The 2008 presidential campaign is starting to take on the contours of the 1980 race. Jimmy Carter was the Democratic candidate back then. He also happened to be the incumbent president. Beyond that difference with today and its term-limited George Bush, there are eerie resemblances between then and now.
Yes, the economy stunk in 1980 and smells fairly fragrant now. But recall that the "national malaise" of the economy in 1980 was not the fundamental reason Carter lost. Polls showed he still had a chance. They also pointed to the issue that did him in — the Iranian hostage crisis.
Drop the "n" in "Iran" and replace it with a "q" and you have what the 2008 race is all about: Iraq. That’s keeping Americans’ focus off of the strong economy and off of domestic problems like illegal immigration.
Following are some 2008 variations on the 1980 theme.
First, the Democrats: Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York wears the political mantle of a presidential incumbent, even though she isn’t one. She lived in the White House and seems to feel it her right and privilege to go back, and without serious Democratic opposition for the party’s nomination.
Jimmy Carter really was the incumbent. Like most incumbents, he thought it only fitting that he stay in office, and certainly without Democratic opposition. But primary opposition from Democratic superstar Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts stunned Carter.
Now, Clinton appears suddenly set off-balance by the queue of Democratic presidential aspirants challenging her. One of them, Illinois Senator Barack Obama, appears to be separating himself from several other dark horses.
I’ve already written that Clinton likely will be the eventual nominee, but she’s not without problems. It’s been painful to watch her try to connect with "regular people" in Iowa, where she’s been stumping in that state so important for its presidential caucuses. Her sometimes flustered answers to questions about awkward subjects like her early support for the Iraq war reminded me of Ted Kennedy’s bouts of inarticulateness in 1980.
He sat for a TV interview with Roger Mudd, CBS’s iconic broadcaster. Mudd asked an apparently softball question to the effect of why did Kennedy want to be president. Kennedy’s memorable "Er…ah… well, let me say this about that" gibberish answer helped kill his chances early on.
Now, the Republicans: Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is the choice of the GOP establishment. Just look to Florida, where the president’s brother Jeb just completed two terms as governor. It’s clear that Jeb’s substantial political machine in that critical state is now part of the Romney campaign.
That same phenomenon is happening in other states. Longtime Bush family associates are springing up as Romney boosters.
Remember, too, however, that "Ronald Reagan" was considered a dirty phrase among Republican royalty in 1980, when Reagan eventually won the GOP nomination over early front-runners George H. W. Bush and John Connally.
This year’s Reagan is Senator John McCain of Arizona. His maverick style is largely unpopular with Republican brass — but not with voters, who generally place him first in most presidential polls.
Nipping at his heels is former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. Both have big followings among moderates and independents who lean Republican.
Then there are the heirs to the Reagan Revolution. McCain and his populism is one. Another is former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, whose name continues to pop up as a candidate, even though he has not announced that he’s running. (Regarding last week’s column: Newt didn’t give back the money he received from a Vegas businessman. And no, it won’t matter because it’ll be forgotten long before it really matters.)
Here’s one last name to add to the mix. Republican California Congressman Duncan Hunter. He is running on a shoestring budget, but he’s tapped into growing skepticism among conservatives over so-called free trade, from which countries like China seem to get all the benefit.
Hunter also wants not one, but several fences along the U.S.-Mexico border.
He may be too extreme even for some GOP ultra-conservatives. And yet, he might loosen things up enough to force the other candidates to produce from among themselves a real Republican candidate with new, real ideas.
Just like in 1980.