This post is named after the second album by my all-time favorite indie band, The Figgs. I always thought it was a wonderful title for a record. It’s also the first phrase that popped into my head when I read this op-ed, which you will be hearing a whole lot about on Monday, despite the fact that its premise is that President Obama should step aside so that Hilary Clinton can win the 2012 election and “unite the country around a bipartisan economic and foreign policy.”
Read that last sentence again. Yes, indeed. Ready Steady Stoned.
Tomorrow, a whole lot of people will shred the op-ed, Westen-style. I mean, Brendan Nyhan is already tweeting up a storm. I’m not going to go line by line through the thing, but I do want to make a few historical points:
1. The proposition that LBJ “decided against running” in 1968 because he “accepted the reality that [he] could not effectively govern the nation if [he] sought re-election” is complete nonsense. LBJ didn’t “not run.” He dropped out of the race after Eugene McCarthy and a bunch of college kids landed what amounted to a knock-out blow in New Hampshire, which convinced RFK to get in to the race four days later. LBJ didn’t step aside; he was a candidate who dropped out when it became clear he couldn’t win. In other words, he sought the nomination, and he lost the nomination.
2. It’s certainly theoretically true that a party might benefit from not renominating an unpopular president. But the problem is that there’s a huge correlation between presidential popularity and party popularity, and historically it has been the case that whatever positive marginal effect there is from replacement, it hasn’t been enough to get the party over the top. As John Tabin noted on Twitter, Truman and LBJ “stepping aside” didn’t exactly result in President Stevenson and President Humphrey (and don’t start in on how RFK would have beat Nixon; it’s far, far from obvious).
In fact, even if you go back to the 19th century strong-party era, when replacing the president on the ticket was easier and more common, only twice did a party win back to back elections with two different non-incumbents — Pierce/Buchanan, ’52 and ’56, and Hayes/Garfield, ’76 and ’80. And neither Pierce nor Hayes were unelectable candidates who stepped aside for the good of the party. The Pierce administration had indeed been destroyed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act and its aftermath, but he stood for nomination at the 1856 Democratic convention, and lost a four-way race in which he got 40% of the vote on the first ballot. The Hayes example I don’t even count as relevant — he certainly didn’t seek renomination in ’80, but he had pledged not to do so back in ’76 and was not particularly unpopular when he left office.
3. Finally, there’s this:
Never before has there been such an obvious potential successor—one who has been a loyal and effective member of the president’s administration, who has the stature to take on the office, and who is the only leader capable of uniting the country around a bipartisan economic and foreign policy.
Say what? Obviously, as mentioned above, the last clause of that sentence is just absurd. A Clinton presidency right now might be effective or might not be, but in any case it wouldn’t be bipartisan and it wouldn’t unite the country, even if those ridiculous things were somehow the goals. But the first clause is my real favorite. Never has there been such an obvious potential successor? What about Seward in 1864? What about Webster in 1852? Have the authors even heard of the 19th century? On the flip side, it’s not always going to work out when you stick the most obvious potential successor of all-time onto the ticket — see Henry Clay, 1844. It just drives me nuts when people make historical claims, but limit them to a history that starts about the time their parents were born.
Ok, enough. I’ll just leave you with a funny thought an old college buddy emailed me, writing “the only upside to Gingrich winning the nomination and then taking on HRC for the presidency would be that Kurt Cobain would probably come out of hiding with like 5 full albums worth of great new material.” Amen to that.