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Romney as Nixon? 2012 Carries Unsettling Echoes for GOP

Romney as Nixon? 2012 Carries Unsettling Echoes for GOP

By Sean Trende - December 21, 2011


Throughout this seemingly endless election season, analysts have thrown out a variety of historical analogies to help explain the current race. Some have suggested that this election is like 1948's (the one postwar example we have of a president winning re-election amid a sluggish economy), while others have looked to 1980, where a strong conservative defied the oddsmakers' bets and defeated an incumbent the country perceived as hyper-liberal.

One year that has received scant attention is 1968.  Michael Barone recently suggested this parallel -- in the context of the Occupy Wall Street protests -- during a panel discussion we both participated in.  The OWS protests have since died down, and weren’t widespread enough to engender the same type of “silent majority” backlash that the counterculture protests of the late ’60s did.  But I do think there are a few parallels between 1968 and today, which evoke Ghosts of Elections Past, Present and Future. 

The first parallel between the two elections is the presence of a GOP front-runner who has no clear political compass.  Like Mitt Romney today, no one really knew what to make of Richard Nixon in 1968.  In the 1940s and early 1950s he was known for his hard-charging anti-communism.  Dwight Eisenhower had added Nixon to the Republican ticket in 1952 in large part for precisely this reason: to help placate the more conservative wing of the Republican Party, which was furious with Eisenhower for defeating their favored candidate, Robert Taft.

By 1960, Nixon had shifted toward the moderate, establishment “Tom Dewey” wing of the GOP.  It reached a point where we can aptly describe the 1960 election as a sort of “Seinfeld election”: It was an election about nothing.  Nixon and Kennedy agreed on most issues, and Kennedy was actually to the right of Nixon on several foreign policy issues (remember, Kennedy was the only Democrat to miss the vote to censure Joe McCarthy; Bobby Kennedy served as McCarthy’s counsel for a brief time).

By 1968, we had the “New Nixon.”  This version was something of a straddle between the older, more conservative Nixon and the more moderate Nixon of the early ’60s.  On most issues -- including civil rights, the Vietnam War, economic development, domestic unrest -- Nixon positioned himself roughly halfway between the Johnson administration and the Goldwater candidacy.  By this point, no one, perhaps not even the candidate himself, really knew which Nixon was the “real” Nixon, just as I’m not sure anyone is really certain where Romney’s core lies.

The second parallel relates to the state of the present race.  Due to distrust of Nixon, the Republican Party went through a series of “not Nixon” alternatives.    The problem the GOP kept running into in its search for an electable “not Nixon” is the same one the current party is finding in its quest for a “not Romney”: Its bench had been decimated in the 1958 and 1964 elections.  There was a crop of up-and-coming Republicans as a result of the 1966 midterm landslide, but none really had the experience to be seen as a credible nominee.  And so the GOP had to select from a pool of also-rans and weak candidates.

The first “not Nixon” was actually Mitt Romney’s father, George.  He was the governor of Michigan and ran as the antiwar candidate.  He actually gained quite a bit of traction, and at his peak came within a few points of Nixon.  You can probably guess what his problem was, though.  He had flip-flopped on the Vietnam War, which led to his memorable claim that he had been “brainwashed” into supporting the war originally.  It was downhill from there.

After Romney’s candidacy collapsed, the party turned to Nelson Rockefeller.  The New York governor, who anchored the more liberal wing of the party, probably would have been the nominee in 1964 had he not left his wife and four children in 1962 for a woman nearly 20 years his junior, who gave birth to a child shortly before the crucial California primary.  Like many late entrants, Rockefeller failed to catch fire in 1968, and Nixon gained steam. 

Finally, the party looked to one of its recent converts, Ronald Reagan.  Reagan actually won a plurality of the national primary vote on the strength of his win in California (home state to both himself and Nixon), and had he gotten in earlier he might have really tested Nixon.  But Reagan ultimately failed to derail the front-runner.

The last effort to stop Nixon came at the convention, where Reagan and Rockefeller sought to broker a joint ticket that could win on the convention floor. But neither could agree who would be president and who would be vice president.  And so -- and this is where it remains to be seen whether history will repeat itself -- in the end the party heaved a heavy sigh, shrugged its shoulders, and turned to Nixon. 

This brings us to a third parallel.  It is only a potential parallel at this point, as the Republicans haven’t nominated Romney, and we haven’t seen what his general election campaign would look like.  But given the Nixonian similarities, this offers something of a cautionary tale for Republicans.

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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