In the early months of the election year, a polarizing president with a lackluster approval rating bided his time as the opposition party unraveled. Its nominating fight dissolved into chaos as the establishment front-runner collapsed, and an insurgent with a talent for galvanizing his party’s base surged, despite persistent fears about his electoral appeal beyond the party’s hardcore. A protracted primary fight ensued, with the insurgent and the party’s resistant establishment eviscerating each other for months; by the time it ran its course, a president who seemed imminently beatable was ahead by double digits. The story ends with that same president winning by an historic margin over a party that rejected its recent past in favor of a dangerously uncertain future.
This is a recounting of the 1972 election season. If it has the feel of a premonition, it’s because Republicans look dangerously on the verge of repeating the demolition derby that so weakened Democrats that year. Mitt Romney may be a better-constructed front-runner than Ed Muskie, but he is still a flawed contender whose candidacy seems at odds with his party’s mood and whose own half-answers have made his wealth seem shadowy and amoral. Newt Gingrich may be a far better-known quantity than the hapless George McGovern, but he still seems, like McGovern, more suited to the task of revolution than political persuasion. Republicans are, and should be, very worried.
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