Watergate to "The Wall": How Richard Nixon Broke the Presidency

Late at night on November 8th, 2016, the United States received what appeared at the time to be the biggest political shock in the country’s 250-plus year electoral history. The surprise victory of multi-billionaire real estate mogul and host of The Apprentice Donald J. Trump over former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was foreseen by only the boldest election analysts. Obviously, a Clinton victory did not come to pass. So now the question must be asked, does the fact that Donald Trump is President mean that years of discontent have finally led American voters to vote with their hearts? The argument could certainly be made that voters were ready for a change just by looking back at Republican congressional gains in 2010 and onwards. Here, however, we will explore another possible explanation for not only the 2016 election, but all other presidential elections in modern US history. This new proposition asserts that presidential campaigns have not only become highly predictable, but that they have actually fallen into a protracted monotony.  Through everything, voters have seemed to stubbornly follow one hard rule over any other: the presidential candidate who wins is the one who seems furthest from the “political establishment” and defies the public perception of what a typical politician looks and sounds like.

This rule has not held true for all of US history, of course. Stretches of time spanning decades have gone by with one political party holding near-absolute control over the presidency. From the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 to the rise of Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party in 1912, only two Democrats rose to the highest office in the land: Andrew Johnson, who took over after Lincoln’s assassination, and Grover Cleveland, whose only well-known achievement was being the only person to serve two non-consecutive presidential terms. From FDR’s first of four successful elections in 1932 to LBJ’s beatdown of Barry Goldwater in 1964, the only Republican president was the remarkably centrist war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower. Then along came Richard Nixon, the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War, and Watergate, a scandal so shocking that twenty-five years later 78% of poll respondents described it as a turning point in American trust in government.

A comprehensive rundown of the next forty years of elections is required to understand the unmistakable trend that emerged. Nixon’s administration saw the peak of a Vietnam conflict in which 58,000 Americans, and he eventually resigned due to his role in Watergate. He was replaced by his vice president, Gerald Ford, who immediately put himself on America’s bad side by pardoning his predecessor. Ford ran for reelection in 1976, but the twelve-term US Representative’s campaign strategy that branded him as a “known quantity”, combined with his association with the Nixon scandal, put him at a disadvantage in the contest against Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter. Carter’s relative inexperience in government and “genuine” background as a peanut farmer made him the first Washington outsider to become president since General Eisenhower in 1952 and General Grant in 1868. Carter fell victim to an even more famous outsider in 1980, as Ronald Reagan’s governorship of California, background as a high-profile actor, and charismatic persona helped turnout his voters and overcome a number of bad campaign mistakes en route to an electoral landslide victory. In 1984, Reagan’s Democratic challenger was Walter Mondale, a two-term US Senator and Carter’s vice president. The battle between a popular incumbent who still possessed an outsider persona and a dry career politician ended with Reagan winning every state but Mondale’s home of Minnesota. It was not surprising in the end, considering only 9% of voters said they made their choice based on governing experience. The 1988 election was a relative push in terms of “outsider” qualities, since George H.W. Bush had served as a US Representative, Director of the CIA, and eight years as Reagan’s vice president, while his opponent Michael Dukakis had spent the last 14 years as Massachusetts’ Governor. The 1988 election was the only apparent anomaly in the forty-year period, but upon closer inspection it seems that Bush’s campaign strategy, which deemphasized his own qualifications and focused on painting his opponent as a soft and unprepared “Massachusetts liberal”, gave voters some distraction from his own lengthy history in the national government.  This distraction gave Bush just enough breathing room to capitalize on his predecessor’s high approval ratings and robust economic conditions as he coasted to a commanding victory.

