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Mead: Some Historical Analogies to the 2008 Election

Interviewee: Walter Russell Mead, Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
February 6, 2008

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Walter Russell Mead, an award-winning historian and CFR senior fellow, says the U.S. electorate today can be compared to the public during the Cold War era, when security concerns were ever present but in the background to domestic issues. He says presidential candidates viewed as dovish fared poorly in the Cold War years, and that Democratic front-runners Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are carefully measuring their Iraq war policies, despite pledging a troop drawdown. Mead adds that Republican candidate Mike Huckabee's strong showing in southern states introduces new challenges for different religious segments of the GOP. “We’re seeing a Republican party that is trying to figure out a way to unite behind a front-runner, which Republicans are normally good at,” he says.

Recognizing that the 2008 presidential election is still at an early stage, do you see any historical analogies at this point?

That’s hard to say. In some ways you could compare it to the Korean War elections and maybe to the Vietnam War elections, when there was an unpopular war going on. But in both of those cases, you had a president who was up for reelection who then decided not to seek reelection; Harry Truman in 1952 and Lyndon Johnson in 1968. But since Bush isn’t eligible this is a different situation.

It is, however, like the Cold War period when Adlai Stevenson in 1952 ran against Dwight Eisenhower. You could make that case we're in a Cold War-type situation where the war on terror is seen by most Americans as not an urgent threat, like World War II [was]. But it hasn't gone away—there is still a kind of background public concern with security issues.

That’s very much the way American politics looked during most of the Cold War. There was this struggle with the Soviet Union that maybe you didn’t think about every day but was always part of the background. Then you had politics as usual layered on top of that. In those situations, what we found pretty consistently was that a candidate seen as “unfit” for whatever reasons on national security grounds would be ruled out by the electorate. Sometimes that might be a candidate who was seen as “dovish.” George McGovern in 1972 might be an example of that. Sometimes, and more rarely, like in 1964 when President Lyndon Johnson portrayed Senator Barry Goldwater as irresponsible and trigger-happy, somebody could be ruled out on the grounds that he was too hawkish. But generally speaking in those years, American politics seemed to favor, if you had two responsible candidates, the more hawkish of the two.

In the current situation you’ve got both Democrats in the running, Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama, saying they are going to somehow get out of Iraq as soon as feasible and the Republican front-runner, Senator John McCain, saying he’s going to stick with the war until what he calls victory. Is this the kind of analogy you were talking about when you said “hawkish” candidates did better?

Those differences are less than they appear, because both Obama and Clinton have said they can’t guarantee that U.S. troops would be out of Iraq by the end of their first term. With the two Democrats holding out the possibility of troops in Iraq in 2013, I am not sure exactly what the differences are in sort of tone and phrasing.

So it doesn’t give McCain in your view a sort of edge on these issues?

It’s a little trickier than that because it can then turn into a character issue where McCain says, “I’ve been for the war all along, I criticized Bush’s strategy but I’ve long held that we have to press on.” Clinton and Obama both in different ways might face some of the problems that [Democratic presidential candidate John] Kerry found so difficult in 2004, which is the Democrats have a party base which wants them to say, “The war is terrible. I’m getting out of the war as soon as possible; it’s a complete disaster.” They don’t want to say that both on policy grounds and on electoral grounds. So what you might have is a situation that even though they had the more popular stand of the war, the whole issue of war, character, and fitness to be commander in chief would end up working against them. That is what McCain is hoping to accomplish; I don’t know whether he’d succeed.

Let’s jump to religion here. I was struck by the fact that you have two candidates on the Republican side who are both professedly very religious, Mitt Romney, a Mormon, and Mike Huckabee, a Baptist. In this case Huckabee did much better than most people thought he would. Any broad thinking on that subject or is it just circumstantial?

It’s clear that in American politics, particularly in the Republican party, there’s an evangelical Christian white movement, based mostly in the white South, although it has allies outside. One of the big things that happened in American politics was that in the 1960s and 1970s, this group of voters which had been one of the mainstays of the Democratic coalition moved over to the Republican side.

Since that time the Republicans have had kind of a persistent electoral advantage. At the same time, the traditional liberal northeastern Republicans, who had historically been the backbone of the Republican party, have been sort of appalled [by the rise of evangelicals in the party]. Let’s not forget that the white South and the Yankee Republican North were the two enemies in the Civil War. They have been coexisting uneasily now in the same political party. Meanwhile, you have the blue-collar ethnic Catholic vote, less and less blue collar I would have to say in the North, which had also been a mainstay in the Democratic coalition in the Franklin D. Roosevelt years. Mostly because of abortion and other social issues [it has] distanced itself from the Democrats.

