Commentary

This Is the Most Important Election Since the Last One: Read My Lips

Boring elections are financial windfalls for nobody.

DEMOCRATIC DEBATE

Deni Baird listens during a watch party at the Varsity Theater hosted by the campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders during the Democratic presidential debate at nearby Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, on Nov. 14, 2015.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

This is, as everybody has heard by now, the most important presidential election of our lifetimes, and one of the most consequential in American history.

Oh wait. That's what the Alabama Republican Party said of the last presidential election, in 2012.

"This is the most important election of our lives," according to Elijah Cummings, a leader of the Congressional Black Caucus.

He said that in 2004.

There's no escaping the hype. Entire industries, the media included, benefit when an election cycle is deemed critical to the survival of the republic, while only the truth is served by describing a run-of-the-mill election as run-of-the mill.

Historically important elections spur the Sheldon Adelsons and Tom Steyers to throw huge gobs of money at political groups, which in turn spend money on florists and caterers and employ treasurers and senior advisers who decide how to spend tens of millions of dollars in advertising. 

Boring elections are financial windfalls for nobody.

So the 2016 campaign for the White House, which still has a daunting year to go, is already "one of the most important presidential elections ever," according to the Washington Times. Phyllis Schlafly says it "could be the most important presidential election of our lifetime" -- which is saying something, since she was born in 1924.

 To Tom DeLay, it's "probably the most important election since the Civil War." Another Texan, Rick Perry, declares it only "the most important election of our lifetime." There you have it -- diversity of opinion, Texas-style.

Maybe Bobby Jindal's refrain that 2016 is "the most important election of our lifetimes" -- uttered again by the candidate during the undercard debate last Tuesday -- is what has 0.3 percent of the Republican electorate so energized about his chances.

During the main event an hour or so later on Tuesday, Marco Rubio, perhaps mindful of the clichéd phrase, said, "This election is a generational choice."

Though some Bernie Sanders supporters also buy into the "most important" canard, it's most typically deployed by the party not holding the White House.

So it was in 2004, when Democrats were the challengers and it was John Kerry hyping "the most important election of our lifetime.'' (Given what a win would have meant for him, maybe he meant the most important election of his life.)

Bob Herbert, in the New York Times, and Dan Rather, in whatever it is that Dan Rather does these days, both invoked the "most important" description for the 2008 election, when Barack Obama's historic candidacy had the media eating out of its palm.

As speaker of the House, he proclaimed 1996 "the most important election in 62 years," later revised to the most important one in 100 years. When Gingrich ran for president in 2012, he declared it "the most important election in our lifetime." (For similarly self-interested reasons, Clinton-Gore finance chairman Terry McAuliffe also called 1996 "the most important presidential election we will ever face.") 

The gravity of modern-day elections may impress the participants, but historians are unmoved. 

"The post-World War II elections of 1948, 1952, 1960, 1964, 1968 and 1980 merit mention, but the ones after that, very little," David Mayhew, a professor at Yale University, wrote during the 2012 election. He puts 1860 (something about slavery and a civil war) and 1932 (a New Deal) at the top of his list of important elections. 

So back to this oh-so-important election of 2016: 

Is there a candidate out there who could score a Reaganesque sweep of the electoral map and take office with the political capital to end gridlock? Far more likely is that a hanging chad (or whatever) in Ohio decides the winner, leaving just shy of 50 percent of Americans threatening to move to Canada. 

Is there a candidate pledging a radical shift in policy? Only if you believe President Fiorina can really shorten the tax code to three pages. (No cheating with tiny fonts, Carly.)

How about that great presidential wildcard, the Supreme Court appointment? Four of the current nine justices would be in their 80s when the next president's first term ends in 2021.

But the justices, if you haven't heard, are quite partisan themselves, and they tend to retire only when a like-minded president is around to choose their replacement. It's been almost a quarter-century since a president (George H.W. Bush) got to replace a justice of vastly opposing ideology (Thurgood Marshall) with someone dramatically different (Clarence Thomas).

If 2016 proves to be the Republican Party's 1968 -- causing rifts that last for many election cycles to come -- then it could end up as historically important. 

More likely, Mayhew says, it "will drift into a more or less conventional contest between Clinton and an establishment Republican.'' A yawner, in other words. 

There's always 2020. Early indications are that it will be a very, very important election.

*****

(Bloomberg) -- French warplanes bombed Islamic State’s nerve center in Raqqa after the country’s government said Europe’s worst terror attack in a decade was directed from Syria and launched from Belgium. 

Now they bomb the nerve center? That wasn't a good idea on Thursday? 

*****

In hindsight, it was probably a silly question, but the holidays are approaching.

The question, put to each campaign in each party, was whether they had planned to send out holiday greeting cards. The idea came from a passage in Theodore H. White's Making of the President 1960. It picks up after a discussion about how the Kennedys had learned to be assiduous to the point of obsession about developing personal relationships in Massachusetts politics.

"In 1956 the Kennedys were to observe that the same pattern worked on a nationwide scale. In one wild night, at the Democratic National Convention of 1956, as John F. Kennedy and Estes Kefauver contended for the delegates' mandate for the Vice-Presidency, the Kennedys learned that national politics also depended, simply, on knowing people. 'I remember a wonderful Maryland delegate and his wife,' recalls Bobby Kennedy. 'They were entirely friendly. They liked us. But Kefauver had visited them in their home. He had sent them Christmas cards. We couldn't shake them. Believe me, we've sent out lots of Christmas cards since.'" 

Imagine that: Having to woo delegates. Back then you had to. Back then there was always the risk -- or advantage, depending on where your candidacy stood on the eve of the nominating convention -- that delegates would "vote their conscience."

The primaries were still gaining the influence they now fully possess, and there was still play in the nominating process as the influence of the party bosses began to ebb. This passage from the book, 30 or so pages later, explains it a little. Here White is describing how the delegation from Democratic rival Hubert Humphrey's home state of Minnesota had a lever. How they would use it at the convention in Los Angeles was still in question.

"Minnesota had only thirty-one votes -- but Minnesota's influence in the Convention was nationwide. Still floating through Los Angeles, still drifting and questioning, were perhaps several hundred delegates and alternates, heavy of conscience and burdened with citizen responsibility. For such people as these, the Minnesota delegation, conscience-heavy itself, could set an example. Hubert Humphrey had freed his state's delegates of all personal loyalty to him and urged them tovote their conscience. But what did conscience dictate?"

As a side note, it's perhaps worth wondering, in the age of Carson and Trump, whether returning to a potentiality for delegates to vote their conscience (really) isn't such a bad idea.

Anyway, it seemed quaint, the holiday cards. So why not ask? We sent the question out last Thursday morning.

There were no signs of life from the Pataki campaign; at least they're consistent. The Cruz campaign sent an e-mail to somewhere else inside the campaign, and a copy to RML, asking someone to respond, but no one did.

Two campaigns replied. Santorum: "Yes, the senator sends Christmas cards to his supports each year." Carson: No. "Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms will likely be the vehicle through which we will relay our holiday greetings to the American people."

Not quite the same, and let's hope that whatever their holiday message is, it's a little snappier.

No replies from Trump, Bush, Rubio, Christie, Huckabee (a man of the cloth), Fiorina, Jindal, Paul, Graham, Kasich, O'Malley, Clinton or Sanders. 

Humbug.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE