Similar to the presidential election of 1980, America's last period of nerve-wracking economic dislocation, the 2012 election will be concerned with two things: first, a referendum on the incumbent and his policies, and second, the size and composition of government spending. The bottom lines will be, do the American people want four more years of Barack Obama's leadership, and do they want to continue expanding the size and role of government?
In 1980 American Republican primary voters did the apparently "unthinkable" and nominated as president the perceived right wing extremist Ronald Reagan. To the surprise of many, Reagan had wrested the Republican nomination from the centrist and eminently experienced scion of the Republican political establishment, George H. Bush. Voters so concerned about the moribund economy, our declining position in the world, and the seeming inability of President Carter to contend with the sources of our discontent, sought the more radical alternative. Seemingly desperate times called for desperate measures.
Today the country again faces persistent high unemployment, unimagined government deficits, and a dramatically diminished capacity to influence world events. Seventy-five percent of the public feels that we are on the wrong track. Polls indicate that the majority of the country does not feel the incumbent deserves re-election and many make personal comparisons between him and the hapless Carter. As in 1980, Republican primary voters appear poised to cast aside another eminently qualified centrist and do the arguably more unthinkable and nominate for the presidency the former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich. Again they appear to seek the more radical alternative.
Democrats who are gleeful at the prospect of a race against the controversial Gingrich would do well to remember their similar elation over the Reagan nomination. Not only did the "amiable dunce" and "right wing" Reagan win a smashing electoral college victory (489 to 49) but he led his party to an unimagined gain of twelve seats and reversed fifty years of Democratic control of the Senate. Equally noteworthy, he went on to win an even greater 525-13 re-election victory and ushered in an era of significant political realignment.
After four years of actual experience, the 2012 electorate will be able to render a more informed judgment on Barack Obama's ability to do the job. In light of the decline in his approval ratings, this may not be to the president's advantage. Additionally, Americans do not seem particularly enamored with the expansion of government. A recent Gallup Poll indicates a historic high 64% of the American people are more concerned about Big Government than either Big Business (26%) or Big Labor (8%).
While President Obama won the election in 2008 as a self-described moderate and pragmatist, he has governed as an activist. The size and composition of his stimulus package, the partisan universal health care bill, green energy subsidies, and aggressive use of regulatory authority make his the acknowledged most expansionary and activist pro-government administration since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. His decision to base his 2012 campaign on class division and an unapologetic call for greater government regulation and active intervention in the economy sets up a clear philosophical distinction with the author of the Contract with America and mastermind of the "Second Reagan Revolution" that won Republican control over the House of Representatives in 1994.
Newt Gingrich appears no more unelectable today than Ronald Reagan at a similar point in 1980. Similarly Barack Obama appears no more re-electable than did President Carter. History teaches that desperate times often give rise to desperate measures. Barring a significant third party spoiler, contrary to much Democratic opinion, in troubled times like this, the sharper the philosophical contrast drawn between the challenger and the incumbent, the more likely people may opt for the "unthinkable."
Al Checchi is chairman of Join Together America, the former chairman of Northwest Airlines, and a former candidate for Governor of California. His new book is The Change Maker.