Bush the Senior’s success was short-lived, however, as only four years later a young, centrist, unorthodox Democrat from Arkansas named Bill Clinton caught Bush by surprise despite the incumbent’s high approval ratings and a victory in Operation Desert Storm. Despite Bush’s repertoire of achievements and experience, only 19% of voters ranked “has the right experience” as one of their top-two most important qualities in a candidate, as opposed to 36% preferring someone who “will bring about needed change.” In 1996, Republicans trotted out Bob Dole, who had spent 36 years in the House of Representatives and Senate by that point. Dole, for many the physical incarnation of the Washington establishment, never came close to Clinton in the polls, and a month before the election Republican operatives told Congressional candidates to disown Dole in an effort to preserve their majorities and maintain a leash on President Clinton’s second term. The cycle of strangeness continued as Clinton finished his administration with the highest approval rating of any president since World War II, while his vice president, former US Representative and US Senator Al Gore, lost an impossibly close election to the suffocatingly personable one-term Texas Governor George W. Bush. The election itself seemed to offer a paradox, as 56% of voters said the country needed to “stay on course” and 68% said the Clinton administration was “responsible” or “somewhat responsible” for the state of the booming economy, yet Gore received only 48% of the popular vote. In 2004, long-time US Senator John Kerry challenged Bush Jr. and lost by 2% of the vote. Following the 2008 financial crisis, Barack Obama successfully ran as the progress, hope, and change candidate against veteran Arizona Senator John McCain in the general. Obama was unsuccessfully challenged by former Massachusetts Governor and serial candidate Mitt Romney in 2012. While at first glance it seemed like Romney as an accomplished ex-governor of a blue state could exert a sufficiently “different” persona, his well-known status as a favorite of Washington GOP leadership likely canceled out that effect at a time when voters in general and Republican voters in particular had high levels of government distrust. What happened in the 2016 does not need reiteration.

In terms of consistent trends, there’s not much available for unpacking. For starters, the actual policy positions of the candidate seem to have no consistent bearing on election outcomes. Jimmy Carter was a moderate Democrat who often ran afoul of his party’s progressive wing, Ronald Reagan ran on small-government economics, George H.W. Bush promised a “kinder and gentler” alternative to Reaganism, Bill Clinton ran as a centrist “New Democrat”, George W. Bush touted himself as a new type of “compassionate conservative”, Barack Obama ran as a progressive social democrat, and Donald Trump ran as a populist-nationalist above all else. It is nearly impossible to divine any trend just by looking at candidate’s politics, since only two consecutive presidents in the last forty years have hailed from the same political party. When one compares candidate backgrounds, however, another far-clearer trend emerges, one removed from actual national conditions and policy positions. The only candidates listed above who had been elected to Washington before their time in office were George H.W. Bush, who I will grant as the one anomaly to this trend, and Barack Obama, who’d only been a US Senator for four years and ran on an ideals-over-policy message in the midst of a massive economic crisis overseen by the opposing candidate’s party. In a whip-lashed forty years of presidential elections, voters time and time again have seemed to value novelty and reject those who represent the “status quo” of politics. If this trend is consistent, then Donald Trump’s stunning win in 2016 was not a bucking of the political powers-that-be; in fact, it was the most predictable possible outcome.

In terms of future elections, the prescriptions for political parties are clear. For Democrats in 2020 to unseat Donald Trump, they will have to find a candidate who is as unorthodox and as different from the typical “Washington politician” as possible. Looking at the past forty years, however, it seems a foregone conclusion that a veteran of Washington like Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, or Bernie Sanders will get the nomination. Warren and Sanders, while widely viewed as more populist and outspoken than their Democratic colleagues, have seen their positions become more and more integrated into their party’s national platform. This transition could lead voters to associate them with the behavior of an increasingly dysfunctional US Senate. Perhaps a candidate without widespread name recognition like LA Mayor Eric Garcetti or former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick can come from behind and save Democrats from eight years of Trump in the White House, but the chances of a candidate more unorthodox than Donald Trump winning the Democratic primary seem slim.

Ultimately, this long trend found its starting point in the outrage and scandal surrounding the Nixon presidency, and it is unlikely that the still-existent wound in the collective electoral zeitgeist can be healed anytime soon. National discontent over more recent developments like the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 2008 Great Recession, or generally-intensified Washington gridlock and political brinksmanship continue to provide rationale for voters to spurn traditional politicians. One could easily argue that the nation needs to move away from its focus on inexperienced national politicians, however, due to the damaging effect that the pendulum effect has had on the ability of the national government to function. The lack of consistent policy priorities in the minds of voters has filled the highest levels of government with politicians who said the things voters wanted to hear, but when it comes to executing long-time campaign promises like repealing the Affordable Care Act, the vast majority of Americans recoil. The need for experienced government dealmakers, policy enthusiasts, and administrators is more pressing than ever, and the problem will not improve as long as names like “Kid Rock”, “Mark Zuckerberg”, “Kanye West”, and “Oprah Winfrey” pervade the political arena. And as to the question of whether prioritizing good campaigning over good governance has permanently crippled the federal government’s ability to make meaningful changes, only the passage of time can tell.