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This Year, Political Analogies Are Like Toothbrushes

There’s a challenge in writing about the overuse of analogy in contemporary political journalism: There’s no perfect analogy for the device. Are analogies the new adjectives? (It’s hard to describe anything without them.) Are they the office-seeker’s version of the Social Security number? (Without one, it’s hard to prove you exist.) Are they the narratives of our time? (Control it, and you control the campaign). Whatever you compare political analogies to, this much is clear: We sure seem to use a lot of ’em. Just like computers! (Or did I mean toothbrushes?)

Analogies have always been with us. For the past eight years, though, it was easy to believe we had arrived at the golden age of political analogy--or, should I say, the analogists’ equivalent of Elizabethan England. With history-bookworm Karl Rove in charge of President Bush’s image, the 43rd chief executive was variously described as the 21st century’s Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, and (most reverently) Ronald Reagan, to name just a few.

But even with Rove bounced from his role as--analogy alert!-- modern America’s Mark Hanna, the comparisons keep coming. In fact, 2008’s analogy-crafters may someday be remembered as, well, the 1927 Yankees of the form. With a political newcomer leading the race for president, and a broad consensus that a three-decade political era is ending, the terrain is wide open. And there’s no better was to make sense of the year’s big questions--Just who is this Barack Obama? Just what will replace the age of Reagan?--than via some easy-to-grasp historical analogy.

The best thing about the year in analogy is how diverse the comparisons have been. Almost simultaneously, Obama has been described as 2008’s version of 49-state winner Ronald Reagan as well as its incarnation of 49-state loser George McGovern--in fact, he’s been compared to every presidential candidate since World War II. A vote for John McCain has been likened to both a third term of George Bush as well as a first victory for the unelected Gerald Ford. The comparisons also don’t end at the border: Obama critics have derided him as the second coming of Canada’s Pierre Elliot Trudeau; McCain’s admirers see British titan Benjamin Disraeli when they gaze at the Arizona Senator. Meanwhile, the campaign they’re fighting gets equated with struggles as varied as the elections of crisis-afflicted 1860 and prosperity-tinged 1996. Prominent pundits at different points have managed to compare Obama to both parties’ candidates in the 1980s election.

Confused? It’s enough to make you analogize both of the candidates to James Stockdale, Ross Perot’s hapless 1992 running mate and the man most famous for asking: “Who am I? What am I doing here?” In the interest of clarity--those desperate for a chance to vote for Al Smith’s modern doppelganger ought to know which candidate to support--here’s a rough guide to the season’s political analogies:


Obama is: Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

Evidence: Brief Washington tenure; oratorical skills; Illinois background; gangly physique.

Representative media quote: “Their political experience was mainly provincial, in the Illinois legislature for both of them, and they had received little exposure at the national level. ... Yet each was seeking his party's nomination against a New York senator of longer standing and greater prior reputation.” –Gary Wills, New York Review of Books.

Obama is: Al Smith in 1928.

Evidence: Member of a minority group; suspect due to big-city roots.

Representative media quote: “Obama largely followed Smith's rather than Kennedy's precedent. He spoke primarily to the constituencies that initially favored him and was less successful winning over voters who might be reluctant to back a black president. He has yet to develop a message, and a style of campaigning, that will reach these voters.” –John B. Judis,

Obama is: Adlai Stevenson in 1952, 1956

Evidence: Cerebral nature; Lack of common touch

Representative media quote: “It’s the sort of elitist intellectualism that always trips up Democrats in general elections. It reminds me of, you know, Adlai Stevenson, taking--who, by the way--you know, let’s from our history, he inspired a lot of young people, too. And look what happened to him.” –Todd Harris, Hardball.

Obama is: John F. Kennedy in 1960

Evidence: Appeal to new generation; first member of long-discriminated group to win; glamorous wife; support of Ted and Caroline Kennedy.

Representative media quote: “Today, for a brief shining hour, the young got to see what we saw--not the gauzy images of ‘Camelot,’ but the living spirit of The New Frontier.” –Chris Matthews, Hardball.

Obama is: Robert F. Kennedy in 1968

Evidence: Idealistic style amid national crisis atmosphere; support of Ted and Caroline Kennedy.

Representative media quote: “Robert Kennedy had what some people say they see in Barack Obama 40 years later: that sense of the new, that ability to reconcile differences and distances, to bring Americans together. He drew upon these things now.” –Leonard Pitts, Jr., The Miami Herald.

Obama is: George McGovern in 1972

Evidence: Opposition to war; support of Democratic left wing; candidate of young people and intellectuals.

Representative media quote: “I'm not sure that an anti-war Democrat can win ... Some people point to the fact that the war in Vietnam was dreadfully unpopular, but that when I came out for an immediate withdrawal, it helped me win the nomination but not the general election.” –George McGovern, The Politico.

Obama is: Jimmy Carter in 1976

Evidence: Promise transcend national divisions; religiosity; outsider status.

Representative media quote: “Once again, the Democrats seem ready to nominate a candidate whose appeal is rooted more in the emotions that he stirs than in the details of his 12-point plans. For Jimmy Carter in 1976, the operative word was trust. For Barack Obama in 2008, it is hope.” –Steve Kornacki, New York Observer.

