Back in 1980 as Ronald Reagan began racking up victories in Republican primaries and caucuses, establishment Republicans were in a panic, fearing that by nominating such an extreme conservative, the party faithful were jeopardizing their best chance to unseat a Democratic incumbent since the year before the United States entered the First World War. Indeed, Jimmy Carter and Democrats delighted as the Gipper easily secured the GOP nomination, believing him to be easier to beat than some of his more moderate Republican rivals.
We hear similar grumbling today about the weakness of the current GOP field, with pundits and bloggers (including yours truly) pining for a promising legislator or accomplished former (or current) governor.
With his encyclopedic knowledge of American history, Michael Barone reminds us that in 1932, the party out of (presidential) power had a weak “field of presidential candidates in a year when its prospects for victory seemed so great“: Democrats’ “prospects for victory [that year] were excellent by just about any measure.” But, despite this “golden opportunity for the Democratic party . . ., its field of candidates looked weak at the time”. The man who would win the party’s nomination — and the general election was, during the contest that year for the contest for that nomination, considered a
. . . lightweight, profiting on the fact that he was a distant cousin (his wife Eleanor was a closer cousin) of Theodore Roosevelt, a president considered great enough at that time to be worthy of being depicted on Mount Rushmore . . . .
Although underestimated early on in 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt all but defined American politics for the next fifty years — and is still today considered one of the greatest American presidents. Perhaps, his New Deal did not rescue the nation from the Great Depression, but he did inspire his fellow Americans at that difficult time. And he did provide sterling leadership as the European crisis deepened in the 1930s and the United States entered World War II in the early 1940s.
The example of 1932 leads Barone to conclude:
The 2012 Republican field does indeed look weak, at a time of great opportunity for the party. But so did the 1932 Democratic field. We can try to learn as much about these candidates as we can, but we cannot foresee the future. We must hope that at least one of these candidates turns out to have greater strengths and virtues than are now apparent. It’s happened before.
It’s Barone. Read the whole thing.