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Candidates, Fortuna, and Political Regimes

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com.  In the article below he reflects on the Presidential candidates.  See his previous OUPblogs here.

We like to think that we are agents of our will, autonomous individuals with the power to make our mark on and even write history. Political campaigns operate under the assumption that strategy matters. A wrong word, a lapel pin, a mole on the face, a former pastor, a wife’s comment, even the use of a laptop – any of of these can make or break a candidate.

And so, looking at the polls today, we might conclude that Obama has run a near-flawless campaign, and McCain has made one one mistake after another and has had the worst luck.

But elections are about fundamentals, and the life cycles of political regimes. Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter could have been consummate politicos in 1932 and 1980, but voters were just not prepared to give these men and the parties they represented a second chance.

The truth is not everything has gone Obama’s way this year. He had to deal with Jeremiah Wright’s, Michelle Obama’s, and Jesse Jackson’s poorly worded comments, for instance. Right now, he is still working on finding a cogent equivocation for how the “surge” in Iraq worked but that he opposed it when it was first proposed. But the point is that he nevertheless appears to have cruised through these problems.

I don’t think the fact that Obama is probably a more artful politician than McCain explains the striking contrast in their fortunes as they now stand. It almost seems like McCain stumbles at every turn, and Obama can do no wrong. Even when it comes to justifying his initial opposition to the “surge,” it seems like Obama’s anti-war supporters have already decided that the good news came too little and too late. (As was Herbert Hoover’s decision only in 1931 to provide direct government assistance to thousands of Americans without work; as was Carter’s anti-inflation program in 1978. Incidentally, both Hoover and Carter,
like McCain, were characterized as having been really unlucky too.)

In every election in which the electorate collectively sighs, “too little, too late,” and the standard bearer of the incumbent party keeps running into what appears to be a string of bad luck, then his / their time is up. The question is, will 2008 be the last hurrah of the conservative regime founded by Ronald Reagan that is rapidly losing its legitimacy (as were the election years of 1928 and 1976 were for the regimes respectively founded by Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt), or is the country unequivocably ready to move on? Every political regime, liberal or conservative, like every empire, has its rise, its crest, and its demise. The relevant question is where does 2008 fit in the life cycle of the current conservative regime.

Strategic blunders may not have as much explanatory power as we think. After all, we are usually more forgiving of the boy who cried “wolf” once than when he did it thrice – the political impact of a blunder depends on whether or not our patience has been worn thin. Luck is the error term we put in an equation to explain what will and actions fail to explain. What precedes both will and luck are electoral fundamentals and the life cycle of political regimes.

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