There are very few genuinely new moments in American politics. Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 was one of them. Barack Obama’s triumph in 2008 another. Both were transformative elections, presidencies and men.
And both led to parties that struggled for a voice after their defining leader left the scene.
George Herbert Walker Bush was a safe and reliable choice for the GOP in 1988: a long-time Washington hand with a golden resume and a seemingly endless and loyal list of supporters and donors. Lots of folks didn’t like him, of course, inside his own party, inside the Democrats, inside the media and outside of the country. Remember Newsweek’s “Fighting the ‘Wimp Factor'” cover?
But the world was undergoing rapid and dangerous change in 1988, and a known if somewhat dull brand supported by an old D.C. pedigree and a Yalie’s confidence with some southern gloss did the trick against a conventional Democratic governor: Mike Dukakis.
Got it yet? Hillary is Obama’s George H.W. Bush — the candidate the current president bested eight years ago but who dutifully and quietly swallowed the anger and served that president, and in doing so set herself up to succeed the man she tried eight years ago to crush.
The story of that conversion from “wife of Bill” to “heir of Obama” is ably and well told by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes in the new book “HRC,” which is full of the inside baseball political junkies love and on which opposition researchers thrive. Great stuff to light the hot stove of the off-season in presidential politics along with the rising chatter of a Nixon-like resurrection of Romney — who would be making his third run for the White House versus Hillary’s sixth (in either a leading or a supporting role) — or the continued bleeding of Chris Christie by journos like Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker.
Step back from the day-to-day gossiping, though, and it is clear that 2016 is 1988 all over again, with a successor-in-waiting waiting for the out party to designate a conventional sacrificial lamb. Sure, we have had three two-termers in a row, with the parties alternating. But Obama was to the Left what Reagan was to the Right: An enormous, history-making triumph. Their partisans came, saw, conquered. And got tired. The “pros’ pros” of the center-left are standing by, waiting to move in their furniture, straighten the pictures, calm down the chaos of a president who truly changed everything.
It is a powerful appeal. Consolidation. Stability. Experience. Especially with Russia in 2016 promising to be as unsteady and threatening as the Soviet Union was in 1988.
Face it. Hillary really is George W. Bush. Bush the Elder won easily in 1988, with 40 states and 426 electoral votes. The third term, but calmer, is a good pitch.
To stop a sequel the GOP will have to avoid their Dukakis, the man who seemed different, but who wasn’t, in the end, anything except a decent but dull pol from a base state.
The GOP will need a nominee with both fire in the belly and brains in abundance; rhetorical ability and an understanding of the world as it is, not as we would wish it to be. And with experience in running a big campaign to match Hillary’s half dozen times around the track as spouse in 1992 and 1996, loyal White House supporter of Al Gore in 2000, would-be nominee in 2008, and No. 1 Cabinet member in 2012. And in two years, 2016 will be the exercise of campaign muscle memory for her. There will be no unforced errors, just as George H.W. Bush learned from 1980 and 1984.
Romney said ” no, no, no, no, no,” and he meant it. But that just means the GOP has to think long and hard about how the Dems could have beat George H.W. Bush in 1988 and try to pull that off now. Outside of the box, Republicans. Outside of the box. Like Nixon in 1968 beating the third term try of the Kennedy Camelot revolution via Humphrey, the Republicans have to value electoral competence. They have to have a map in mind that gets them there, not just a hope the country will be bored and disgusted.
It wasn’t in 1988.