More on the "What If's" of American political history, and how history turns on a dime:
Few people born after 1970 remember this bit of political trivia, but if Democratic frontrunner Gary Hart in 1987 hadn't allowed a certain picture to be taken as he boarded a boat called the "Monkey Business," he very well might have won the Democratic presidential nomination. He was one of the most appealing candidates in a weak field. He very well might have gone on to win the 1988 presidential election against George H.W. Bush, who wasn't especially popular but seemed more upbeat and competent than the dismal Democratic nominee, Michael Dukakis, who blew a 30-point lead.
Hart, a senator from Colorado, initially ran for president in 1984 against Carter Vice President Walter Mondale. He shocked pundits by winning the New Hampshire primary handily, and fought to a draw in the "Super Tuesday" primaries. He won states in the West as well as New England and Florida, Ohio and Indiana.
Hart's biggest problem in 1984 was financing -- the inability to quickly process contributions from the grassroots. His campaign wasn't able to quickly mushroom from a small operation once he won primaries and was discovered by a national constituency. In contrast, Mondale, the veteran national campaigner, had big union and special interest support. If online or credit card fundraising was widely used in 1984, Hart may well have beat Mondale.
Hart's pitch in 1984 for "new ideas" proved to be too vague and not fully developed. Mondale successfully retorted with a "Where's the Beef?" response, mimicking a popular Wendy's hamburger ad at the time. Ironically, Mondale himself was unfamiliar with the Wendy's ad, and wouldn't have made his most memorable quip if an aide hadn't suggested it.
Hart's essential message, suggesting that the only way Democrats could regain the White House was to adhere less to conventional dogma and declare independence from certain special interest groups within the party, proved to be an inspiration for Bill Clinton's more successful campaign in 1992. (One wonders if Hart's campaign holds lessons for the Republican Part party today?)
Hart's personal life proved to be an issue in both campaigns. In 1984, it was revealed that he and his wife Lee had separated several times. His 1988 campaign self-destructed after a suggestive photo appeared in The National Enquirer, and after stalking reporters for the Miami Herald, hiding in the bushes near his Washington residence, observed an attractive model entering and leaving the property. Hart assumed that the media still operated under the gentleman's agreements of the 1960s, when the sexual activities of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were considered "off-limits" to journalists in a society that in many ways still internalized Victorian morality. But in the intervening years, a sexual revolution took place. Politicians' hypocrisies and double-standards became fair game for public disclosure, to the point of creating media feeding frenzies and hysterical leaps to conclusions without much of a sense of proportionality or perspective.
Jeff Greenfield in "Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics" makes a plausible case that Gary Hart could have emerged as a Clinton-like Democratic winner in the 1980s, appealing to "Reagan Democrats" by advocating "workfare," empowerment zones in poor neighborhoods, other decentralized government programs, a leaner military and tougher diplomacy than either Mondale, Dukakis or that quintessential liberal Ted Kennedy were advocating at the time.
After Hart was driven from politics by scandal, he did go on to maintain a substantial career as an international lawyer, expert in national security issues and terrorism, and to write more than a dozen books. And he and his wife Lee stayed married, celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. So one has to ask what business did the press or the public have in judging Hart's marriage back in 1987?
While he was an aloof and enigmatic personality, there is little doubt that his campaign of "new ideas" paved the way for Bill Clinton's success.
Without Hart or another "new Democrat" as the nominee, it's nearly impossible to imagine any plausible scenarios that could have changed the outcome of the 1984 or 1988 presidential elections. Old-fashioned liberal Walter Mondale managed as best he could to unite the base of the Democratic Party, giving a disproportionate role to labor unions, minorities, and big government types. Most pundits at the time said he won the first debate with President Ronald Reagan. But with a recovering economy, and expertly managed Reagan re-election team that solidified his governing coalition, the result was almost a foregone conclusion. Reagan won 49 of the 50 states and 58.8% of the vote to Mondale's 40.6%.
In 1988, Michael Dukakis began the general election ahead in the polls, but he was easily pegged as an elitist Massachusetts liberal who opposed capital punishment, "a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union" with a permissive approach toward flag-burning. He made a series of arrogant, amateurish mistakes, refusing to respond to attacks and allowing George H.W. Bush to win the election with 53% of the vote.
The election was ultimately winnable for a Democrat like Hart with a less conventional, less dogmatic approach. But it took Democrats three straight losses before they learned to flex their muscles, respond instantly to attacks, and broaden their appeal.