We’re seeing that Huckabee is kind of the representative now of the Baptist southern, evangelical white group. The northern wing of the Christian right, more Catholic, is probably more willing to work with a Romney or even a McCain, because [Catholics] have a single focus which is abortion which is seen as a murder—the murder of an innocent, unborn child. So [a] McCain who can make a pledge to appoint conservative justices who might overturn Roe v. Wade [the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion in the United States], that’s probably going to be okay with a lot of those northern, more-Catholic, former Democrats. McCain has been running pretty well in that group. Some of the southern evangelical Huckabee supporters want more.

There are a lot of things going on here. We’re seeing a Republican party that is trying to figure out a way to unite behind a front-runner, which Republicans are normally good at. But those southern evangelical whites are not lifelong Republicans either in many cases.

Did Romney being a Mormon hurt him in those areas?

It probably hurts him more in the south. It helps Huckabee because the Mormon theology is pretty different from the traditional evangelical theology to the point where many evangelical churches don’t consider Mormons to be Christians. So, it’s a pretty wide religious gap. Romney might have been able to overturn that problem but he’s got something like a chameleon problem, that when he was in Utah he sounded very conservative on a lot of issues and then he goes to Massachusetts and gets elected on a pretty main line, not liberal by Massachusetts standards, but certainly very liberal by Republican standards. So now, he projects himself as very conservative. The combination of what to southern evangelicals would seem religious weirdness plus personal chameleon is probably a bridge too far.

Would a McCain-Huckabee ticket do well?

Huckabee is too much a part of that southern mentality; he’s too wedded to it. For some of the same reasons that make him very popular in that core group of his supporters, it makes him unpopular outside of it. Some of his ideas would just seem eccentric beyond his demographic base. If I were advising McCain—I am not and no one has asked me to and no one will, I think—someone like Sam Brownback [Republican senator from Kansas], who is a Catholic, who is very acceptable to the southern Christian right, could unite the party but wouldn’t have some of the drawbacks that Huckabee might have.

Let’s talk about the Democrats. They seem really divided on the race and gender differences.

This is a classic darling-of-the-elites versus darling-of-the-labor-unions type thing. Obama is kind of the thinking, college-guy Democrat, this time around. Clinton usually runs better with the kind of lunch pail Democrats. But because African-Americans, one of the core bases of the Democratic Party, are clearly seeing in Obama, “our time has come” and have really rallied to support him. He’s got a lot more legs, so he runs well among the Bradley Democrats [referring to moderate Democrats in the mold of former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley] in New Jersey but Bradley, while a very good basketball player, was not African-American so he didn’t have the extra dimension to that appeal. Obama has the potential to break out beyond the Adlai Stevenson/Bill Bradley sort of demographic among the Democrats and unite. Also, by the way, like Adlai Stevenson, Obama has pretty good relations with the Chicago machine, which remains a pretty formidable element in Democratic politics. Obama is a much stronger candidate than the thinking-liberal candidate has normally been able to be.

For Senator Clinton, this is a baffling situation, because if anybody had come to think of herself as an intellectual, the thinking person’s Democrat, it would be her. Now, she’s somehow the machine candidate. That’s a little bit perplexing and she’s had to adjust. I have to say she’s doing a good job. She does have a lot of support from women.

She also has support from Latinos.

You know, I think rivalry and tension between blacks and Latinos is a little exaggerated because this all works out very differently in different parts of the country. Certainly, Latinos do not have the same tie to Obama that blacks do. They are up for grabs and Hillary has been working very hard to get them. There are two things going on. You also have the revolt of the Democratic left which never particularly liked what Bill Clinton did to the Democratic party in the 1990s. When Ted Kennedy came rallying out to support Obama, it shouldn’t have been a big surprise.

Whoever wins the primary then has to make a big effort to woo over the people who supported the opponent. In this case, can Obama get the white women who voted for Senator Clinton in such large numbers?

It’s probably going to be a tough one for both of them. I think it would be a little easier for Obama to reach out to women than for Clinton to reach out to blacks. This depends on how tough and personal the next few weeks of the primary season are. There was that moment right after New Hampshire when it looked like the gloves were coming off and you were going to see some real bloodspilling. Both candidates looked into that abyss and decided they didn’t want to go there, that it was a way to wreck the party. If they continue to carry on the campaign in a relatively restrained way, the breach may not become that deep.

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