Sometime it seems that every single election of my lifetime had been more important than the one before. But is that really true? What follows is a first take at that question: I hope it provokes a long and contentious comment thread. (Hope, as we again realized ten days ago, really does spring eternal.)
Let’s start a little before I was born.
1960: Not important, even in retrospect. Would Nixon have backed the Cuban exiles? Would Nixon have tried a Keynesian tax cut? Would either have mattered in the long run? There may have be knock-on effects on the struggle for African-American equality, but those are contingent and impossible to predict.
1964: Yes, very important, but such a blow-out that it’s not worth commenting upon.
1968: Massively important, both as it seemed at the time and (even more so) in retrospect. A Humphrey administration would have brought universal health care and universal day care, for two things, let alone the implications for American political culture from avoiding Watergate.
1972: See 1964.
1976: Not important, with a caveat. Gerald Ford would not have been appreciably different from Jimmy Carter. Ford, however, would not have been eligible to run in 1980 under the terms of the 22nd amendment. (He took office before January 1975, therefore serving “more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President.”) If a Ford term wracked with inflation and recession (which it would have been) allowed Kennedy to beat Reagan in ‘80, then the consequences of having liberal Democrats in office during the subsequent boom might have been very large. But that is speculation; at the time, the stakes were low.
1980: Unknowable. First, it wasn’t really that close. (See 1972.) In that sense, it’s hard to care about the counterfactual. Second, the American ship-of-state remained remarkably steady under the Reagan administration, given the rhetoric. Finally, its importance hinges on way too many unknowables. (See 1976.) In other words, it probably mattered a lot in the long-run but it really is not easy to say how.
1984: See 1972.
1988: Not important, really, unless you believe that a Dukakis administration would have ignored the invasion of Kuwait. If you believe that then it was massively important.
1992: Hard to say. The re-election of George H.W. Bush would have slowed the radicalization of the Republican Party. But at the time, the election didn’t seem earth-shattering save for the issue of health care … and those reforms failed to materialize.
2000: Massively important … but only in retrospect. Sure, a Gore administration would have kept federal finances in better shape, but that isn’t important. Slightly higher marginal income taxes would have meant slightly lower growth of inequality, but not by much. A Gore-driven Medicare expansion would not have required the fixing that Dubya’s did, but Dubya’s expansion was in fact later fixed. The massive consequences from that election were not foreseeable at the time.
2004: Not sure. A Kerry administration would have had a rough time disengaging from Iraq. It might have headed off the 2007 financial collapse, but I doubt it. It would have appointed some Supreme Court justices which might have some large consequences going ahead. And then it would have ended with the election of John McCain in 2008. There is a strong case to be made that the stakes were not as high as they seemed at the time.
2008: Too soon to tell. You can make a case that America and the world would be in better shape had John McCain won. (Although his Veep … gulp.) But that hinges on McCain passing a big stimulus, something like Dodd-Frank, a climate change bill and heading off the election of the current President-elect. He would need to hit the quadrifecta while avoiding foreign policy missteps. How likely was that? Moreover, I think the political consequences of having had an African-American president will become clearer in the future, as will Barack Obama’s particular historical role. NOTE: had the 2016 election gone the other way, then I would be more certain in stating that ’08 was an important election, if not 1968-level important.
2012: Important. Obamacare and the Clean Power Plan, for two things. Of course, neither may survive the upcoming administration. See 2008.
2016: Oh my God. America will change dramatically, or so it seems.
If this analysis holds water, then two things stand out. First, the only massive future-of-the-Republic election we’ve had up until 2016 happened in 1968. Second, most elections seem less important in retrospect.
It is possible that 2016 will turn out to be a blip, a strange election prompted by a reaction to the first black president combined with noxious social declines in parts of white America. That will not, however, happen on its own. Opponents of the administration-to-be will need to work very hard and very smart.
Thoughts? Counter-arguments? I would like this to generate discussion; these conclusions are far from firm.