In his classic of gonzo journalism Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 (New York: Warner, 1973), Hunter S. Thompson said the following:
The reason Nixon put Agnew and the Goldwater freaks in charge of the party this year is that he knows they can’t win in ’76—but it was a good short-term trade; they have to stay with him this year, which will probably be worth a point of two in November—and that’s important to Nixon, because he thinks it’s going to be close… But the real reason he turned the party over the Agnew/Goldwater wing is that he knows most of the old-line Democrats who just got stomped by McGovern for the nomination wouldn’t mind seeing George get taken out in ’72 if they know they can get back in the saddle if they’re willing to wait four years. (pp. 319-320)
He went on to say,
But the thing you have to understand is that Nixon has such a fine understanding of the way politicians think that he knew people like Daley and Meany and Ted Kennedy would go along with him—because it’s in their interest now to have Nixon get his second term, in exchange for a guaranteed Democratic victory in 1976. (p. 320)
Thompson did not see the future with total accuracy. He thought that the 1976 election would be a contest between Spiro Agnew and Ted Kennedy; he didn’t know that both Agnew and Nixon would resign from office in disgrace which would put Gerald Ford in the White House in 1974 and at the top of the Republican ticket in 1976. He also didn’t know that the Watergate scandal would pave the way for a relative unknown named Jimmy Carter to carry the Democratic banner that year, much less that Carter would win the election.
I think, though, that had Agnew and Nixon not resigned and had Agnew been the Republican nominee in 1976, the Democratic candidate, no matter who it was, would have won.
It was a year (the year in which I turned 18 and voted in my first presidential election, by the way) in which a Democrat was almost fated to win, much like 2008. As my wise uncle told me early in 2008, “It doesn’t matter whether Hillary or Obama gets the nomination. This country is going to elect a Democrat this year.”
Getting back to 1972, though, Thompson’s main point was that Nixon was willing to do whatever he had to do, including setting his party up to lose the White House four years down the road, in order to get reelected and that the Democratic establishment was willing to see McGovern get defeated if it meant a virtual guarantee of a Democratic win four years later.
I found myself reflecting on Thompson’s words as I watched and wondered about the Republican National Convention this week.
First, I wondered why the Republicans had nominated Mitt Romney.
When you look at the record of his four years as governor of Massachusetts, it seems clear that he is at heart a moderate Republican. Yet somehow, he managed to win the nomination of a party that has swung way to his right. Yes, he has, in the process of running for President, said that he now believes most of the things that the most conservative wing of the party wants him to believe, but when you observe the lack of enthusiasm for Romney—a lack for which he tried to make up by naming Paul Ryan as his running mate—you get the sense that lots of Tea Party Republicans don’t really believe that he is one of them, most likely because he is not. Two of the reasons he got the nomination, it’s fair to say, are (1) the more conservative and Tea Party-favored candidates were obviously unqualified for the position and (2) Romney had much deeper pockets than his opponents.
The bottom line is that the Republican Party has nominated as their presidential candidate someone that many, many of them don’t want and about whom few of them are excited. His one qualification, so far as they are concerned, is that he is not Barack Obama.
Second, I wondered why the final hour of the convention was so badly mismanaged.
Lots of other people are wondering about this, too. These days, for better or worse, the major networks only carry the 10:00-11:00 EDT hour of the convention; that hour, then, is very important in terms of getting the party’s message out and of introducing its candidate. But on Thursday night, the video about Romney, which got good reviews, aired before 10:00 and Clint Eastwood’s entertaining or bizarre, depending on who is describing it, monologue was seen during the prime hour along with Marco Rubio’s strong address and Gov. Romney’s acceptance speech. Why wasn’t Eastwood on earlier and the video on later?
Third, I wondered why some speakers, especially Chris Christie and Marco Rubio, spent almost all their words talking about themselves and almost none of them talking about the nominee.
They aren’t running for President. Well, they aren’t running this time.
When I put Hunter S. Thompson’s observations about 1972 together with my wonderings about the 2012 Republican convention (a dangerous melding, I admit), I find myself pondering a rather conspiratorial theory.
Could it be that the Republican Party has put forth a nominee that they doubt seriously can win—and don’t particularly want to win—so that, four years from now, after four more years of President Obama struggling with either the results of failed policies (they hope) or the results of continual virulent and obstructionist opposition from House and Senate Republicans (they know), they will (they think and hope) be virtually guaranteed to win the White House with someone that the Tea Party folks can and will gladly get behind and who effectively launched his 2016 presidential campaign at this convention, namely, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, or Marco Rubio?
Thompson wrote that the man with whom he shared his observations responded, “That’s so rotten I really have to admire it. Boy, I thought I was cynical!” to which Thompson replied, “That’s not cynical. That’s pure…politics…” (p. 321).
I know I may sound cynical.
I don’t think that the GOP planned to nominate someone that they didn’t like and they didn’t think could win. I just think that, given that’s the way it’s worked out, they have decided to work with it as best they can.
They might be able to take four more years of Obama over eight possible years of Romney, if that’s what it takes to elect someone in 2016 that will insure the presence in the White House of a true believer.