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How Will Class of '88 Play Reagan's Record?

October 27, 1987|ROSS K. BAKER | Ross K. Baker is a professor of political science at Rutgers University

It saved Harry Truman in 1948 when he was running for a full presidential term in his own right. Adlai Stevenson embraced it in 1952, and it may have cost him the election. Richard Nixon sought to identify with it when running for the White House in 1960, and Hubert Humphrey did not really get his campaign into high gear in 1968 until he had made a break with it.

The property in question is the record of the outgoing Administration in an election year and what the nominee of a presidential party does with it. For vice presidents seeking to move up to the Oval Office it can be both benediction and curse, but even a nominee not so closely tied to a retiring President finds it necessary to deal with it even in this era of flimsy party loyalty and individualistic politics.

The distancing activity that we have seen recently among GOP hopefuls has had the complexity of a minuet and the subtlety of Japanese haiku. How bold a new course does Vice President George Bush pursue if he wants, simultaneously, to garner the support of Ronald Reagan loyalists and yet establish an identity that is not simply derivative from a President whose place in history is yet to be determined?

Surely Sen. Bob Dole can be bolder. He was not so basic a component of the Reagan Administration that his fate is tied to the fortunes of the President. As a Republican floor leader in the Senate however, he has been the manufacturer's representative on Capitol Hill for virtually every Reagan program. Can a salesman repudiate the product that he carried proudly around in his display case for seven years?

What about Rep. Jack Kemp, whose institutional role for House Republicans is considerably less prominent than Dole's in the Senate? Does he feel constrained to run on the achievements of Reaganomics?

Are evangelist Pat Robertson and former Delaware Gov. Pete Dupont free to criticize Reagan's policies because they never held national office, or must they hold to that old Republican 11th commandment that admonishes GOP candidates to say only good things about one another? The most agonizing question of all is how dramatic should the distancing be from an Administration saddled with serious economic problems or even a war?

History has shown that the closer a candidate is associated with an outgoing Administration, the more he will have to grapple with the incumbent President's record.

Going back to 1952, Gov. Adlai Stevenson of Illinois had few problems with the Truman civil-rights record, and indeed ran on the twin slogans of "You never had it so good" and "Don't let them take it away." Truman campaigned actively for Stevenson, and it would have been ungracious of the candidate to traduce the record of the man crisscrossing the country on his behalf. But Stevenson defending the Truman record was less successful than Truman was in 1948 defending the Roosevelt record, and it hurt Stevenson in his race against the popular Dwight Eisenhower.

Richard Nixon faced the quandary in 1960. As Eisenhower's vice president, Nixon needed to tap into the vast reservoir of personal good will with the public that the President enjoyed. But the 1958 recession and the embarrassing U-2 incident of May, 1960, were still fresh in the public memory. Nixon reckoned, however, that, on balance, embracing Ike was a sound strategy even as John F. Kennedy was tough in his criticism of the incumbent President.

Eisenhower wanted to refute Kennedy's charges, but also to rectify a damning statement he had made on Nixon's qualifications. When asked in an August, 1960, press conference what major ideas Nixon contributed as vice president, Ike responded, "If you give me a week, I might think of one." Nixon, in his memoirs, asserts that what Eisenhower meant to say was, "Ask me at next week's press conference." Nixon never used Eisenhower extensively in the final week because of the President's frail health, but is still convinced that the popular Eisenhower would have been able to overcome Kennedy's razor-thin margin.

The forthrightness with which Stevenson in 1952 and Nixon in 1960 embraced the incumbents and their records was dramatically different from the agonizing decision faced by Hubert Humphrey in 1968. Running for the top job from the vice presidency, Humphrey staggered under the Vietnam legacy of Lyndon B. Johnson. From Labor Day, 1968, until the last of September, Humphrey and his campaign staff tried to finesse the war issue by proclaiming "the politics of joy," but the public response to Humphrey was negative. When Humphrey timidly suggested that a small-scale U.S. troop withdrawal might be a prelude to a pullout of U.S. forces, Johnson and Secretary of State Dean Rusk publicly derided the Humphrey interpretations by pointing out that it was a minor redeployment.

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