The Upcoming Competence Election

Historians have frequently observed the cyclical nature of American presidential politics.  For example, they have noted that every 30-40 years, we are blessed with a great political leader (Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, TR, FDR, Kennedy, Reagan). They have also noted that people are distrustful of leaving a particular party in power for too long, and have only once in the last 60 years given the presidency to the same party for three terms in a row.  

Historians have not, however, commented on the tendency for the American electorate to choose a President who most embodies a change from the prior President, especially when the outgoing President is perceived as deeply flawed.  Yet this tendency is real, and it sheds important light on the likely outcome of the upcoming presidential election.

Consider the presidential elections of the past 50 years or so.  In 1960, Americans looked at President Eisenhower and saw a lion in winter.  In his last four years, Ike had suffered a minor stroke — leaving him with a slight speech impediment — and had undergone intestinal surgery following a diagnosis with Crohn’s disease.  Ike was 70 years old in 1960, and while personally popular, seemed unable to cope with a deep recession, a resurgent Soviet Union, and a scandal involving his chief of staff and a vicuña coat.  America replaced him with a young, energetic and healthy (in appearances only, we later learned) senator from Massachusetts to be their leader going into the new decade.

In 1968, Richard Nixon and his demure daughters seemed just what the country needed after the social upheavals that accompanied the Johnson Administration.  After Watergate, a plainspoken man from Plains who promised that he would never lie to the American people was just what America wanted.  But after four years, the American people saw in Jimmy Carter an inept President who fled from Iranian militants, Soviet expansion, and killer bunnies, and who urged Americans to wear sweaters in response to the energy crisis.  They replaced him with an optimistic westerner who wanted to face down the Soviet Union and who assured America that her brightest days were ahead.

Such a commanding figure was Ronald Reagan that Americans opted against change at the end of his Presidency, essentially giving him a third term through his Vice President, George H.W. Bush.  But Bush could not fill the shoes of Reagan, and appeared old and out of touch.  With a little help from a quirky Texas billionaire, an average Bubba from Arkansas was elected.  After eight years of Clinton’s indiscretions, Americans chose a born-again, teetotaling Texan to occupy the White House.

It seems unlikely today that the American people will want to extend George Bush’s presidency, given his current approval numbers.  So what aspect of George W. Bush will the American people react against?  What characteristic will the un-Bush have to be perceived as embodying in 2008?  

Unfair as it might be, many Americans look at the current President, and see a man who is personally decent, but overwhelmed by the job.  They look at the War in Iraq, the response to Hurricane Katrina, and the out-of-control deficits of the past 6 years and do not see an Administration in control.  Some of this is deserved, much of it is not, but the bottom line is that, first and foremost, Americans will be measuring the presidential candidates in 2008 by their perceived ability to manage the country.  In other words, this election will be about competence.

As fortune would have it, this plays to the Republican candidates’ strengths.  Consider Rudy Giuliani, the current Republican front-runner, and a man who took a city that no one thought could be saved and turned it around in a short number of years.  Compare and contrast the local response to 9-11 with the local response to Hurricane Katrina, and there is little doubt that New Yorkers’ calm response was not inevitable, and that the Giuliani Administration’s excessive competence had much to do with this.

Or consider Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.  Romney turned around an Olympic games that seemed doomed to failure.  Then as a Republican governor in a state that is famous for its liberalism, he worked with the legislature to get a market-based approach to health insurance passed, resolved a massive budget deficit, and calmed the public after a calamity in the “Big Dig” highway tunnels.  Romney oozes confidence and competence — as a friend of mine (who now works for the governor) once commented to me: “You just hear him talk, and you think everything will be alright.”

Second-tier Republicans, such as Tommy Thompson and Mike Huckabee have similar track records, as both led states that leaned blue (Arkansas is really only red at the Presidential level) for periods of over ten years.  Ironically, the candidate who is probably hurt the most by this is Sen. John McCain, whose “straight talk express” could have inspired people when faced with Bill Clinton’s Vice President, but who may not be what people who are now hoping to “get things done” in the next four years are looking for.

What do the Democrats have in response?  John Edwards, whose political experience consists of a single undistinguished term in the Senate?  Barack Obama, who says the right things, but has a political resume that is thinner even than Edwards’?  Hillary Clinton, whom many equate first and foremost with the healthcare debacle of 1994? The congressman from Cleveland who bears an uncanny resemblance to a garden gnome?

Ironically, in what is likely to be the best opportunity for the Democrats to capture the White House in a landslide in 40 years, they have put forth a slate of legislators with thin resumes and who will not appeal to the American people’s underlying desire for executive leadership.  There are two Democratic candidates who could possibly fill that role:  New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson — who has been an exceedingly competent governor — and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack.  But both are solidly in the second tier of Democratic candidates at this point.  

If neither of those two breaks out of the pack, Democrats may find themselves without a candidate who possesses the character trait the American people are most looking for, a trait the Republican candidate will likely have in spades.  The competence and leadership qualities the American people are searching for may also fit in well with another cycle in American politics — after all, it has been roughly 30 years since the last great American President was elected.