The 2016 Presidential contest invites comparisons to elections gone by. The large GOP field looks to me like 1980, when Ronald Reagan paraded his colleagues as props on stage in Nashua to confront a moderator who wanted a debate between the top two candidates, he and Bush. If they knew they were props they were thankful at that point for the inclusion. Turns out George Bush was the real prop in the exchange that brought Reagan back from his loss in Iowa.
“I paid for this microphone, Mr. Green!” Mr. Breen, not Green, turned out to be a prop bump (like speed bump) on the way to the presidency. Big ROI on that mike.
A hybrid of Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Sanders if you will – a fiery populist screed coming from the mouth of a governor who looks like a president – might be a stand in for the Kennedy run against a Hillary Clinton playing it Jimmy Carter safe. If only she could sneak into the Rose Garden and sit it out. Nothing to see here folks. Keep moving.
But back to the main event. In 1980 there were seven candidates who made it out of the starting gate to Iowa, with Reagan in the front. He had run formally in 1976 and informally before that. He was ahead in all the polls. He faced an accomplished field: George Bush, Howard Baker, Bob Dole, John Connally and a pair of congressmen, John Anderson and Phil Crane.
Who doesn’t love a huge field? Democracy! Except we don’t. It’s too much. We want a contest. O’Sanders is getting pretty good play while we kick the tires on Hillary’s inevitability. Even the Clinton camp thinks this “contest” nonsense could get out of hand. Or haven’t you read about Senator Sanders’ salacious youthful musings on bondage and rape?
But those candidates on stage in Nashua on February 23, 1980 were props in the narrowing of the field. Reagan’s invitation wasn’t to expand the field in the nation’s second contest, but to narrow it further, by squeezing the oxygen out of the Bush bubble launched with his Iowa victory. Reagan did lose Iowa, 27% to 33% for Bush, with Baker at 14%, Connally at 10%, Crane at 7%, Anderson at 4% and Dole at 3%. but he went on to win 44 states to Bush’s 6. Beating Bush in New Hampshire by more than two to one was the game.
It makes sense in hindsight that it was Reagan and Bush. But Bush, despite his resume, was not well known. The real story that might have been was Howard Baker. He was a folksier Bush, a better connection with the electorate, one could argue, in Iowa and New Hampshire. But the political horse race has little room for more than two horses.
One caveat to that: There is always room for the candidate who speaks the truth. The one who will surely lose but his or her supporters will be eternally proud to have supported. Ron Paul. Jerry Brown. John Anderson. Anderson came to national prominence during the Des Moines Register debate. Reagan absented himself and Anderson said, “How do you balance the budget, cut taxes, and increase defense spending at the same time? It’s very simple, you do it with mirrors.” 1 Mike Doonsbury joined his campaign after that. Chris Christie, cautioning us on the solvency of the social security system will be receiving the John Anderson talk alike award this year.
So we don’t really have a Reagan, the front runner way ahead of the pack. In a “can’t we get off this treadmill” political world it’s probably Jeb Bush. Who’s the Bush to Bush’s Reagan? And keep an eye on who’s playing Howard Baker. My early money is on Carly Fiorina.
Next time: The fight over who can be Pat Robertson
1. “the Pursuit of the Presidency, 1980. The GOP; Lou Cannon. Pg 137