Current common wisdom suggests that John McCain will be the next president of the United States, in part because he is supposedly experienced, and in part because he has “earned” the privilege through his years in the Senate. However, the parallels to the Mondale campaign of 1984 seem inevitable, and do not bode well for Mr. McCain and his vice presidential pick, Sarah Palin.
In the 1984 presidential campaign, Democrats were hopeful that Walter Mondale had the experience and temperament to beat Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. for the White House. Senator Mondale then chose the inexperienced and wholly unknown congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro from NY as his vice presidential pick, a choice which in retrospect did not improve the chances of winning the election. Reagan and Bush won in a landslide, with Mondale and Ferraro only taking Minnesota and the District of Columbia. This was one of the worst defeats in modern presidential campaign history.
If we take a quick look back at the politics of the mid 1980s, the so-called Reagan revolution was underway, and the Democratic-controlled Congress was increasingly unpopular. The liberal politics of the 1960’s and 1970’s were coming to an end, and “trickle down economics” and pro-business policies were on the rise. The political pendulum was swinging fast. This era then led to the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 during Bill Clinton’s first term, and the rest is history.
If we examine the McCain campaign with respect to the Obama campaign, several striking similarities to the election of 1984 stand out. First is the political ascendancy of the Democrats as the Bush era comes to a close. The Bush era is marked by greater public disdain, distrust, and disgust than even the “stagflationary” Jimmy Carter era.
Second is the star power of Barack Obama as compared with McCain, who seems out of touch, grouchy and sour. Senator Obama draws huge enthusiastic crowds, while McCain has trouble even getting reporters to attend his speeches. This star-power effect was clearly the case with Ronald Reagan, who was B movie Hollywood star, but a grade-A political star in the mid 1980’s, at least as far as Republicans and many independents were concerned. Mondale couldn’t even begin to match Reagan’s popularity at the time. This is also true of Obama and McCain, except in reverse.
Then there is the cross-over vote potential. Reagan was known for drawing in many so-called Reagan Democrats, which helped usher in the landslide of the 1984 election. However, this time around it looks like a great deal of the cross-over voting will be independents and Republicans voting for change.
Problems with the economy helped Reagan win reelection in 1984, whereas the current economic problems are almost certain to help Obama rather than McCain. Of course, after winning re-election, Reagan’s economic policies led to the S&L crisis and massive tax-payer funded bailout, but that’s a another story.
The one similarity to the 1984 campaign that now seems inevitable is the choice of an unknown woman politician as the vice presidential candidate. Walter Mondale chose a New York congresswoman that virtually no one outside of New York had ever heard of. Similarly, John McCain chose Sarah Palin, a governor virtually unknown outside the state of Alaska. Palin’s current “trooper-gate”, and unwed pregnant daughter problems aside, it is clear to most people that McCain chose her as a running mate for purely political reasons in an attempt to lure Hillary Clinton supporters to the McCain camp. This was the charge leveled at Mondale back in 1984. The choice of Palin will certainly not help bolster McCain's maverick status, and will paint him instead as a faux maverick.
It will be very interesting to see if the election of 2008 plays out as a mirror image of the election of 1984. I doubt highly that Barack Obama will be able to manage the same type of landslide that Ronald Reagan did in the election of 84, but I am growing more hopeful every day that after the public has a chance to listen to McCain and Obama over the next two months, that they are going to opt for a reversal of politics, with the pendulum swinging rapidly away from the Bush era, and toward the Obama era.