David Post: Two routes to the White House
Since Franklin Roosevelt was president, Republicans and Democrats have adopted diametrically opposed routes to the White House.
Republicans pick nominees with deep roots in the party, usually men who previously lost a run for their nomination or the Presidency. Democrats pick nominees with virtually no name recognition, shallow roots in their party, and who are running for the presidency for the first time.
Republicans go through the motions, but they select one of their own, a proven commodity, a person who has been running since before the previous election. Democratic nominees are a surprise to their own party, to their own voters, to the public and to the Republicans.
Republicans don’t emerge. They run, lose, run again and win. It’s called paying dues. Democratic nominees emerge out of nowhere and fight the “no experience” charge through their campaigns and even into the White House.
Before the 1950s, party conventions selected their nominees. All candidates had deep roots and internal party allegiances. Roosevelt had been secretary of the Navy and governor of New York. In his fourth run for president, Roosevelt sought a new vice president and selected Harry Truman, a former clothing store operator, political pawn and little known senator who became president a mere month into Roosevelt’s fourth term.
Since then, the parties have followed very different paths in selecting their presidential nominees.
In 1948, Republicans anointed New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, a presumable shoo-in. He was so far ahead, pollsters quit taking the public pulse in September. But he lost.
In 1952, both parties wooed World War II hero Dwight Eisenhower, correctly expecting him to win. Eisenhower picked the Republicans and cruised into the White House with Richard Nixon, a California senator, as his vice president.
In 1960, Nixon simply escalated as the Republican nominee. The Democrats selected Sen. John Kennedy, a little known, little accomplished but wealthy Catholic who defeated the party establishment, including his Senate boss, the inside-the-party favorite, Lyndon Johnson.
Nixon lost, but ran again — and won — in 1968.
In 1976, President Ford (who was appointed vice president and then replaced Nixon) was challenged for the Republican nomination by Ronald Reagan, a famous movie star, TV commentator, and a popular governor of California. Ford beat back Reagan.
But four years later, Reagan returned and ran against George H.W. Bush, a credentialed Texas Republican whose father had been a U.S. Senator. Bush had been a congressman, lost a run for the Senate, had headed the CIA and served as U.S. Ambassador to China. Reagan won and picked Bush as his vice president.
Eight years later, in 1988, George H.W. Bush was anointed by the Republicans and won the presidency.
In 2000, the Republicans nominated his son, George W. Bush, who had defeated a popular Democrat to become Texas governor in 1994. Had his name been George Walker instead of George Walker Bush, he would never have gone to Yale or Harvard, become an owner and CEO of a professional baseball team or governor of Texas. George W. didn’t have to lose to win, but how establishment can a candidate be?
In contrast, the Democrats have nominated Jimmy Who? Bill Who? and Barack Huh?
In 1976, Jimmy Carter was a little known peanut farmer who had served one term as governor of Georgia. He had 1 percent name recognition before the Iowa caucuses and defeated a slew of established Democrats.
In 1992, establishment Democrats were afraid to run against George H.W. Bush’s 91 percent approval rating. Bill Clinton, another small state governor who had been written off after an awful speech to Democrats in 1988, took the plunge. Most Americans probably can’t find Arkansas on a map, but he won.
In 2008, Hillary Clinton had the nomination locked up, but Barack Obama, who had served as a U.S. Senator for a mere four years, surprised her and the nation, and is now president.
When Democrats nominate mainstream candidates, they lose. Vice Presidents Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Al Gore couldn’t cross the finish line.
What’s the lesson of history? Republicans will nominate either Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich this year. Romney ran in 2004 and lost. He’s ripe. Gingrich says he’s a Washington outsider, but he lives there and is trying to ride President Reagan’s coattails.
Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman aren’t really running this year. They are running for the Republican nomination in 2016.
Who will run for the Democrats in 2016? Someone whose current name recognition is less than 1 percent.
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David Post is a co-owner of the Salisbury Pharmacy and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.