image is often brought up, and rightly so. as president, you sure as shit need to know how you look, and when you look ridiculous. especially if you're pandering by trying to establish military bona fides that you should just concede you don't have). treatment of his wife's murderer was seized upon as a "gotcha" moment, but when you're really tone deaf and sing loudly, expect the worst kinda looks. to his credit, he remains oblivious to this day: he still doesn't understand the response to his debate answer, and continues to defend it.

McCain '08 --

palin. hmmm; his one likely selling point was his opponent's youth and inexperience; good choice there. oh, yeah -- you don't cancel a debate because of a crisis, and then do nothing and appear irrelevant as the crisis unfolds. and then show up at the debate. and then complain that if the crisis hadn't occurred to interrupt your desired crisis, people would like you better. maybe this one should be higher (lower). . . .

Reagan '84 --

sleepwalking, lumbering campaign. but see "mondale '84" above to explain victory.

Bush '88 --

quayle. this is not said with the benefit of retrospect. it was appalling that afternoon. but see "dukakis '88" above to explain victory. and imagine the following word in the ears o' your mind: *buuuuuuhr-nie *

Dole '96 --

it's hard to run a campaign when you don't know why you're running except that it's your turn, and you imagine yourself a decent fellow. and you opponent is a charming sleazeball who somehow offends your combat-wounded self.

Kerry '04 --

combine a milder version of dukakis's tone-deafness with an overly-analytical, lawyer's mind, and you've got this campaign. swift-boating could have been turned against its perpetrators, and a more aggressive single-mindedness could have benefited the campaign greatly.

Carter '80 --

I don't really want to include the campaign, as much as the presidency. national scold, national schoolmarm, and too-clean-to-play-politics outsider, with a disconnected, better-than-the-politicians staff, aren't attributes that make for good administrations or campaigns.

Bush '04 --

a heavy-handed use of fear muggings gets you elected, but sets you up to think you have political capital that you lack.

Clinton '96 --

a solid victory, and a nice bashing o' the republican revolution. but see dole (and perot '96) for help; the guy wasn't even tested.

Carter '76 --

i guess he played the peanut farmer theme well, and he sure as shit beat the bushes in new hampshire, so he's to be respected. but the dems could have run william jennings bryan (in his 1976 form) and had a decided edge -- see richard m. nixon.

Bush '00 --

seem friendly, seem more likable than your opponent, make the prospect of nightly meetings in the living room, via national news, as inviting as you can. act like you're not al gore. push to vindicate your victory in florida. squeaker.

Ford '76 --

despite the pardon, despite reagan's charge before and at the convention, and despite his observations on poland during the debate, he made this a real contest. a damned fine campaign.

Clinton '92 --

gennifer flowers, and her revelations that "he ate pussy like a champ" [penthouse magazine; while published after the election, her quote got out early], and the general perception that he was . . . just the kinda guy he turned out to be, still couldn't keep a master bullshitter and charmer out of the white house. and his staff ruthlessly kicked ass, while maybe having some ethics (how un-campaign-like!).

Obama '08 --

nearly note perfect. the cool guy had emotion, but didn't let his emotions rule him. and he showed all of that. and oh yeah, that "new media" approach and actually turning out some youngsters seemed to have helped. and see mccain '08 above.

Reagan '80 --

from "I'm paying for this microphone" to "there you go again" to the stern grandfather who wanted to get you to swell your chest a little, he ran a kick-ass campaign. and see carter '80 above.


Mythical Monkey said...

I can't really argue with any of those rankings. My initial knee-jerk reaction was that Dukakis was a little worse than you ranked him, and it was a lousy campaign, but at the same time, he was running against a popular Republican administration during a time of peace and prosperity. I thought even at the time that the Democrats had over-estimated their chances of winning. And when Bush the Elder made his "thousand points of light" speech at the convention, essentially saying "Yes, you liked Reagan, but, gosh darn it, I'm even more likable," he essentially sewed it up.

Speaking of conventions, by the way, I think the Republican's 1992 convention might have done more lasting harm than any convention since the 1968 Democratic convention. Between Pat Buchanan and Marilyn Quayle, the Republicans essentially announced war on everyone in the party to the left of Hitler, and while that's a cheap, tasteless exaggeration, the fact is, the party's 17 year long guerrilla war against moderation finally bore fruit with 40 seats in the Senate and a shellacking in the general election.

