The nation’s political mood is shifting dramatically, and the campaign press has yet to notice the change. Simply put, mass alienation with politics as usual — a morphed incarnation of Perotism — is returning in force. This has the potential to reshape significantly the contours of Campaign 2008, and is the reason that John McCain and the relatively unknown Mike Huckabee are being pushed into major contention. So why has this potentially transforming development been ignored?
Campaign reporters tend to track only candidates, activists, and pundits, all of whom think the two-party politics-as-usual system works. Often, that sensibility matches the public mood, as it did in 2006: if you don’t like the Republicans, the Democrats will do.
But that’s not the dynamic any longer. President Bush’s approval ratings are near historic lows — 24 percent in the latest Reuters/Zogby poll. Yet the ratings for the Democrat-controlled Congress are even lower — an astonishing 11 percent. Away from the buzz of the campaign, many voters aren’t keen on any politician, or at least any of the usual suspects. Even Stephen Colbert drew 13 percent in a recent Rasmussen poll proposing a three-way race with Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani.
We’ve been here before, of course. In 1976, despite the trauma of Watergate and the Vietnam War, reporters and the campaign establishments assumed the campaign would be par for the course. We had the populist candidate (Fred Harris), the liberal (Mo Udall), even a candidate who ran as an insider (Birch Bayh), and so on.
The voters threw them overboard, though, and almost unseated incumbent president Gerald Ford in the primaries with a conservative renegade named Ronald Reagan. Eventually, they opted for the one candidate — Jimmy Carter — whose calling card was that he was so far removed from the mess in Washington that he just might be able to clean it up.
In 1992, another year of alienation, H. Ross Perot bore more than a passing resemblance to Carter. He didn’t sound like a typical politician, often speaking, as Carter had, like an engineer and businessman. Both Perot and Carter were graduates of the Naval Academy, which helped give them similar philosophies of management, and they both promised non-ideological, non-political solutions that would break government gridlock. They ran, really, as radical centrists.
World turned upside down
The mood this year increasingly resembles those of ’76 and ’92. Still, few candidates have adjusted their campaign strategies. The three main Democratic contenders are running as if it were 2006, parlaying the “sweep the bums out” platform that worked then with conventional Democratic political solutions to our problems. Giuliani, Thompson, and Romney may have differing approaches, but they still come across as traditional politicians.
Three of this year’s candidates, however, have assumed innovative postures, and they may be the ones to watch. Ron Paul — whose brand of libertarianism isn’t that different from aspects of Perotism (Paul and Perot are both from Texas) — is not going to win the presidency. But he’s already surprised everyone with the depth of his support and fundraising.