Current center-right mood not so different than 1976

Think this is a different kind of election? Right about now during the 1976 presidential campaign, fully a third of the electorate was undecided. This year, the undecideds comprise about 7% of the electorate.

What’s the difference? The candidates, the country, the national mood, everything. But 1976 is a good place to start to understand what is happening with the candidates, country, national mood – indeed, everything.

The candidates that year seem to us now to have been painted in earth tones. It didn’t look that way in our bicentennial year. But history has a way of wiping away the extreme coloration of things, to reduce vivid shades to beige and taupe.

On the ballot was Gerald Ford, the incumbent president – the only unelected chief executive in our history, a onetime partisan brawler who transitioned seamlessly into a soothing presence: calm, assuring, tainted mostly by a pardon of his predecessor, Richard Nixon, that seemed like heresy at the time but that history has rewarded and redeemed. His challenger was Jimmy Carter, another soothing presence, offering healing and honesty, himself enough of a bumpkin (the peanut farmer from the rural crossroads of Plains, Georgia, presented an appealing update on the log-cabin images of the 19th century) and enough of a sophisticate (his nuclear engineering background from Annapolis gave him a modern air) to be an unthreatening balance of past and present.

Let’s not forget: Ford was a conservative, at least by that era’s definition. Carter was a liberal, at least by the measure of the times. But in retrospect, they seem almost interchangeable, and though they battled earnestly and urgently, in time they came to respect, even to like, each other. (Years ago I worked on a lengthy magazine piece on how presidents pray during their White House years and had a revealing conversation with Carter. He asked if I had spoken with Ford, and I said I hadn’t been able to get an interview. He offered to call Ford. Soon thereafter, Ford was on the phone with me.)

Now let’s look at politics 2020, and measure it by what I found in my mailbox the other day and what I heard on the telephone a day later.

First, from the mailbox: an 8.5-by-11-inch cardboard placard with a picture of a wan-looking former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. with his arm around a demonic-looking Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. The message in boldface capital letters: “JOE BIDEN HAS COMPLETELY EMBRACED THE RADICAL LEFT.” On the back were charges that Biden would promulgate “the biggest (tax increase) in history,” would “give amnesty to 11 million illegal immigrants, letting them compete for American jobs,” and would support Green New Deal legislation that would have the effect of “destroying millions of blue-collar energy jobs and threatening our way of life.”

Now the telephone: It was a top Democrat calling President Donald J. Trump “disgraceful and disgusting.”

We can argue about who is responsible for this change; the public verdict on that question pretty much reflects the public poll numbers right now. Those who support Biden feel Trump deserves the blame. Those who support Trump believe Biden and his onetime patron, Barack Obama, are culpable.

But we cannot disagree that this election – described by both sides as the most important of our lifetimes, a characterization that is employed every four years but really may be the case this time – is being conducted in a country divided.

But hold it. Maybe the country is not that much changed after all.

Let’s examine an important but overlooked Gallup Organization poll that was taken earlier this year, involving more than 29,000 interviews with American adults. It presents us with some intriguing, somewhat surprising, elements.

It tells us that Americans are leaning more Democratic than Republican. That should be succor for Biden’s supporters. But it also concludes that the country remains “center-right.” That should please Trump’s partisans. It was a pretty much center-right country that confronted the Ford-Carter election. That country in 1976 chose Carter, the Democrat. Then four years later, it chose Ronald Reagan, the Republican and the conservatives’ conservative.

The contemporary narrative is that the Democrats have gone on a liberal toot, and Gallup tells us that the liberal wing of the party indeed did rise from 25% in 1994 (the year the Republicans ended four decades of Democratic rule in the House) to 51% in 2018 (the year the Democrats ended eight years of Republican rule in the House).

“(E)ven though liberalism has been on the rise among Democrats,” the Gallup analysts said, “it is not yet the clear majority position, perhaps leading to the strong intraparty clashes seen over the past year on the Democratic debate stages and throughout social media, as Democrats try to come together around a standard-bearer for 2020.”

Now we know the identity of that standard-bearer. He’s Joe Biden, who at heart is a moderate and who, in his early days, was a crusader against Washington, D.C. In his 1972 campaign, he was a county councilman and an outsider, running against an establishment politician, Republican Sen. J. Caleb Boggs, a pleasant fellow known mostly for supporting environmental legislation.

In his youth, Biden was a rebel – much the way Jerry Ford had been. Long before he became the ultimate Washington insider – 36 years in the capital! – he was outside power looking in, and ran in his first presidential campaign, in the 1988 election cycle, as a mooshy moderate struggling to define his political profile. Republicans look at his efforts to unite the Democrats and say he is embracing, figuratively and literally, the left wing of his party, and they are not wrong to see him move on health care, taxes and the environment. But how would he govern from the White House?

That is the great unknown. How Trump would govern in a second term is less uncertain, with his supporters hungry for more of the same and his critics worrying he would indeed present more of the same, only worse. This election may be about many things – climate change, the economy, the virus – but really it is about one thing: A center-right country is weeks away from giving a verdict on its president. Nothing more.

David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.