And they seem hellbent on reducing their numbers even further. I believe some dream of a party with one perfect Republican and he can vote for himself in every election ...

Thomas Paine said...

funny that you would focus on Dukakis -- ranking that one caused me the most difficulty.

I ultimately couldn't hammer the campaign as much as I wanted to -- instead, I would have been hammering the nomination, which is a different thing. And considering the candidates that year, and how they went about it, they were lucky to get a standing, non-drooling person who could sign his own name to the applicatin form.

I don't really know what the "application form" looks like. . . .

btw, you're right about the republicans in 1992, and ever since. and while I thought that the democrats might become the party of nominating losers from Massachusetss (or, begrudgingly, from somewhere else in the northeast corridor), but those whacky democrats may have gotten it out of their system.

kristol had an op-ed piece monday explaining why the GOP would go, and stay, harder right.

I guess if you want to mindlessly tout tax cuts and yap about freedom (whilst curtailing it), they're definitely the way to go.

and they're still giving the dems a run for their money in my mind -- the alternative is nearly equally distasteful to me, and is nearly as reflexive . . . . .

Mister S. said...

Excellent list and excellent points but I'd probably rank Dukakis just below Gore. (Although its like arguing that the 2009 Washington Nationals (59-103) have to be ranked below the 2008 Washington Nationals (59-102)).

Mythical Monkey is right that Democrats overestimated Dukakis' chances against what was, essentially, Ronald Reagan's third term, but the blunders of the Dukakis campaign (e.g., not campaigning after your own convention, allowing an opponent's attacks to go unanswered) established the modern benchmark for how to screw up a campaign.

Not that Gore was much better, what with showing himself to be so unlikeable that voters could overlook Bush's faults (as well as the fact that his V.P. was a power-crazed lunatic) but he did manage to make a race of it, even ending up with more votes than Bush, just not where he needed them. And with the benefit of hindsight, it may be unfair to slam Gore for losing West Virginia. It went double-digits for Bush (2004) and McCain (2008) since it flipped in 2000.

Mythical Monkey said...

I had forgotten that Dukakis basically shut down his campaign for a month after the convention -- toured his home state cutting ribbons at shopping mall openings to show what a great job he'd done as governor. Stoopid.

And I think Gore was damaged more than people realize by the Clinton Impeachment -- the press and to a degree the electorate was much more focused on every single campaign fib and hint of Gore's lack of authenticity than they would have been if the country hadn't spent a year going through the wringer of what the meaning of is is.

That said, Gore was very uncomfortable in his own skin.

Of course, Bush the Younger was more comfortable in his own skin than anybody who's ever been president (including Ronald Reagan) so possibly it's not the most important quality a president can have.

(By the way, am I the only person who instinctively knows what Clinton meant when he said that? Then again, I know as much about the art form of lying as anybody walking. But I digress.)

Who Am Us Anyway? said...

Myth, if you're referring to "it depends on what the meaning of 'is' is," no you aint the only one, and to be honest at first I couldn't even see why everyone thought it was such a miserable statement! I was educated on that issue by my near and dear, but my initial response was to just nod my head and say, well, sure, that was a good and fair try -- i mean, they were trying to get him to talk about past blow jobs in the oval office and so instead he said "There is no inappropriate relationship." And then they come back and say that was a "lie," and he was saying, "now wait a minute ..."

Made sense to me. Welp, maybe my instinctive dislike for multimillion dollar blowjob investigations is clouding my judgment.

Re worst campaign, I have a couple-o friends who are true Gore admirers so I mean no disrespect for the Man, but I have no respect whatsoever for his campaign. I'd rank it the #1 piece of crap in modern time. From his absolutely insane notion that it would be a good idea to stalk across the debate stage and sneak up behind bush the younger as GWB was sitting there all folksy on the stool, to his junior high level sigh concert, to hiring a high-profile "image consultant" to give him big dollar well-publicized advice (wear more earth tones) ... ah i'll stop. But i couldn't believe he lost that election and I don't think even a mediocre candidate would have. Strategery beats LockBox? Jeez.

The Jestaplero said...

Can't disagree mostly but I'd have to put Barry #1, if only because, as if becoming the first black dude elected president wasn't enough, he also had to overcome Rev. Wright and his own middle name. It's like "Barack Hitler Obama" getting elected in '48.

