The embattled Republican president is besieged by hostile Democrats and an even more hostile media, who regard him as politically dubious (he was, after all, elected with less than a majority of the popular vote), ideologically out of step (he is deemed “wrong” on the big issues of the day), and personally gauche, even repulsive (the mocking of his physical appearance is perhaps the most savage in American history).
On the other hand, the White House incumbent has resources on his side. First off, he has his own proven drive and will to win. Second, he has the ability to communicate with the American people, going over the heads of his detractors to reach the majority in the Heartland. Moreover, as his most ardent opponents up the ante in their attacks, they risk overplaying their hand. One could even say there is an inverse dynamic: the more the president is loathed by his foes, the more he is loved by his fans.
So we see a political standoff, one side vs. the other—the kind that can be settled only by an election. The American people will soon have their say.
Does this sound like a description of the upcoming 2018 midterm elections? Yes, it does, but it also describes the situation in the 1970 midterms.
Forty-eight years ago, the Republican president was Richard Nixon. He had been elected two years earlier, in 1968, with just 43 percent of the vote, eking his way to victory in a three-way contest.
In 1970, the hottest issue was the unpopular Vietnam War. Nixon had “inherited” the war from his Democrat predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, and now, he was determined to wind it down. Yet the 37th president was committed to “peace with honor”—that is, a withdrawal that guaranteed the independence of South Vietnam. By contrast, the Democrats, who had mostly supported the war when it was being fought by a Democrat, had begun shifting to a “peace now!” platform, calling for immediate withdrawal, South Vietnam be damned. And the media were even more dovish—some would say, defeatist.
As for Nixon the man, well, the critics had an all-purpose phrase for him—“Tricky Dick”—and his image in political cartoons was even worse; he was, in the depictions of his opponents, a monstrously ugly warmonger.
Interestingly, the hinge moments for the 1970 election had come late in the prior year. On November 3, 1969, Nixon had delivered a nationally televised speech, in which he called for gradually turning the burden of the fighting over to the South Vietnamese. And in appealing to ordinary Americans, he used an instantly memorable phrase, “silent majority”:
And so tonight—to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans—I ask for your support. I pledged in my campaign for the Presidency to end the war in a way that we could win the peace. I have initiated a plan of action which will enable me to keep that pledge. The more support I can have from the American people, the sooner that pledge can be redeemed.
So here was the president asking for support for a moderate policy; the U.S. would get the U.S. out of the war by “Vietnamizing” it, over a period of years. And yet at the same time, what Nixon would not do is turn tail, abandoning the previous sacrifice of blood and treasure; he was not going to give a victory to the communists in North Vietnam nor to the radical protesters in America—or, as they liked to call it, “Amerika.”
The effect of the speech on the silent majority was electric; according to Gallup, support for Nixon’s policy surged to 77 percent.
Yet there was one distinct subgroup that was utterly unmoved: the media. Reporters and commentators mostly panned Nixon’s speech, just as they had been mostly panning Nixon.
It was at this moment that the Nixon administration made its second key move: the president’s speech on policy was followed up with a vice presidential speech on politics.
On November 13, 1969, just ten days after Nixon’s address, Vice President Spiro Agnew spoke in Des Moines; his topic was media coverage of the speech. Agnew lamented that it was “subjected to instant analysis and querulous criticism”; he added, “It was obvious that their minds were made up in advance.” That is, the pressies and pundits were hostile to Nixon before the speech and just as hostile afterwards. In the meantime, as Agnew spoke, calling out the media, the audience in Des Moines was loving it.
The White House saw immediately that Agnew had hit the political jackpot. Indeed, a clever division of labor emerged within the White House: Nixon would give thoughtful speeches on high policy, and Agnew would dish out the red meat; it was a great one-two.
Soon Agnew sharpened his message, using snapper language, such as “vultures,” “impudent snobs,” “hysterical hypochondriacs of history,” and perhaps the all-time Agnew alliterative apostrophe, “nattering nabobs of negativism.” Soon, at least on the right, the new catchphrase was “Spiro our Hero.”
In the meantime, the popular culture was vibrating with new populist energy, aimed at the same coastal elites that Agnew had been egging. Merle Haggard’s anthemic song, “Okie from Muskogee,” was released in September 1969, and it went to the top of the charts, at least in what we now know as red states. Sample lyric: “I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee/A place where even squares can have a ball/We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse.”
