Jonathan Bernstein made a good point today, Gary Hart Was Never Going to Be President. It followed up on a Matt Bai article in The New York Times, How Gary Hart’s Downfall Forever Changed American Politics. Now I know the conventional wisdom: Gary Hart was a handsome politician in the mold of John Kennedy and if only Donna Rice hadn’t been so damned attractive, the Democrats would have gained the presidency in 1988 and today roses would smell better than they do!
The problem with this is that it is all wrong. Now I don’t know if Hart might have gotten the Democratic nomination. But I worked on Michael Dukakis’ campaign, and I can tell you something: he was a fine candidate. Sure, he wasn’t exciting. But after the “excitement” of the Reagan years, a lot of people were interested in having a competent manager in charge at the White House. And yes, there was Willie Horton, Dukakis’ emotional disconnect regarding the rape and murder of his wife, and the ill-advised photo-op in the tank. But he was a fine candidate.
And he would have won if the economy was tanking. But it wasn’t. My unemployment model of presidential elections indicates that Bush had almost twice the chance of beating Dukakis as Clinton had of beating Bush. In other words, the election was Bush’s to lose. And it didn’t matter who the Democrats nominated. The unemployment rate was low and it was getting lower. The American electorate did what it always does: rewarded the party in power.
I bring this up not to put down Gary Hart. I actually kind of like the guy. But Democrats really have to get over this idea that who they nominate to be president matters. Or at least in general that’s the case. In 2004, the Democrats could have won the election. If we had nominate Howard Dean and he had kept the election focused on the Iraq War, he might have overcome the economic fundamentals in that race. But even there, it is unlikely; the economics were really in Bush’s favor.
But what all this means takes us back to what Thomas Frank is always ranting about. It may not be true that America is just waiting for a great economic liberal (although I think they are). But in a presidential election, the Democrats should nominate the most liberal candidate they can. Remember that many liberals were thrilled that the Republicans nominated Reagan in 1980 because they knew he was such an extremist. But the American people would vote for Stalin if the economics were bad enough.
In 2016, there are basically two possibilities. Either the economy will have tanked and the next president will be Rand Paul or some other crazy Republican. Or the economy will hold and the next president will be Hillary Clinton. But if we nominated Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, it would lead to the same outcome. If Clinton wins, it means that Sanders and Warren would have won.
The lesson for the Democratic voter is simple: pick the candidate you like, not the one you think will do well in the general election. Because that will be decided by broader economic issues that you have no control over.