History offers little encouragement to either major American party this election year. Sobering for Republicans is the fact that in the past 87 years, no GOP ticket that did not have on it either a Bush or a Nixon has won any presidential election. Democrats live with their own distressing jinx: In the past 179 years, their party has won a third consecutive White House term exactly once, and that was when their nominee was a charismatic, historic leader, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 2016, two questions will be answered: Can a Nixon-less, Bush-less GOP ticket break the losing streak? Or will the Democrats, with no FDR, somehow win three in a row?
My personal preference for trying to understand how we Americans choose our presidents is to think in terms of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, which is so full of "begets" and "begats."
Think about U.S. elections over the past half-century. With the U.S. mired in an unpopular war in Vietnam and afflicted with civil unrest at home, Richard Nixon won on a platform of peace abroad and law and order at home. Instead, he extended the war and conducted a criminal conspiracy in Watergate, which forced him, in order to escape a prison term, to resign his office. Nixon — who had served earlier in the House, in the Senate and as vice president for eight years and was arguably the most experienced man ever elected president — effectively ended up giving experience a bad name.
This begat Jimmy Carter, a former one-term governor of Georgia who had never spent more than a long weekend in the District of Columbia and who promised never to tell a lie to the American people. To disillusioned voters, Carter's political virginity became an electoral virtue. When Carter became the first American president to have his job rating in the Gallup Poll fall below the prime interest rate, he made possible the improbable election of the ideological leader of the nation's minority party, Ronald Reagan. It didn't help that Carter, though intelligent and conscientious, seemed to change his mind a lot, whereas Reagan, let it be noted, had not changed his mind since 1964. Nixon begat Carter; Carter begat Reagan.
Eight popular years later, Vice President George H.W. Bush effectively won Reagan's third term. But faced with a struggling economy, he would lose re-election to an opponent who, unlike Bush, communicated his empathy and connection with people who were hurting. Bill Clinton, with the most successful economic record of the entire era — 22 million new private-sector jobs created, more than were produced in the 20 years combined of Reagan and both George Bushes — lied about a tawdry sexual relationship with a college-age intern and made possible the election of George W. Bush, who pledged to restore "dignity to the White House." G.H.W. Bush begat Clinton; Clinton begat G.W. Bush.
By taking America into a war without justification, without allies and without end — and by his own aggressively anti-intellectual style and fractured syntax — W begat Barack Obama and made the eloquent anti-war, best-selling young senator look very, very good.
The question today is: Could the relentlessly cerebral, cool, seemingly emotionally detached Obama actually beget the swaggering, bawdy, self-pleased billionaire Donald Trump? It will all come down to what the voters are looking for.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.