Obama is: Pierre Elliot Trudeau in Canada

Evidence: Star power; mixed ancestry that promises to overcome historic enmities; tolerance for extremists.

Representative media quote: “Meantime, the delighted English-language media, at last presented with a French-speaking Canadian they could love, dubbed him ‘Canada’s JFK.’ He would serve as prime minister for 15 years (1968-79 and 1980-84). The damage to what Canada had stood for would be staggering.” –Lionel Chetwynd, “The Obama of the North,” The Weekly Standard.

Obama is: Jimmy Carter in 1980

Evidence: Party fractured by divisive primaries; limps into general election; eager to negotiate with enemies.

Representative media quote: “Clinton’s endorsement of Obama comes earlier in the process than Kennedy’s endorsement of Carter. Obama’s policy disputes with Clinton are minor by comparison. And yet Clinton’s attacks were targeted to key groups of voters that Obama will need to win in the fall, and the question of how much damage he suffered remains unanswered.” –Matthew Dallek, The Politico.

Obama is: Ronald Reagan in 1980

Evidence: Opportunity to reshape political alliances; end of opposing party’s political era; optimism.

Representative media quote: “Recall what happened in the United States in 1979-80. There was no vast national clamour for Reagan-style conservatism. But there was massive dissatisfaction with Jimmy Carter’s disastrous presidency. All Reagan needed to do was show himself as an acceptable alternative ... Reagan won an electoral-college landslide: 489 electoral votes to 49 for Carter.” –David Frum, “The Democrats’ Ronald Reagan Moment,” National Post.

Obama is: Michael Dukakis in 1988

Evidence: Early lead vanishes; easily tarred as non-mainstream

Representative media quote: “The ammunition is there: the "most liberal voting record in the Senate," according to one publication, even if it's a brief one; the refusal to wear the flag pin on the basis of a principle most people would have trouble recognizing (Remember the principle that Dukakis used to explain his veto of a bill requiring teachers to lead their students in saying the pledge of allegiance? No? Just as well), not to mention the 21st century version of Willie Horton, and sorry, but yes, I do mean Rev. Jeremiah Wright.” –Susan Estrich, RealClearPolitics.


McCain, a better-known quantity than Obama, is less easily cast as a character in a political analogy. Yet even the septuagenarian Senator with decades of Washington experience finds himself likened to a smattering of historic figures near and far from home:

McCain is: Benjamin Disraeli in Great Britain

Evidence: Displeasure with hidebound party; aggressive foreign policy.

Representative media quote: “Disraeli inherited a British Conservative Party that was a political club for the landowning class. He created One Nation Conservatism, a reminder that Britain was one community, with a sense of mutual responsibility across classes.” –David Brooks, The New York Times.

McCain is: Theodore Roosevelt in 1904

Evidence: Reformist history; past quarrels with party insiders.

Representative media quote:

“Apart from their superficial similarities--the wreathing, weather-beaten face, the stocky build, the cowboy affectations--they do have some important traits in common. An obsession with things military, great personal courage, a genial way with reporters and an almost gravitational instinct toward the center of any political controversy.” –Roosevelt biographer Edmund Morris, Chicago Tribune.

McCain is: Truman in 1948

Evidence: Steadfast in foreign crisis; often underestimated.

Representative media quote: “Like Truman, McCain does not hesitate to speak his mind. He has also been accused of being impatient and having a temper, much like Truman. Some partisans take issue with McCain's unwillingness to conform to the party line, but, as with Truman, he seems to understand that the issues facing the nation are so complex that only a bipartisan approach will ensure successful solutions.” –David Colburn, Orlando Sentinel.

McCain is: Ford in 1976

Evidence: Shackled to unpopular predecessor; surprisingly competitive race versus outsider nominated by rival party.

Representative media quote: “The Republican president who had been elected and re-elected in the last two campaigns, Richard Nixon, had dismal favorability ratings, far lower than George W. Bush's. His name could scarcely be mentioned at the Republican National Convention. The Democratic nominee was a little-known outsider, with an appeal that was based on the idea that he could transcend the nation's racial divisions. ... Yet by November, the race was about even.” –Michael Barone, US News and World Report.

McCain is: Dole in 1996

Evidence: Injured war hero; old; better in Senate corridors than on campaign trail; trailing in the polls.

Representative media quote: “There’s the septuagenarian-ness (McCain is 71; Dole was 72 when he ran). There’s the physical frailty, courageously earned in war, that nevertheless serves as a constant reminder of his advanced years. There’s the legendary shortness of his fuse. … There’s the firm conviction, as Time journalist Mark Halperin has noted, that ‘being on Meet the Press is more important than going to church.’” –John Heilemann, New York.

McCain is: George W. Bush right now.

Evidence: Right-wing politics; fear-mongering about foreign threats to distract from otherwise unpopular platform; prone to malapropisms.

Representative media quote: “How far will McCain go in presenting himself as Son of Bush in order to energize his party's base? To date, based on his willingness to embrace the Bush agenda and to associate with religious extremists, the answer seems to be pretty far indeed.” –Juan Cole, Salon.

Michael Schaffer is working on a book about the pet industry.

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