John Anderson, R.I.P.

John Anderson died Sunday night at the ripe old age of 95.  A Republican Representative from Illinois, he pursued a quixotic quest for the presidency in 1980, losing in the Republican primaries and then running as an independent against incumbent President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.  Anderson did well in the polls for a while but ultimately lost, getting only a little over 6 percent of the popular vote while Ronald Reagan achieved an electoral college landslide.

04-john-anderson-w710-h473I was one of the 6 percent.  I voted for Anderson because I thought President Carter was totally in over his head and Ronald Reagan was potentially dangerous.  In contrast to those two, Anderson seemed like a sober, sensible alternative who would be fiscally prudent, careful yet firm in his foreign policy, and capable of dealing with the many challenges that the United States faced in the world, whether it was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or the taking of hostages in Iran.  Even when it became clear that Anderson wouldn’t win, I still thought it was worth voting for somebody who I believed would actually be a good President, rather than settling for the lesser of two evils between the two major party candidates.

At the time, I thought that maybe the number of votes for Anderson might cause the major parties to change their ways and nominate better candidates in the future, or encourage others to run as third parties.  I’m sure the Ross Perot voters in 1992 felt the same way.  But of course, it didn’t happen.  Instead, the Jimmy Carter supporters blamed Anderson for Carter’s loss, reasoning that he was drawing votes away that would have gone to the incumbent President if Anderson hadn’t been in the race.  It’s a classic example of how politicians are wired to always blame somebody or something else for failure, rather than looking at their own deficiencies, shortcomings, and bad decisions.

Reading about Anderson’s death made me remember what it felt like in America in 1980, with an economy that seemed totally inert and helplessly in the grip of high inflation, high interest rates, and high unemployment, the continuing national humiliation of the Iranian hostage crisis, with newscasters ticking off each day in which the hostages remained captive, an apparently rejuvenated Soviet Union ready to challenge a seemingly weak United States everywhere on the world stage . . . and a President who seemed fundamentally incapable of dealing with those problems.  As a graduating college student with a journalism degree, I wondered how I would find a job when newspapers were closing left and right and nobody seemed to be hiring.  It was a dismal, scary period — in its own way, every bit as scary as the 2009 recession.

In those grim times, voting for John Anderson made a lot of sense to me.  I still think he would have made a good President.

My Most Exciting Presidential Election Night

My most exciting presidential election night was the only election night where I worked as a professional reporter.

It was the election of 1980, and I was working for the Toledo Blade.  There were a bunch of races that year, topped by the contest between Ronald Reagan and President Jimmy Carter.  Polling was primitive by modern standards, and many people were confident that President Carter would win his race against an aging Republican whom many reporters considered a bit of a buffoon.  But Reagan won, and won big.  It was an exciting night because it was a huge surprise.

I remember sitting in the Blade newsroom, watching a cheap black-and-white TV as the networks reported the national results.  The reporters gaped at the results, slack-jawed and stunned.  It wasn’t so much Reagan’s victory — nobody cared much for Jimmy Carter — but his coattails that were a stunner.  Many liberal lions in the United States Senate went down to a surprising defeat, and Toledo’s long-time Democratic Congressman lost, astonishingly, to an upstart Republican.

Our world was turned on its axis, and suddenly a candidate whom many people had confidently dismissed was the President-elect, coming in to office with a slew of new Senators and Representatives ready to shake things up in Washington.  America had decided to change direction, abruptly and amazingly.

Are You Better Off Now Than You Were Four Years Ago?

Anyone who lived through the 1980 presidential election remembers the very basic question:  “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”  Ronald Reagan used that question — and the anticipated answer of most Americans — to devastating effect against incumbent President Jimmy Carter.

President Obama had better hope voters don’t ask themselves that question this year, because new economic data analyzed by former Census Department statisticians at the Sentier Research firm reveals that the answers of most Americans are not going to be favorable.  The data shows that, amazingly, median household income fell more during the “recovery” from June 2009 to June 2012 than it did during the preceding recession.  What’s more, the drop in median household income happened across the board, in virtually every demographic group.

For example, family households lost 4.7 percent; people who live alone lost 7.5 percent. Households headed by African-Americans lost 11.1 percent. The income in married-couple households dropped 3.6 percent. Households headed by full-time workers lost 5.1 percent. People with “some college, no degree” lost 9.3 percent, people with associate’s degrees lost 8.6 percent, high school grads lost 6.9 percent, and people with bachelor’s degrees or more lost 5.9 percent.

The only group that came our ahead during the period from June 2009 to June 2012 was senior citizens.   The incomes of those between the ages of 65 to 74 grew by 6.5 percent, and the incomes of those over 75 increased by 2.8 percent.

The Sentier Research findings help to illustrate just how bad the performance of our economy has been during recent years.  There have been lots of losers and few winners — not exactly the record that an incumbent President would want to run on.  When almost everyone has taken a big hit to the pocketbook, it’s not easy to convince them that, bad as things are, they would be even worse if you hadn’t been in charge.