The election of 1980 was a pivotal one - perhaps THE pivotal one of our times. It marked the beginning of the Reagan era and 32 (and counting) years of "trickle-down" economics, foxes guarding the regulatory henhouses, lobbyists writing the very text of Congressional bills, the most extreme fundamentalism speaking (and legislating) on behalf of all faith... basically the whole sordid mess that reached its apex with the Bush II years, and that got us where we are today.
Right now the Republicans like to invoke 1980, because on the surface, conditions are pretty similar, with an unpopular (or at least, divisive) incumbent presiding over an economic slump. The GOP also likes to invoke 1980 in a spirit of naive hope, because Carter was leading in the polls at this point, but Reagan was nonetheless able to come back and win.
Which, in turn, heralded a total sea change in the country's view of government - and, as mentioned, 32 years of Republicans utterly dictating the terms of the national debate, making the very word "liberal" into something to be automatically shunned. The GOP would love nothing more than for Romney to make a similar comeback and allow them to seal their hegemony for, at a minimum, another 32 years.
But walk with me down Crazy Idealism Lane a moment.
What if they have it backwards? What if this is OUR 1980, and we have a chance to not only win back the White House, but to decisively recapture the national debate for the Progressives, the way Reagan did for the Right?
Follow me over the fold and hear me out.
In 1980, President Carter was deeply unpopular, both within his own party and with the public at large. As Nate Silver points out here, Carter's overall economic record over his entire four years was nowhere near as bad as it's been made out to be - BUT, his last two years were on a downward slope, with high inflation and economic "malaise." Times were hard, and Carter lacked Reagan's gift of putting a cheerful face on bad news. When he talked to the American public, he told them the truth - but the truth wasn't pretty, and he often sounded like a scold. A lecturer. A downer.
Meanwhile, Reagan was selling his unique brand of snake oil, mixed with sunny optimism and a masterful grasp of political theatre. Even when you knew his policies were horrific and his words "factually challenged" at best - dammit, Ronald Reagan made you feel GOOD listening to him. (And if you weren't there for the late '70s, trust me - people needed that.) His popularity drove us crazy the way Clinton's and Obama's popularity drives the Right crazy.
Carter was swept into office in 1976 on a wave of post-Watergate, anti-Republican sentiment; he was the outsider who was going to "clean up Washington." And Carter, who remains perhaps the most morally upright man ever to hold the Presidency, took that charge seriously. Unfortunately for him, he considered the clubby Rep-Dem atmosphere in the Senate and House to be part of the problem: his fellow Democrats felt slighted and eventually refused to cooperate. This climaxed with Ted Kennedy mounting a 1980 primary challenge to Carter from the Left. Carter barely survived, but the damage had been done. That year, the Democrats lived up to their perpetual stereotype: disorganized, factional, hamstrung by the needs of competing special interest groups.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, Ronald Reagan had found a way to bridge the gap between the old-money Rockefeller Republicans (left in tatters by Watergate), the Goldwater Republican-Libertarians (read: this year's Ron Paulites) and the burgeoning Religious Right, with its helpful armies of zealous voters and volunteers. He used Nixon's "Southern strategy," this time combined with Jerry Falwell's brand of "social issues" campaigning, to win over legions of blue-collar voters who had been voting Democratic since FDR's time. These "Reagan Democrats" solidifed Reagan's lead, and the resulting alliance between the three disparate branches of the party remained in place through at least 2004.
So to sum up: the Democrats were demoralized, half of them were highly unhappy with their nominee, and the Republicans were unified (thanks to Ronald Reagan's unique charisma) like never before. Then there was John Anderson's third-party candidacy, which siphoned off more left-wing votes than right-wing ones.
The results weren't even close.
And so, as mentioned, we ended up with 32 years of the Republicans OWNING the debate. Reagan made "liberal" into a dirty word, and Democrats ran from it. Even when Bill Clinton ran successfully for two terms as President, it was as a triangulating, "Third Way" candidate. We still bought into the Republican framing that the public wouldn't accept anyone too "liberal." (You could argue quite persuasively that Clinton and Obama have been the most successful Republican presidents of the past half-century, but let's leave that one alone for the moment.)
But now let's fast-forward to today.
Superficially, President Obama is sort of in President Carter's position - only not really. He is popular within his own party, the GOP's fervent hopes of PUMAs in 2008 and a "Bill Clinton backstabbing" in 2012 never having come to pass. He remains relatively popular with the public, hovering around 48% approval for most of this year. Much to the GOP's frustration, the public at large still doesn't blame Obama for the economic mess he inherited. And the party is unified around his unique charisma like never before.
Meanwhile, Mitt Romney survived a bloody primary battle, just barely, but remains a deeply unpopular choice within his own party. That alliance between the "serve the 1%" money people, the Ron Paul Libertarian wing, and the fundamentalists? It was already fraying during the Dubya years, and now it's been shattered. The Ron Paulites feel stabbed in the back by Romney's high-handed tactics, which shut them out of the process and denied them any voice at the convention. Ditto with the fundies and Tea Partiers. Romney was everyone's last choice, and Obama-hatred is currently the only thing unifying the Republicans in any significant way. Romney's singular lack of warmth and personability puts the nail in the coffin - maybe Reagan could charm these people into putting up with each other, but Romney? Not a chance.
Does this sound familiar? It's 1980 all over again - but this time the INCUMBENT is the one with unique personal charisma, a unified party, and momentum on his side.
Which makes me think: what if this is OUR opportunity to reframe the national debate, to reclaim it for Progressives the way FDR did for thirty-plus years?
This is the first in (I hope) a series of "Our 1980" diaries about how to accomplish that goal. It'll mean campaigning like crazy to keep the Senate, ideally with that "supermajority" and/or filibuster reform, and to take back the House. (Not to mention all those governor's races and state legislatures.) It'll mean reaching out, making common cause with the Tea Partiers and low-info voters who have been brainwashed by the Fox News media machine all this time. (They are uniquely vulnerable to being won over right now, since they're still feeling the sting of Romney slapping them down into "their place.") And it'll mean keeping our eyes on the prize, never letting "the perfect" get in the way of "the good" and "the doable."
Call me crazy. But I believe we can do it! I believe it's our moment. I believe the election of 2012 could be the Progressives' big chance.
This can be OUR 1980. Are you in?