Opinion: There is one episode from recent history that holds lessons for Biden about running a presidential campaign during a moment of crisis: the story of how Ronald Reagan ran against President Jimmy Carter in 1980, during the Iran hostage crisis
In 1980, Ronald Reagan promised resolve, didn’t go too far with criticism—and won.Monica Prasad is a professor of sociology and faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. She is the author of Starving the Beast: Ronald Reagan and the Tax Cut Revolution . Crises make or break presidents, and they also make or break presidential campaigns. As the nation watches President Donald Trump and state governors work their way through this crisis, former Vice President Joe Biden has lost the spotlight. He is not currently in any position of power that allows him, like his fellow Democrat, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, to legitimately showcase his leadership abilities. He can’t take any major decisions, has no natural channels of communication, and has lost the ability to hold large attention-getting events. Moreover, any Democrat who thinks Trump’s bungled early crisis response dooms Republican chances this fall should not be so complacent: Once stimulus checks start going out, Trump can take credit for the spending at a moment when many are experiencing genuinely desperate circumstances. Even now, more Americans approve of Trump’s response to the crisis than disapprove. There is one episode from recent history that holds lessons for Biden about running a presidential campaign during a moment of crisis: the story of how Ronald Reagan ran against President Jimmy Carter in 1980, when the Iran hostage crisis seemed to be bringing the country to its knees. Of course, the two crises are not comparable in detail. The hostage crisis was a blow to national psychology, not national health. We were not sitting around telecommuting from bed and silently singing happy birthday 20 times a day, and there was no ecology of alternative news sources to contend with. Advertisement Still, there is much that is similar about the crises: a president seen by some as ineffectually coping, a challenger grappling with the perception that he might be too old but who is generally seen as a good guy. Even the Olympics were troubled that year as they are this year. For months during the 1980 campaign the Iran hostage crisis dominated the national conversation. Coming after years of stagflation which upended the daily lives of Americans—with nightly news showing episodes of violence erupting between customers in gas lines that were miles long, truckers blockading highways and throwing rocks at cars from overpasses, empty store shelves, school shut for a month in one state and the governor of another state threatening to arrest those who did not turn down their thermostats—the hostage crisis led to a general sense that America was experiencing what Carter characterized as a crisis of confidence. In both the economy and its foreign relations, the country seemed humiliated, and expertise itself was called into question as neither economic nor foreign policy experts really knew what to do. Carter diagnosed the problem, but had no solution to it. Reagan had to walk a fine line between criticizing the president and not appearing to politicize a national crisis. By putting together an artful campaign that presented his positive qualities as the embodiment of the hope the nation was looking for, he was able to convince voters he had the solution. Rallying Around the President in a Time of Crisis The hostage crisis began in 1979, when a group of Iranian college students took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and seized 52 American citizens. The act was their reprisal for the U.S. allowing the deposed shah of Iran to enter the United States and receive treatment for cancer, whereas they wanted him to stand trial in Iran for the abuses of his secret police. The hostages were held for 444 days, eventually released on the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, leading to split screen newsreels showing both events. (Recently released archival evidence suggests that a Republican political operative helped to bring the ailing shah to the United States, and also worked to delay the release of the hostages to deny Carter the electoral advantage of being able to bring the issue to closure. But there is no evidence Reagan or any of his close advisers participated in or even knew about these efforts.) In the early months of the crisis, the public rallied around Carter. A poll in January found Carter leading Reagan 59 percent to 36 percent, and he was ahead among all groups—urban voters, suburban voters, rural and small-town voters, men and women, conservatives, moderates and liberals. One pro-Reagan letter writer fretted, “If Carter can keep the embassy hostages alive to the November 1980 election, he can win the nomination and election by default. … Carter’s inept and fateful blunder caused the Iranian crisis, but he is the only party reveling politically in the aftermath.” The crisis squeezed Senator Ted Kennedy, who was running against Carter in the primary, off the stage in the way Biden is being squeezed off today. Reagan made a (short-lived) vow not to criticize Carter. But as the months dragged on, the public became more hostile to Carter. Even before a rescue effort in April ended in disaster, with eight American military personnel killed, Americans were starting to say that the president had failed. All of the Republican candidates for president again were criticizing Carter, and Kennedy was again making trouble in the primary. Reagan and his advisers seized the opening, but they did so not by directly criticizing the rescue effort. Instead, Reagan called the failed mission “a symptom of a broader crisis we face. America’s credibility, leadership and strength are not only being questioned by our friends, but increasingly are being tested by our adversaries. … It is against this historic backdrop that we now enter one of the most dangerous decades of Western civilization.” By summer, Carter’s approval ratings had tanked, and Reagan could focus less on the Iran crisis and more on the economy and rising concerns about inflation — less dangerous political ground on which he could freely criticize the president. Reagan’s campaign wasn’t perfect, as shown by the on-again off-again decision not to criticize the president. But overall, Reagan performed a fine dance of criticizing Carter without seeming to politicize the issue until events lessened the urgent need to focus on it. Biden Should Bide His Time While the historical circumstances and the specific details are different, there are nevertheless some important lessons for Biden from these events: Wait. This is a dangerous moment for Joe Biden. His team is suggesting that he will present shadow briefings to criticize Trump’s efforts. But these briefings could backfire spectacularly: They could come across as