Thomas Paine said...

Can't disagree mostly but I'd have to put Barry #1, if only because, etc.

I won't really try to argue for respective ranks; to defend my picks might seem to minimize Barry's accomplishment.

I will, though, gently dispute the importance of Rev. Wright.
[I can't dispute how deftly Obama sidled out of it].

I don't think that guilt by association was going to stick with the major candidiates; I actually saw a level of sophistication in the electorate in '08 that I didn't sense in '04.

I'm also not sure it was entirely right for voters to largely ignore the Wright episode, perhaps choosing not to view guilt by association. But for a candidate to maintain his association with -- and continue to support -- a church with those messages was a legitimate campaign issue. I think that he accrued a benefit from his race, as there was a reluctance to go after the candidate for his membership "in light of the historic role of black churches in the community" [paraphrasing something I heard often.

In any event, he was a masterful campaigner in his handling of the affair, he turned something bad into something great, and kudos to the candidate for his guile, strength, and perspicacity.

The Jestaplero said...

I think the Obama campaign was the best campaign in my life time. I thought it was strategically brilliant. I don't remember Reagan 1980 so well but Carter was so disliked I think the Ayatollah could have beaten him.

That said, I think Barry caught some excellent breaks (Palin, the economy) plus one rarely discussed: the result of the protracted nomination campaign was that the Dems had tremendous organization capacity in virtually every state.

Thomas Paine said...

I don't remember Reagan 1980 so well but Carter was so disliked I think the Ayatollah could have beaten him.

I pondered the Carter factor, but ultimately concluded that it may have been slightly less of an anti-Carter year than an anti-Bush year -- although I must concede that Bush wasn't on the ticket. So that can never be a heads-up estimation.

Let's just say that the damage done to the national psyche by Bush was, to my mind, slightly greater than the damage done by Carter. In each case, a limited but sizable number of backers was there, a sizable but limited number of die-hard opponents was there, and then the two campaigns went out to be something different.

Although not readily, intuitively apparent, Reagan and Obama are, in my mind, very similar, and ran similar campaigns. New technology [direct-mail fundraising and base-energizing v. twitter, tweet, youtube, and facebook], a dramatic turn away from the predecessor, purposeful focus on running against things bigger than, and above, their respective opponents, charm, telegenetic personalities, and steadiness.

I won't comment on their presidencies (that post is along way down the road -- up next: my visceral response to all and each of the candidates!), but I hope that Obama doesn't turn out like Reagan in finding that the unintended consequences of certain policies linger long and badly.

But I think I'm confident in asserting that they will. People are people, and they have been since we recorded time. They're both [all] politicians, beloved by true believers. And the pendulum swings again. . . .

Mythical Monkey said...

Many years later, I'll say re: Reagan-Carter, that people forget it was neck-and-neck in the polls until the debate about a week or so before the election. To say Reagan ate Carter alive during that debate then picked his teeth with his bones would be an understatement.

Afterwards, idiot debate coach types were saying Carter won because his answers were more substantive. Then again, many people listening on radio insisted Nixon smoked Kennedy during their first debate. But all it took was eyes and an ear for the absurd to know that Reagan had grabbed Carter by the feet and mopped the floor with him.

In retrospect, considering how damaged Carter's presidency was by then -- Iran hostage crisis and runaway inflation, among other things -- it's amazing it was close for as long as it was.

mister muleboy said...

I hope that Obama doesn't turn out like Reagan in finding that the unintended consequences of certain policies linger long and badly.

But I think I'm confident in asserting that they [the unintended consequences of certain policies] will [linger long and badly]. People are people, and they have been since we recorded time. They're both [all] politicians, beloved by true believers. And the pendulum swings again. . . .

That Tom Paine was a fucking genius. The Imperial Presidency began long ago, but the current cat attached jets to it, and hit the starter button. . . .

With the exception of health care, this president announced that, for each of his initiatives, he had to have Congressional support because he couldn't act unilaterally. When he could not generate that support through political means (you know, campaigning and twisting arms and horse-trading], he then acted unilaterally declaring "we can't wait."

I'm no fan. And every time people think I'm a reflexive [fill in the blank], I remind them that I enthusiastically supported Barry because I bought his 2008 bs