“Tug McGraw for President,” was the sign on my dorm room door back in 1980, the last time the Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series. McGraw was a hero in that series, with relief pitching that helped the Phillies defeat the Kansas City Royals 4 games to 2.
1980 was also the last year an election felt quite like this one. The election looked very close, but there was a sense that the Republican Ronald Reagan had momentum on his side as he seemed hopeful, optimistic and positive about the future, compared to Jimmy Carter, the incumbent. Carter had won in 1976 as an outsider, riding a wave of anti-Washington feelings. Yet, despite some accomplishments like the Camp David Accords, he had to deal with major crises towards the end of his term, especially the Iranian hostage crisis and a recession that included stagflation — inflation during a recession.
Still, Carter was pleased that Reagan bested George Bush in the 1980 primary. Reagan was seen as too far to the right, and too inexperienced. Given the more liberal mode of the country in the 70s, many Democrats thought that simply painting Reagan as “too conservative” and “on the right wing of his party” would be enough to get Americans to avoid voting for the California ex-Governor. Up until the two debated in late October the polls were close. Yet Reagan performed well in the debate and ultimately won the election, which took place on November 4, 1980, in a landslide. The electoral vote count was a stunning 489-49. He won the popular vote by 50 – 41.
Moreover, he had coattails. The Republicans shocked the Democrats by winning 12 seats and taking control of the Senate 53-46. The Democrats lost 35 seats in the House and, though retaining control, a coalition of Republicans and southern Democrats gave Reagan a working majority in the House. Later those southern Democrats would disappear, replaced by southern Republicans. The country, in a word, was realigned. The liberal era of the 70s gave way to a new conservatism.
Could 2008 be another realigning election year? (And if so I have another working hypothesis: every time the Phillies win a world series in a year where Presidential elections take place on November 4…). The signs point that way. In almost all state polls Obama holds a consistent lead, save for states that are solidly GOP. He certainly won’t hit 489 electoral votes, but 400 could be within his reach. A nine point popular vote victory is possible. And the Democrats, though already in control in the House and Senate, could pick up significant numbers of seats. We could be on the verge of the second realignment of my lifetime. If so, I’ve been on the right side of both.
This year I find myself connecting to Barack Obama and his message. We’re about the same age, and have the same pragmatic view that we need to stop all the name calling and take a “cooperate and compromise” approach to solving real problems. I find John McCain’s campaign to be mean spirited and devoid of real ideas.
In 1980 I was in Detroit, Michigan, at the Republican National Convention that nominated Ronald Reagan. I was part of a “youth for Reagan” group, seven of us who came from South Dakota in a van to Ypsilanti, Michigan. We stayed at the dorms of Eastern Michigan University, bussed into the convention every day. I saw Reagan, Bush, and Dole close up. I met Tod Koppel. Then when Reagan got nominated we were on the floor of the convention. We didn’t have security clearance, but the Reagan campaign had us “snuck” down there to show a young crowd celebrating Reagan’s nomination. I was down below the podium with the words “Together a New Beginning” touting Reagan’s message of hope.
It was an amazing experience. In the dorms at EMU, I met some really pretty girls from Maine. I don’t recall their names or where they were from, but I traded them a big “South Dakotans for Reagan” button for a little Maine Lobster that I stuck to my camera case. That camera case with a “Maine” sticker went all over Europe and the US with me over the next 15 years, even though I wouldn’t visit Maine until my job interview at UMF in 1995. The night of the election I was thrilled by the result, coloring in the map red (even though the red/blue labels were not yet in place — it was by coincidence I chose red) as the results came in, and it was clear that it was an historic, landmark election.
Yet that election was also one where I felt my own political views shifting. I was excited about Reagan, but I did something odd on election day. First, I refused to volunteer to help get people to the polls, annoying my very active Republican roommate. I’d been working a lot that summer on the election for the Abdnor campaign for Senate, but now distanced myself. I got in the voting booth, and voted not for Abdnor, but for Senator McGovern, who would lose that day.
Over the next decades my political views would shift. Living for awhile in Italy and learning about the world outside of South Dakota convinced me that I’d been a bit naive in thinking we didn’t need government programs and that everyone could succeed if they just worked hard. I came to understand the power of structural barriers, and the complexity of the issues. Yet I couldn’t be comfortable with the Democrats, who seemed too wedded to big government solutions and deficit spending. Ralph Nader became my favorite politician, he at least seemed to stand on principles.
Principles. That’s why drew people to Ronald Reagan in 1980. The country was in a bad place, and needed a change. Reagan seemed to have something that appealed to people. The Democrats dismissed it as learned lines by an actor. Carter had experience and substance, Reagan was simply a ‘great communicator.’
Now, in 2008, we seem on the verge of another realigning election. The Obama candidacy feels to me a lot like how the Reagan campaign felt in 2008. The Republicans are throwing everything they can at Obama: Wright, Ayres, too liberal, etc. But just as Reagan was the “teflon President,” these attacks seem to slide off Obama. He’s enunciated some core principles and proposals and sticks to his message. People sense in Obama the same thing they sensed in Reagan in 1980: a candidate who looks able to deliver a change the country needs. They sense optimism, pragmatism, and hope.
Of course, I may be wrong. The Republicans say McCain still has a chance to come back, and the polls are close enough that things could change. But just four days before the election this has the feel of something big. I have no idea where Tug McGraw ended up — relief pitchers fade away. But when I heard the Phillies won the series I had a flashback to 1980. Somehow, it feels like we’re in for a big change next Tuesday.