Smart observers, even on the left, were soon realizing that something new was stirring. In January 1970, Time magazine named “Middle America” as its “Man of the Year.” As the magazine wrote, “In a time of dissent and confrontation, the most striking new factor was the emergence of the so-called ‘Silent Majority’ as a powerfully assertive force in U.S. society.”
Yet for their part, the Democrats, at least at the national level, chose to ignore the rumbling thunder from the Heartland. Instead, they continued on the angry leftward track they had gotten themselves onto, and that included trashing not only the president, but also America itself. For instance, Sen. Walter Mondale (D-MN), the future presidential candidate, declared, “The sickening truth is that this country is rapidly coming to resemble South Africa.” (This was at a time when the U.S. had enacted three major pieces of civil rights legislation in the last decade.)
As a result, many of the 1970 midterm campaigns were a clear culture clash—increasingly populist Republicans vs. increasingly elitist Democrats—a clash of the sort that would be familiar to observers today.
And in the actual midterm balloting, the GOP gained a net of two Senate seats. Moreover, another Senate seat went to James Buckley; although formally a member of the New York State Conservative Party, he happily caucused with the Republicans.
Admittedly, in the same 1970 elections, the GOP lost House seats, although only a dozen. So we can see: the ’70 midterms were a draw—and for the party in the White House, a draw is a victory.
Interestingly, the Democrats chose to learn nothing from the 1970 elections. And so going into 1972, the dynamic was similar: the national Democrats put themselves on the angry left (by contrast, local Democrats, with no national ambitions, wisely stayed closer to home, politically), while the Republicans occupied the center-right.
Not surprisingly, the ’70 elections proved to be an overture to the ’72 elections, when the Democrats nominated the far-left Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota. The result: the Nixon-Agnew ticket won a 49-state re-election victory.
Okay, so now to the midterms today, in which Democrats seem determined to relive their own less-than-successful history. As anyone can see, the Democrats are moving well to the left ideologically. Moreover, stylistically, they are becoming edgier and meaner. Stylistically? As in, style and temperament? Yes, here’s looking at you, Rep. Maxine Waters! And ditto, all those protesters stalking and insulting Trump administration officials—you know who you are. Everything you are doing in 2018 is an echo of what was done by like-minded radicals in the early 70s, and we know how that turned out.
In terms of actual issues, the hottest flashpoint, of course, is “Abolish ICE.” Since the June 28 New York Democratic primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, closing down Immigrations and Customs Enforcement has become the Next Big Thing for avant-garde Democrats. Hence the June 29 headline in Politico: “2020 Dems join anti-ICE stampede.”
Fair-minded observers know that abolishing border control is the same as abolishing the country; after all, there are 127 million people in Mexico and another 470 million in Central and South America. How many of them would move to the U.S. if they could? And that’s just the Americas; the world has billions more who might like to live here, if they didn’t have to worry about being hassled by ICE.
No wonder cooler heads are counseling the Democrats to knock it off. In the words of Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page, “The “Abolish ICE” slogan gives ammunition to the president.” And CNN’s Julian Zelizer went further: “Democrats are making a massive political mistake by calling for the end of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).”
Indeed, even the Never Trumpers have gotten the message; in the words of one of them, Pete Wehner:
Democrats are taking a winning moral issue (not separating children from parents) and turning it into a losing political one (eliminating ICE/Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency). If they keep this up they may have a replay of 2016 on their hands [emphasis added].
To be sure, the smarter Democrat pols are saying they merely wish to “reform” ICE. Yet unless the Democrat Party takes an unambiguous stand against ICE-abolition—which it seems unwilling to do, for fear of offending its ideological activists, the ones who can win Democratic primaries—then the issue sits in the middle of the road, high, wide, and handsome. Handsome for Republicans, that is.
With the ’18 elections in mind, President Trump is already pounding away on the ICE issue; here is just one of his tweets:
Many Democrats are deeply concerned about the fact that their “leadership” wants to denounce and abandon the great men and women of ICE, thereby declaring war on Law & Order. These people will be voting for Republicans in November and, in many cases, joining the Republican Party!
And it’s a safe bet that there will be many more.
Yes, to this observer, surveying the scene of 2018, there’s a whiff of 1970 in the air.
And as we know, 1970 was the overture to 1972.