I just finished reading Pat Buchanan's new book about Richard Nixon and his surprise 1968 “comeback” win for president. If you are looking for a great summer read that might help give insight in to how the GOP can start winning again, this is the book.
Indeed, "The Greatest Comeback: How Richard Nixon Rose from Defeat to Create a New Majority" should be required reading for RNC staff and everyone across the country trying to help the GOP win the Senate.
One surprise for me was to discover how amazingly close Buchanan was to Nixon.
The former vice president plucked Buchanan from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, where he was an editorial writer, and made him one of his earliest staff members in 1966, when Nixon was still a lawyer in New York but was quietly preparing a presidential campaign.
Next to Nixon’s longtime secretary Rose Mary Woods, young Buchanan became Nixon’s campaign staff of one, developing a closeness few ever had with the former vice president — not to mention offering a perch historians could only dream of having.
When Buchanan joined his staff, Nixon was considered a political outcast. As Buchanan recounts, Eisenhower had been reluctant to retain him as vice president during his second term in the White House.
And, during Nixon's tough 1960 presidential campaign against John F. Kennedy, then-President Dwight Eisenhower was asked to give "an example of a major idea of [Nixon] that you had adopted." Eisenhower tartly replied, "Give me a week; I might think of one."
Nixon, not surprisingly, suffered a narrow but bitter loss to John F. Kennedy that year, losing by 120,000 votes — just 0.2 percent of the popular vote.
Two years later, he suffered another crushing defeat, losing to Democrat Pat Brown in the California gubernatorial election. That's when Nixon famously told the press during his concession speech that "you won't have Nixon to kick around anymore."
But Nixon quietly rebuilt himself. Buchanan points to Nixon's ability to recognize his shortcomings and his attempts to fix them. For example, in the prelude to his 1968 win, Nixon hired future Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes away from "The Mike Douglas Show," and made him his executive producer for television in preparation for his next presidential effort.
Nixon did not excel in one-on-one debates, as his 1960 debacle with Kennedy proved. So Ailes helped Nixon communicate and worked to make him more likeable and more accessible to voters by having him speak at town hall-style meetings, taking questions and answers from the public rather than a hostile press.
In Buchanan’s book, I can see some parallels between the 1968 campaign and the political scene today.
While the tea party exerts pressure on the GOP from the right, Nixon faced his "tea party" in the person of third-party candidate George Wallace, who centered his campaign not strictly around segregation, but also on states' rights and law and order.
On the left, Nixon faced the incumbent vice president, Hubert Humphrey, who was as liberal as any Democratic presidential candidate today.
Within his own party, neither conservative Barry Goldwater nor liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller embraced Nixon's campaign early on.
Nixon had an uphill battle inside and outside the party. As Buchanan points out, registered Republicans were in the minority then as now.
Today, according to a Pew study, just 25 percent of voters identified themselves as Republican in 2014. In 1968, Republicans were outnumbered to the extent that the Democrats controlled the House and Senate, with the GOP controlling only 16 of the nation's state legislatures.
It took a delicate balancing act for Nixon to win. He did so by moving to the middle and widening his appeal among the "silent majority," a term coined by Buchanan.
In contrast, in 2012, Mitt Romney ran to the right base of the party, not the middle, in his presidential bid. He focused on deporting illegal immigrants, repealing Obamacare, defunding Planned Parenthood, and cutting the deficit.
After winning the primary, he should have followed Nixon’s example, charting a more centrist course by focusing on job creation, a replacement plan for Obamacare, helping students carrying large loans and other issues of concern to large numbers of “middle” voters.
Buchanan’s “Comeback” is a fun read not only for the opportunity to see Nixon in such a personal, behind-the-scenes way, but also for the lessons it offers us today. It had me wanting for the sequel, and why the mastermind of ’68 could end losing the presidency over a third-rate burglary.
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