Bunches of stuff has happened since I last posted. John Edwards has entered the Presidential race and former President Gerald Ford passed on. The latter has garnered the most press and I’ve read quite a bit of it. One story in particular that caught my attention was a piece in The New Republic by Jonathan Chait that theorizes the world would be a different place, quite possibly a better place, for Democrats had Gerald Ford won his bid for re-election in 1976.
It was Ford’s narrow loss to Jimmy Carter in 1976 that enabled the subsequent radicalization of the Republican Party. Carter was a mediocre president, and he came into office under terrible conditions–stagflation, an energy crisis, the wake of a losing war–under which no president could have succeeded. His inevitable failure paved the way for Americans to elect Ronald Reagan. And after Reagan, a new orthodoxy took hold in the Republican Party that celebrated deficit-financed tax cuts, ultra-nationalistic foreign policy and a cynical culture war.
If Ford had managed to win in 1976, it would have been Republicans who were saddled with the stagflation mess. And a Democrat probably would have won the presidency in 1980 and presided over the expansion that followed. (Stagflation was solved when the Arab oil embargo collapsed and the Federal Reserve induced a recession that crushed inflation.)
So we can now see that 1976 was a great year to let the other party win. With the passions of Watergate running high, the election seemed really important, but it probably had negative importance: Democrats lost by winning.
Fascinating stuff, huh? I’ve always had an interest in alternate history and this hypothesis is a prime example. Ford wins in ’76. He presides over a terrible economy. By 1980, the American public has had about enough of Republican rule. Ronald Reagan barely manages to register on the electoral radar and a Democrat – some Democrat – cruises to victory in that year’s presidential election. The question is, which Democrat? My thought is Ted Kennedy.
Now, I’m not a real big fan of Ted Kennedy but I’m also not a denier of reality or, in this case, alternate reality. Kennedy had momentum in his primary battle with Jimmy Carter in 198o. Had Carter lost to Ford in 1976, and assuming he had the desire to run in this alternate history, Kennedy cruises to the nomination and the Presidency.
Could any of this had happened? You bet! As Chait wrote, Ford was a”raging moderate” by the standard of our times. Ford opposed deficits, and he vetoed spending hikes and tax cuts alike. His recently released comments criticizing the Iraq war (made in a 2004 interview but embargoed until after his death) show how alien he found the current president’s reckless foreign policy. In his post-presidential career, Ford emerged as a critic of the religious right and an advocate of political reforms, both of which placed him far to the left of today’s GOP.
In other words, Ford had the political sense to win. If he’d been a better politician, he would have pulled the election of ’76 out and, in doing so, doomed the GOP to the political wilderness on the presidential level. And we may have had another President Kennedy in Reagan’s place.