In February 1996, Pat Buchanan made his way to the rostrum in Manchester having thrown a right punch to KS Senator Robert Dole with a 27% to 26% victory in the Granite State. As the national news networks took the feed, the crowd intoned, “Go Pat Go.”
Following words of gratitude, Buchanan turned to the compression of the primary calendar and the counterpunch that was forming as he spoke. “Do not wait for orders from headquarters,” he counseled his partisans, “Mount up and ride to the sounds of the guns.”
The writer Michael Lewis once described Buchanan as nostalgic, in part, because of the deep historical citations that filled his rhetoric. And thus, one can’t help but think that Buchanan is enjoying the fact that 1996 is central to understanding the electoral progression of 2012.
Sixteen years ago, we had a vulnerable first term Democrat president. A massive overreach on healthcare led to material Republican gains in the off-year cycle. Ideological rigidity then led to government stalemate with opinion swinging against the legislature as Congressional approval plummeted.
As the GOP nominating process commenced, hopes of recapturing the White House were high. The field, however, was unconvincing with a frontrunner that run before and failed. The historical parallels are striking.
A crowded collection of candidates fought the “primary within the primary” on the conservative right: Buchanan, Phil Gramm, Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes and Bob Dornan. It was Buchanan that emerged with wins in Alaska, Louisiana and New Hampshire.
Perhaps like Iowa for Rick Santorum, New Hampshire proved a high water mark. Buchanan suffered a narrow loss in Arizona, due to the ongoing presence of fellow conservative Steve Forbes. It was followed by a significant defeat in South Carolina. A party, predisposed to primogeniture, was reverting to form and eventually the delegate total for Dole in San Diego exceeded 1,900—twice the number needed to nominate.
Meanwhile, on the Democrat side, the incumbent faced an uncontested, uneventful nominating process. The incumbent spent the winter and early spring positioning for the general election. He framed the poll-driven issue cluster required to deliver his Electoral College map. He raised record financial resources. The race was over before it even began.
History records that 1996 was a year that saw President Clinton coast to victory, becoming the first Democrat to win re-election since FDR. He carried 31 states against an establishment Republican that failed to energize his base, unify his party or, in the end, mount a serious general election challenge at all.
In recent weeks, Romney has made it hard to forget this historical narrative, rolling out a series of endorsements from former GOP nominees. In December, Kansas Senator Dole endorsed him in a half-page ad in the Des Moines Register. Arizona Senator John McCain followed suit in New Hampshire last week.
Ironically, it was Romney, following the Dole endorsement of McCain in 2008, who said the Kansas Senator was “probably the last person that I would have wanted to write a letter for me” as it evoked a next-in-line mentality that won’t work. As the Iron Lady once said with defiance in the House of Commons, “It is the same old story. The truth is the same old story.”
While the commonalities between 1996 and 2012 are conspicuous, a massive macro cycle-versus-cycle difference exists: the US economy.
In 1995, the Federal Reserve executed eight interest rate hikes in an effort to cool an overheating economy. It largely succeeded. In 1996, we had moderately high growth, low inflation and low unemployment. Real GDP grew at above 2% each quarter, including a robust 4.7% in the second. Unemployment dropped to a 25-year low, dipping to just 5.1% in August on the front end of the final general election push.
In contrast, as we enter 2012, we continue to suffer a tepid economy that has consistently disappointed. GDP is growing at 2% or less in real terms. And as a result, employment growth has lagged, placing unemployment above 8.5 percent for three years.
As the President’s advisors readily admit, it is a toxic re-election mix for Obama that is unlikely to change. The economic narrative of the first term has been written. And this fundamental cycle-versus-cycle variance is not only material, it may prove determining.
For the GOP, the difference plays to a sweet spot. Romney, the Harvard MBA and former Chief Executive of Bain Capital, is strongly conversant on the economy. He is more proficient on the topic than any candidate in the field. But alas, it also comes in the form of a 59-point economic plan as opposed to the visceral connectivity of a Bill Clinton.
And so, until Romney can demonstrate passion on the central issue of the cycle, it will be hard not to think that we are seeing an early act of a play that ran sixteen years ago. A victor’s stage in New Hampshire Tuesday may offer a chance for refinement. It may even come amid chants of “Go Mitt Go.”