It is a common, if not especially honorable, practice in American politics for a candidate and her campaign to prefer to run not against their actual opponent on the ballot but rather against the most unpopular caricature of the opponent's party. That explains why Democrats, for close to three decades after the election of 1932, when Franklin Roosevelt crushed Republican Herbert Hoover by 18% in the popular vote and carried 42 of the then 48 states, continued to run against "Herbert Hoover Republicans." Ignored was Hoover's humanitarian record during World War I, when through his leadership, 7 million Belgians were rescued from certain starvation.
Republicans' preferred opponents were often painted as "George McGovern Democrats," after the South Dakota Democrat who, as an all-out critic of the U.S. war in Vietnam, lost 49 of the nation's 50 states to Richard Nixon in 1972. Overlooked by many of the attacking Republicans — a number of whom, as young men during Vietnam, were "chicken-hawks," who hypocritically endorsed a policy of U.S. military escalation while avoiding (through graduate school deferments or previously undiscovered bone spurs) personal participation — was McGovern's heroic war record as the 22-year-old pilot of the Air Corps' hardest-to-fly plane, the B-24, through 35 combat missions and earning of the Distinguished Flying Cross. But, as we all know, politics ain't beanbag.
But President Donald Trump has chosen a different Democrat, beyond former Vice President Joe Biden, to run against in 2020. Apparently, Trump is unaware that in the last 148 years, exactly three U.S. presidents have been able to win more than 51% of the popular vote in consecutive national elections. They were Democrat Franklin Roosevelt (who actually exceeded that total in four presidential wins) and Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, the widely popular supreme allied commander of the U.S. Allied Forces that vanquished Adolf Hitler's Germany. And who was the third political powerhouse in this formidable trio? The 44th U.S. president, Barack Obama of Illinois.
It is generally agreed that Trump won, and Hillary Clinton lost, Wisconsin and Michigan in 2016 because of the dramatic drop-off from 2012 (-12.4% in Michigan and -12.3% in Wisconsin) among African American voters, especially in Detroit and Milwaukee. When Obama ran, for the first time in American history, younger black voters voted in greater proportion than did younger whites. The highest voter turnout among any racial, ethnic or gender group in the entire electorate with Obama on the ballot was black women. In 2012, for the first time, black Americans voted at a higher rate than did white Americans. With Obama campaigning, 2 million more Latinos voted than had voted in the previous election. Two million more Blacks voted, and 600,000 more Asians voted as well.
With his continuing unsubstantiated accusations against his immediate predecessor of having committed "the greatest political crime in the history of our country," Trump guarantees Obama's central role in the continuing campaign debate. It is a fight Trump wants and a fight Trump can only lose. Whatever Barack Obama's liabilities might have been as chief executive, at the difficult task of winning presidential elections, he is an authentic heavyweight champion.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
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