petty and political, and they could become the target of criticism if Biden’s plans start generating attention and debate. Even worse, they could actually create confusion, by presenting the specter of competing centers of power and information. If the reaction to the first briefing is any indication, they will mostly be ignored. Reagan’s vow not to criticize Carter did not actually last very long, and he had started to criticize the incumbent even before the failed rescue effort in April. But he did not seek to be the lead critic of the president’s effort, and he even stressed areas where he supported the president—for example, saying even after the failed rescue effort that he had supported it, but thought it came too late. Biden similarly needs to let the president lead. If Trump is the ineffective and irresponsible caricature that his opponents think he is, events will show it soon enough. Avoid becoming the target of criticism. Another reason for waiting is to avoid diverting criticism from the president. A memo from Reagan’s pollster, Richard Wirthlin, from just before Reagan’s debate with Carter noted this issue: “If the Governor [Reagan] succeeds Tuesday in making Jimmy Carter’s record the major issue of the debate and the campaign, we will succeed in the debate and win the general election. If, however, Carter makes Ronald Reagan the issue of the debate and the campaign, we will lose both.” The adviser Ed Meese told Wirthlin what he had heard about the Carter campaign’s own strategy: “They have stated that ‘if Jimmy Carter is the issue, we lose, but if RR becomes the issue, we will win.’” Let Trump create the record that will be evaluated by voters in November; there’s no need for Biden to jump in now and make himself a target for others to criticize. Connect the dots. While waiting for the moment for politics, build the narrative. Try to do what Reagan did when he connected the failed response to the hostage crisis with a general weakening of America. Americans today are not gripped by the same fears as in 1980, but they are frightened by the social and political polarization of the country, a consequence of increasing economic inequality and ethnic and racial divisions. Those divisions are inflamed by this president. Every aspect of his response, from the decision years ago to disband the pandemic unit to the explicit decision to pander to xenophobia in the middle of the pandemic, reminds voters who Trump is and what he stands for. After several months of this, the country may well be desperate for a figure promising experience, competence and unity. Biden has to be ready with the story of how the virus and the response to it are symptoms of Trump’s broader politics, and he has to be ready to provide his alternative vision for the nation. Draw a contrast with the incumbent that is rooted in the challenger’s personality and resonates with the broader vision. Reagan was able to project resolve, the main thing Americans were looking for. For example, when asked how he would deal with the crisis, Reagan said “the time has long passed when we should have set a date certain for their release.” (His main primary opponent, George H.W. Bush, did not project resolve, instead saying: “I have been supporting the President [Carter] because I have not been able to come up with a quick fix for the situation.”) Voters responded to these displays of resolution as a welcome contrast to the ineffectual White House, and they saw in them the promise of hope for better outcomes. Joe Biden’s great strength is the sense of everyone who interacts with him that he is fundamentally decent. Even disgruntled former aides can do no worse than complain that he doesn’t like fundraising. The challenge for the campaign is how to tell a story about his decency that lines up with the promise to make life better for Americans. The bet that many Trump supporters have made is that an indecent person can nevertheless make good policies. Biden has to be ready to prove this equation wrong. All of these considerations suggest that the only things Joe Biden should do right now are things that can actually help the crisis response. Biden is powerless to invoke the Defense Production Act or build medical surge capacity. But there are things that a well-connected and trusted politician can do even from the middle of self-isolation, such as speaking to communities and populations who distrust Trump and providing a platform to people with good ideas about what to do next. Biden doesn’t have to go into hiding, but neither does he have to become the chief critic of Trump. The time for that will come later. How he handles these issues—whether he brings creativity and experience to carve out a positive role for himself in this unprecedented situation — will be the first major test of Joseph Biden’s presidency, the one that will determine whether there is a Biden presidency. Filed Under: Read more: POLITICO
When are you going to cover the sexual assault allegations against JoeBiden ? IBelieveTaraReade MeToo TimesUpBiden Reagan also sold arms to Iran to.get.the hostages released, reagan and ollie north committed Treason, w. Lied us into a war in Iraq, we're still there, also still in Afghanistan, lot of blood and treasure, for oil
Yet another reason to worry about mismanagement at the top of the Biden campaign. His campaign has hired a Nanny to change his diapers twice daily. In the morning when he wakes up and in the night when he goes to sleep. This man is probably a few months away from be admitted to the hospital for dementia. Don't his backers see this.
WOW!! Using the Iran Hostage Crisis as a comparison! Nothing alike!! Our elderly citizens are DYING. Trump didn’t disband anything!! You want JOE to cause further racial divide?Biden is mimicking what he sees on TV. Pathetic attempt to help Joes Campaign. WORTHLESS TOILET PAPER Very true Too old to learn anything,
Iran hostage crisis is almost nothing compared to the Covid19 crisis ! The difference is 1-there wasn't an internet back then, only info was the tv & 2-realDonaldTrump is in a good position 2 BRING BACK THE ECONOMY & JOBS which he proved can do. Coronavirus will pass & we will need 2 rebuild. I don't think anyone wants to take a chance w/JoeBiden
Imma let you finish, but Jimmy Carter was 1000x better at being POTUS than Trump. REMINDER: They made Carter sell his peanut farms to avoid any conflicts of interest. That's a clue into the divide between Carter and corrupt Trump.
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Biden is Senile and needs to bow out, why is corporate media NOT discussing the rape allegations against him? If it were Sanders that's ALL you bastards would be covering! Can someone ask joe if China closing their border is racist The world we live in is a far cry from 1980, which was long before social media manipulated opinions. There is no playbook for this situation. Relying on old tactics is no longer the winning strategy.
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