Political prognosticators, including some conservative ones, declare that a candidate as radical in his views as Governor Rick Perry cannot defeat President Obama—even in the midst of a recession—because the swaggering Texan will alienate moderate swing voters. But history shows voters who have abandoned an incumbent are not easily won back simply by sowing fear of the opponent, however extreme that opponent’s ideology may be.
A good example came in 1980. Then, like now, the economy was in bad shape: instead of today’s Great Recession, it was 14 percent inflation at the beginning of the year followed by a sharp (though short) recession that summer. Then, like now, a seemingly endless confrontation in the Middle East was straining the public’s patience: instead of Afghanistan, it was the Iranian hostage crisis. President Jimmy Carter’s competence and leadership ability were questioned then just as President Obama’s are now.
Enter Ronald Reagan. With his name now adorning airports and government buildings (part of an official “naming project” of the Right, intended to weave the Gipper’s memory and ideology into our collective unconscious), it may be hard to remember what an extreme and polarizing figure he was considered when the 1980 presidential campaign began.
Admittedly, I was firmly ensconced in the East Coast liberal elite world, but it’s still worthy of note that the principal of my school—a sober, level-headed fellow—declared he would move to Canada if Reagan was elected. (I don’t think he followed through on his threat.)
Why the fear and loathing of Reagan? Well, he casually discussed the possibility of nuclear war, claimed air pollution came from fallen trees, and espoused a “blame the poor” social policy not heard from a serious political leader since the 19th Century.
And yet, the economy was in bad shape, America seemed trapped overseas and Jimmy Carter was unpopular. Reagan, the former actor and television pitchman, was able to reassure the nervous middle with some prime time commercials. And when Carter in a debate tried to stoke the fear again, Reagan permanently doused it with his now-famous line: “There you go again.”
The lesson is that Obama supporters should not assume an extreme Republican candidate like Perry can’t beat their man. When the nation is in turmoil as it is now, sometimes the only attribute the electorate is looking for in a challenger is that he not be the incumbent.