Archive for Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Clinton support still key

June 4, 2008


Gerald Ford went to his grave believing that Ronald Reagan's challenge for the Republican presidential nomination cost him the White House in 1976. In truth, Reagan sharpened Ford as a candidate, much as Hillary Clinton's campaign has sharpened Barack Obama in 2008. What damaged Ford in his effort to overtake Democrat Jimmy Carter was not what Reagan did to him in the spring of 1976 but what he failed to do in the fall. Similarly, the question now is what role Clinton will play after Obama has formally secured the nomination.

Echoes of 1976

The roller-coaster nature of this year's marathon contest for the Democratic nomination has many echoes of the GOP race of 1976. While Ford had the advantage of incumbency, he was to the GOP's conservative wing an accidental president who held the office only because Richard Nixon had been forced to resign.

These conservatives favored Reagan, who was expected to win the first primary, in New Hampshire. But Ford upset Reagan, as Obama upset Clinton in this year's Iowa caucuses, and he parlayed his victory into a string of primary wins. Ford's nomination seemed assured until Reagan climbed off the mat and won the North Carolina primary. That began a protracted struggle, as Clinton's comeback win in New Hampshire did in this year's Democratic race. Reagan won a slew of primaries in important states, as Clinton has, without ever quite catching Ford, who was nominated at the Republican National Convention in Kansas City by little more than a hundred votes.

By the time he became the nominee, Ford was a better candidate than he would have been without the Reagan challenge, much as Obama has benefited from Clinton's challenge. In 1976, Ford had never run for office beyond his Grand Rapids congressional district; while an estimable human being and an underrated president, he was a plodding campaigner and often a dreadful public speaker. His speechwriters once tried to improve his delivery by writing the words "WITH EMPHASIS" in the margin of his text. Ford, denouncing something or other as "nonsense," incorporated the notes into his speech and told a startled audience: "I say to you this is nonsense with emphasis!"

Challenge helped Ford

More significantly, Reagan's challenge forced Ford to dismiss an inept campaign manager and bring in such able political operatives as Stuart K. Spencer, the foremost Republican strategist, and James A. Baker, later a major player in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. They teamed with pollster Robert Teeter and Ford's chief of staff, Dick Cheney, to organize an effective campaign. Ford, his stump skills honed by Reagan, bested Carter in their first debate on domestic issues. In the second debate, Ford made a celebrated gaffe, claiming that Poland was not dominated by the Soviet Union, which broke his momentum. Even so, Ford rallied from a 19-point deficit at convention time to lose to Carter by less than 2 percentage points.

Afterward, Ford complained, correctly, that Reagan did not help him sufficiently in the fall. Reagan had endorsed the ticket, but only grudgingly. Ford, in his memoirs, described Reagan's performance in their only joint appearance as "lukewarm"; in fact, having attended this event in Beverly Hills, I think this overstated the temperature.

During the general election battle, Ford asked Reagan to campaign for him in four Southern states; Reagan pleaded prior commitments. In one of those states, Mississippi, Carter won by fewer than 15,000 votes. It's possible that Reagan, who was popular there, might have made the difference. More involvement by Reagan would at a minimum have freed Ford from spending as much time as he did in Carter's home region and allowed him to campaign more in Ohio, which he lost by a little more than 11,000 votes. If Ford had carried Ohio and Mississippi, he would have been elected.

Ford rose above bitterness

While many in Ford's inner circle remained bitter about the role Reagan played, Ford, with a characteristic generosity of spirit, forgave Reagan and worked tirelessly for his election in 1980. When I asked why he was doing so much, Ford said simply that Reagan would be a better president than Carter. He never deviated from this view, even though he and Carter subsequently became close friends.

Barack Obama now is the presumptive Democratic nominee, and there is little doubt that Hillary Clinton will endorse him. The big question is whether she will campaign hard for Obama among constituencies where she can help him. Put another way: Will she choose to be Ronald Reagan in 1976 or Gerald Ford in 1980?

The outcome of the election could depend on the answer.

- Lou Cannon covered the 1976 presidential campaign for The Post. He has written several books on Ronald Reagan and, most recently, co-authored "Reagan's Disciple: George W. Bush's Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy" with his son, Carl M. Cannon.


cato_the_elder 10 years ago

A thoughtful commentary by a veteran political analyst who has always been one of the best. I'm not sure, however, that the analogy he draws is entirely accurate, although the support, or lack thereof, from the Clinton camp is indeed the question of the day for Democrats. Of greatest concern to many independents is that if Senator Obama were to choose her as a running mate, given the Obamas' obvious (and more than justified) hostility toward the Clintons and the extremely raw feelings involved on both sides, it would be proven once and for all that the only "change" he really desires is to put himself in power. In my view, it would enhance his position considerably with independents were he to reject her apparent overtures and look elsewhere. The number of Clinton supporters lost would still be less than those who would be furious with her for partnering up with him at all.

Richard Heckler 10 years ago

Vice Presidential Suggestions: Two are republicans. One is a fabulous news talk show woman that definitely represents straight talk.Maria CantwellKathleen Sebelius Susan CollinsOlympia SnoweLaura FlandersDebbie Stabenow Clinton would be more effective as a powerful senator from New York.Men must over 90% in the house,senate and cabinet positions as we speak. Now we have illegally occupied a country, Bush and Cheney are liars,old soldier McCain does not support vets,thedollars is going down the tubes,GM is moving to China,Patriots Act,No Child Left Behind and the list goes on.Then there are concerns that mostly men have created or have been involved in:In the last 7 years McCain blindly supports a party with a history of Iran-Contra,Savings and Loan Scandal,Sub Prime Scandal,parties supporting a lying president/illegal occupation of another country,spying on americans at will,president lying about social security ... 05orr.htmland the killing or injury of at least 1,000,000 Iraq people is wayyy beyond me.Other concerns are: Bring all the troops home. The Iraq people know how to rebuild a country and run an oil business. Their oil is not our oil.40,000 disabled troops 4,000 dead troops Vet benefits 1,000,000 dead Iraq men,women and Children A WASHED OUT ECONOMY Bailing Out Wall Street and Fortune 500 companies Creating new industry that cannot be outsourced Cleaner Energy Sources National Health Insurance Dumping No Child Left Behind Restoring Rights of Americans that republicans took away Reining in the power of the President Restoring the EPA Acts that the republican wiped out Restoring the USDA to a credible agency that places consumers over special interest money Voter Rights NOT special interest rights:Campaigns go too long,spend way too much money and do not necessarily provide the best available.It is up to us to stop the nonsense at the voting booths on the 2008 ballot.Not voting sends the wrong message and changes nothing.Lets's demand a new system and vote in Fair Vote America : a change on the 2008 ballot.We need public financing of campaigns. Citizens cannot afford special interest money campaigns for it is the citizens that get left out. would be against Public Funding?FYI:http://www.factcheck.orgAs is noted above the mostly men controlled government have been very busy creating concerns.I've always wondered what if women were the majority in Washington D.C.? All that can be done is to speculate until women have the chance.

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