It’s crunch time now in the Democratic primaries. Voters in the key early states of Iowa and New Hampshire are starting to pay serious attention to the campaign. Rightly or wrongly, many of the pundits—yes these would be the same ones who were ready to write John Kerry’s political obituary this time four years-- have already decided the race has come down to Clinton vs. Obama. Being the student of history that I am, I can’t help but notice the similarities the two have to Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln respectively.
Consider the criticism leveled against Senator Clinton. Citing her high negatives—extremely high given that it’s not even general election time—critics have said she is simply too polarizing to be elected.
Indeed there is considerable evidence that Clinton is a divisive figure. Polls show around 40% of Americans wouldn’t vote for her under any circumstance. Such a figure is much higher than her main challengers for the democratic nomination, Obama and Edwards. In light of such numbers, the Democrats have every right to be worried.
But I’m not sure if those negatives will keep her out of the White House. When Reagan was running against Jimmy Carter for the first time, plenty of pundits thought he was too divisive a figure to win. And a divisive figure he was. During the election, many on the left—particularly members of the civil rights establishment—predicted the apocalypse if he won. Moreover, even though he is a popular figure now, it should be remembered that his domestic agenda was extremely polarizing while he was in office. Yet Reagan did win in 1980 and was reelected in 1984.
Of course Reagan also ran under favorable circumstances. Jimmy Carter was an unpopular incumbent in 1980. And the economy boomed during much of term, allowing the public to overlook the scandals, and his controversial stances on civil rights, AIDS, and apartheid. But Reagan’s success clearly shows that someone with high negatives can win.
Obama’s detractors, including his opponents for the nomination have argued strenuously that a man with only two years of experience in national office is not ready to govern. Most notably, Mrs. Clinton called him “irresponsible and frankly naïve” for promising to meet with rogue leaders in his first year in office. Since then, every time he differs with establishment dogma on an issue, he is charged with not having enough experience to be President.
Having years of experience is no guarantee of a good Presidency, however. Just ask James Buchanan, John Quincy Adams, or Herbert Hoover (remember learning about them in history class?). Their resumes were as deep as any. But they accomplished nothing in office. Hoover is famous for presiding over the first years of the Great Depression, while Adams accomplished more as a congressman fighting slavery late in his life than he ever did as a President. The worst of the lot is Buchanan, who let the Union crumble around him in the 1850s.
In fact, it is good judgment that makes a good President. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was at least as inexperienced as Obama. He had only served one term in the House of Representatives. Despite his lack of experience, Lincoln persevered through the civil war and made the country whole again. These examples prove one thing: an inexperienced man with good judgment can be a good President, but all the experience in the world can’t make a person with bad judgment a good leader.
It can well be argued that Obama has that sort of judgment. During the run-up to the war in Iraq—when Bush’s approval ratings were through the roof—Obama gave an extremely prescient speech, declaring, “invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda.” Too bad there weren’t more people in Congress with that kind of foresight.
The analogy isn’t perfect. Not even Clinton’s most ardent backers would argue that she is as charismatic as Reagan. The world is also a different place now then it was in 1860. Who knows how Abraham Lincoln would have done in an era where the US is the world’s superpower? But there are enough similarities to make the analogy hold. In the next months, Democrats will chose whether they want someone like Ronald Reagan or someone like Abraham Lincoln to be their nominee.