By Andrew J. Polsky
The killing of US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other American diplomats in Benghazi, Libya on 11 September 2012 serves as a vivid reminder that unexpected events often intrude on presidential elections. Sometimes these events have a significant impact on how voters view the parties and the candidates. But often the electorate shrugs off breaking news. As former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously put it, “Stuff happens.” For most incidents, polls might record a brief hiccup, but then voters settle back into their previous distribution of preferences. The only events that prove consequential either validate a story that one side has been telling, let one candidate appear more presidential, or suggest that a candidate lacks core presidential attributes.
Campaigns try to construct a narrative about the national condition that work to their advantage, and events may give that tale greater popular traction. As the noted historian William Gienapp explains in his study of the rise of the Republican Party in the 1850s, the new party struggled for several years to establish itself as the leading opposition coalition to the dominant Democrats. The Whig Party had suffered a stunning defeat in 1852, opening space for another major challenger. Yet in some states the Whigs refused to slink off into oblivion. Meanwhile, the American Party (sometimes called the Know Nothings) also vied to become the principal opposition, fueled by public concerns about immigration and the alleged threat it represented to American values. For many former Whigs, the Republican preoccupation with the westward expansion of slavery seemed to be of marginal relevance. Heading into the critical 1856 presidential election, then, it was not clear which opposition party — Whig, American, or Republican — would emerge as the strongest.
Then came what Gienapp calls the “spring breakthrough,” a set of events that seemed to affirm the Republican view. Republicans spoke of “slave power conspiracy” that had subverted American democracy by placing Southern interests ahead of national ones. On 21 May 1856, pro-slavery militants in Kansas attacked and sacked the town of Lawrence, an anti-slavery stronghold. Just one day later, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, a staunch abolitionist, was brutally caned while delivering a speech on the Senate floor by South Carolina Representative Preston “Bully” Brooks. Republicans adroitly wove together the two events — “Bleeding Kansas” and “Bleeding Sumner” — as proof of what the party had been warning about all along. The question of slavery reclaimed top billing among the opposition concerns, and the Republicans rode the wave to a strong showing in the 1856 election that established their party as the foremost challenger to the Democrats.
Americans expect a president to be strong, not overly bellicose. On 2 August 1964, North Vietnamese torpedo boats and a US Navy destroyer exchanged fire in the Tonkin Gulf, followed by a report (later retracted) of a second incident. Lyndon Johnson sought and received authorization from Congress for a military response. Within days of the approval of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, American aircraft struck the torpedo boat bases and other facilities in North Vietnam. The Tonkin Gulf incident and its aftermath played directly into the president’s hands during his 1964 campaign against Barry Goldwater. Public support was strong for both the Resolution and the administration’s measured military response. Johnson demonstrated firmness against communist provocations, yet he avoided the appearance of recklessness that dogged his opponent. As for what he might do in Southeast Asia following his election, Johnson chose his words carefully to avoid any commitments.
Events also cause candidates to put on display certain character traits, breaking through the careful choreography of the modern campaign with its tightly controlled scripts. The collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 turned out to be just such a moment. In the wake of the debacle and the chain reaction it set in motion on Wall Street, Senator John McCain abruptly announced he was suspending his campaign and returning to Washington until the crisis was addressed. He intended to send a message of decisive leadership. What came across instead was a powerful impression of a candidate who acted impulsively, even rashly. Coming on the heels of the dreadful interviews given by his hastily-chosen running mate, Sarah Palin, McCain’s “Lehman Moment” fed a media narrative that he lacked the steadiness for the presidency.
Most events, though, fail to alter the trajectory of the presidential campaign. Instead they reinforce existing perceptions on both sides. The recent disappointing jobs report serves as a case in point. Americans have already made their judgment about the economy, whether they believe the president is to blame for the sluggish recovery (Romney supporters) or see him coping with the challenge as well as anyone could (Obama backers). Only a succession of extraordinary economic results at this late stage might unsettle these evaluations. A single jobs report that largely confirms what people already know won’t do it.
We will learn in the next several weeks whether Mitt Romney’s quick condemnation of the administration reshapes the election. His reaction will not reinforce a story about American international weakness because his campaign has not stressed that narrative theme to this point. On the other side, the episode may help the president. The attacks let Barack Obama do one thing that every president seeking reelection wants to do — present himself as the leader of the American people, not just a partisan standard bearer. And the haste with which Romney sought to turn the tragedy to political advantage may feed a very damaging media narrative that depicts him as relentlessly opportunistic and unprincipled.
If that happens, the Republican may rue his decision not to do what Ronald Reagan did when a failed mission to free the American hostages in Iran in April 1980 resulted in the death of American military personnel. Reagan chose to offer his condolences and call on Americans to pray for the families who had lost loved ones. Sometimes the smart political move is not to look for political advantage.
Andrew Polsky is Professor of Political Science at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. A former editor of the journal Polity, his most recent book is Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War. Read Andrew Polsky’s previous blog posts.
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