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By Michael Davidow, Radio Free New Hampshire
Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, whose very name calls out for rough treatment at the hands of President Trump, made news recently for encouraging other Republicans to run against their dear leader in the 2020 election. If anybody heeds his call (and he has said that if nobody else does, he himself might), then New Hampshire has a date with destiny. But here’s the question, as for every election day: do we hope for snow or sunny skies?
I can think of three similar times. In 1968, Eugene McCarthy challenged President Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic nomination; in 1976, Ronald Reagan challenged President Gerald Ford, and four years later, Ted Kennedy did the same to President Jimmy Carter. And it is sobering to recall that none of these men won.
McCarthy came closest, and his campaign counted. Using classic retail politics and swarms of young volunteers, he came within striking distance (though still finishing second) here in New Hampshire. Proving that Johnson was vulnerable encouraged others to enter that race, accordingly. Robert Kennedy joined in. Johnson eventually withdrew. Vice President Hubert Humphrey won the nomination in his place, Nixon won the election, and McCarthy felt bitter about it all. He had some of the loveliest campaign posters of all time, by the way. Maybe Nancy West can find one, to show you.
And by the way, again: later research implied that the McCarthy vote was an illusory one. He should not have felt bitter. People did not like Gene McCarthy as much as they disliked Lyndon Johnson. With that historical lesson in mind, I was very saddened when nobody joined the fight against what’s-her-name in 2016 after Bernie Sanders kept drubbing her. I guess Democrats aren’t much fun anymore.
Republicans, to the contrary, like to have fun. Or at least they did in 1976. Ford was a likable and competent man. He had an attractive family, an outspoken wife, and the practical problem of never having fought a single campaign outside of Grand Rapids, Michigan, in his entire career. And having come to power through the resignation of Richard Nixon, his own party considered his presidency to be little more than accidental.
Reagan had been itching to run since 1968 (the year when everyone seemed to believe that Washington was up for grabs), he had been planning to run anyway when Nixon’s term was up, and he was not going to let another Republican incumbency stop him.
What did finally stop him, however, was exactly that: the power of incumbency. Reagan was popular, but Ford was president. Even those who preferred Reagan were reluctant to make it official. And Ford was able to beat back that challenge with a combination of his own amiability and the sheer weight of his office.
Come 1980, in fact, and Carter managed that same trick without being amiable. Kennedy’s entire campaign seemed to be motivated by pique; by his own inability to accept a non-charismatic plodder as the head of his family’s party. (Jeanne Shaheen worked for Jimmy Carter. Imagine that, folks.) And it is worth noting that Kennedy’s campaign was little more than a personal crusade. He ran as a celebrity, with name recognition, but nothing to say. Few officials supported him, either publicly or privately. He deserved to lose, and to his credit, he did so with a fair amount of grace. In the end, Kennedy was a party man, and he fought for his party.
Leaving me to ask: what party does Donald Trump represent, anyway? Because if it’s still the Republican party, then Mr. Flake might find himself alone out there on the barricades of Nashua and Berlin. There is little to gain among either party’s elite by backing an insurgent. If the incumbent wins, then you have the comfort of having backed him or her all along. If the incumbent loses, then you are no worse off than any other official, who all kept their mouths shut, just like you. People play it safe in politics, like they do in every contact sport.
I hope we get to see a fight, though. I hope that somewhere, a Republican still exists who believes in the things that made that party worthwhile to begin with: an aversion to know-it-alls; an acceptance of progress – both social and scientific– without the corresponding sense that one must be its slave; a modesty in the appraisal of one’s own needs, coupled with generosity towards others in need. I miss having a Republican party that held its own in rational debate. I miss having a Republican party that could be trusted to take its turn in power.
So for that reason, I’ll be rooting for snow, when the primary season of 2020 rolls around. Not, however, because only the motivated vote in bad weather (Trump’s voters can be pretty motivated, after all) but for a different reason altogether: New Hampshire looks so pretty when it snows. And all the tee-vee people will be here. We will need to look our best.
Michael Davidow of Manchester is a lawyer in Nashua. He is the author of Gate City, Split Thirty, and The Rocketdyne Commission, three novels about politics and advertising which, taken together, form The Henry Bell Project. His books are available on Amazon.