ONE OF THE funny things about politics is that people often have a very poor sense of which elections are important and which aren't. This fact hit me a few years ago when I was watching a "Saturday Night Live" episode from 1976. Jane Curtin was on as the host of "Weekend Update," and the joke was that SNL's feelings about the upcoming election could be summed up with a photo of Gerald Ford, defaced with horns and a mustache.
I was only 4 years old in 1976. Seeing this sketch more than 20 years after it first aired, what struck me was the overwhelming strangeness of it. Why would anybody work up a hatred of Ford? And when I thought about it further, it seemed to me that Ford's defeat in the 1976 presidential race may have been one of the worst things that ever happened to American liberalism.
Liberals, of course, detested Ford for his pardon of Richard Nixon, and indeed the pardon was a pretty rotten act. In the light of history, however, Ford comes through as a far more innocuous figure. By the standard of his day, he was a conservative. But by the standard of our times, he's a raging moderate.
In Ford's time, to be a conservative meant to be cautious and prudent. Ford opposed deficits, and he vetoed spending hikes and tax cuts alike. His recently released comments criticizing the Iraq war (made in a 2004 interview but embargoed until after his death) show how alien he found the current president's reckless foreign policy. In his post-presidential career, Ford emerged as a critic of the religious right and an advocate of political reforms, both of which placed him far to the left of today's GOP.
It was Ford's narrow loss to Jimmy Carter in 1976 that enabled the subsequent radicalization of the Republican Party. Carter was a mediocre president, and he came into office under terrible conditions -- stagflation, an energy crisis, the wake of a losing war -- under which no president could have succeeded. His inevitable failure paved the way for Americans to elect Ronald Reagan. And after Reagan, a new orthodoxy took hold in the Republican Party that celebrated deficit-financed tax cuts, ultra-nationalistic foreign policy and a cynical culture war.
If Ford had managed to win in 1976, it would have been Republicans who were saddled with the stagflation mess. And a Democrat probably would have won the presidency in 1980 and presided over the expansion that followed. (Stagflation was solved when the Arab oil embargo collapsed and the Federal Reserve induced a recession that crushed inflation.)
So we can now see that 1976 was a great year to let the other party win. With the passions of Watergate running high, the election seemed really important, but it probably had negative importance: Democrats lost by winning.
The same thing probably happened to Republicans two years ago. The 2004 elections seemed like a vital, titanic clash, one many people regarded as the most important of our lifetime. But imagine if John Kerry had won. He'd have presided over a mediocre economy and a war in Iraq for which conservatives would blame him. (Can anybody doubt they'd be saying that we were winning until Kerry screwed it up?) Democrats never would have taken back the House or the Senate in 2006. We'd be poised for another GOP sweep in 2008, and the Republicans would be far less chastised than they are today.
And the elections that people think don't matter often do. Moderates and liberals widely regarded the 2000 presidential campaign as a snoozer. Apathetic liberals held "shadow conventions" that year to highlight the stultifying timidity of the two major parties. The implicit premise of Ralph Nader's 2000 candidacy was that it was as good a year as any for liberals to make a protest statement and throw the election to a Republican. We now can see that the radicalism of George W. Bush, then half-concealed, along with the rallying effect of Sept. 11 made the 2000 election incredibly consequential.
So the 2000 election that so many people thought didn't matter turned out to be the most important election of our lifetime. And the next presidential election, which many said was the most important election of our lifetime, barely mattered at all, and may even have had negative importance -- for the Republicans. I guess I ought to be thankful to Kerry for being such an awful candidate. If only Gerald Ford had been a slightly better politician....