When people learn that I have spent the past 50 years either working in or covering the past 13 presidential campaigns, I'm often asked my opinion of what was the best-run national campaign.
My answer — the losing 1976 Republican presidential campaign of President Gerald Ford — surprises some people.
Consider the facts: On Labor Day 1976, eight weeks before Election Day, Democrat Jimmy Carter led Ford in recognized national polls by 32 percent. Because 81.56 million voters ended up turning out for the election, that means Ford trailed Carter by some 26.1 million votes.
In the greatest comeback in U.S. political history, on Nov. 2, Jerry Ford came within a switch of only 12,886 votes in Ohio and Mississippi of winning re-election. The campaign's message was direct and believable: Jerry Ford, the soul of Midwestern unpretentiousness, was not Abraham Lincoln or FDR, but neither was he Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson, his immediate two predecessors, who, through Vietnam and Watergate, had shaken Americans' self-confidence. Ford was the comfortable old shoes, running against Carter, the unfamiliar "new suit."
One Ford TV spot captured the campaign's message: "Those who know Jimmy Carter best are from Georgia. That's why we thought you ought to know the Savannah, Georgia, News endorses Gerald Ford for president; the Augusta, Georgia, Herald endorses President Ford; the Atlanta, Georgia, Daily World endorses President Ford; the Marietta, Georgia, Journal endorses President Ford." It went on and on. No personal attack, just some facts you might not have been aware of.
Which brings us to 2018 and the long-shot Senate campaign of Rep. Robert "Beto" O'Rourke, who is challenging incumbent Republican Ted Cruz in Texas. While rejecting money from political action committees, O'Rourke just made political history by collecting more than $38 million between June 30 and Sept. 30 from 802,836 individual contributions. O'Rourke, who has basically run a relentlessly upbeat campaign, is apparently uncomfortable attacking his opponent, which leads back to the lessons from Ford's '76 campaign.
Cruz, to put it bluntly, is not personally a likable fellow, and his fellow Republicans have been quite outspoken on just how unlikable he is. I'll give you just a few examples. The late Pulitzer Prize-winning conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer said: "Everybody who knows him in the Senate hates him. And I think 'hate' is not an exaggeration." Of Cruz, who worked for his 2000 campaign (and was reportedly the only senior staffer not invited to join the White House staff), former President George W. Bush said, "I just don't like the guy."
Bob Dole, former GOP presidential and vice presidential nominee and Senate leader, on the 2016 Republican presidential prospects: "There are a lot of good candidates. I like nearly all of them — except Cruz." Former Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner: "Lucifer in the flesh. ... I have Democrat friends, and I have Republican friends. I get along with almost everybody, but I have never worked with a more miserable son of a b—— in my life." Dan Coats, a former Republican senator from Indiana and currently the director of national intelligence under President Donald Trump: "He's the most self-centered, narcissistic pathological liar I've ever seen — and you can quote me on that." President Trump: "He's a nasty guy. ... Nobody likes him anywhere once they get to know him."
The Jerry Ford-inspired O'Rourke spot might conclude with this thought: "Will Rogers, the great cowboy humorist, famously observed that he never met a man he didn't like. Let history show that Will Rogers never met Ted Cruz." A "those who know him best" message could just work in 2018.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.