We're Not Near 'Nixonland' Yet

Paul Krugman’s latest column is generating a lot of attention, and with good reason; it’s a provocative perspective on the topic d’jour. I’m generally an enthusiastic Krugman fan — though I’ve been a little troubled of late by his apparent pre-occupation with opposing Barack Obama — and today’s piece takes a few interesting twists and turns.

In 1956 Adlai Stevenson, running against Dwight Eisenhower, tried to make the political style of his opponent’s vice president, a man by the name of Richard Nixon, an issue. The nation, he warned, was in danger of becoming “a land of slander and scare; the land of sly innuendo, the poison pen, the anonymous phone call and hustling, pushing, shoving; the land of smash and grab and anything to win. This is Nixonland.”

The quote comes from “Nixonland,” a soon-to-be-published political history of the years from 1964 to 1972 written by Rick Perlstein, the author of “Before the Storm.” As Mr. Perlstein shows, Stevenson warned in vain: during those years America did indeed become the land of slander and scare, of the politics of hatred.

And it still is. In fact, these days even the Democratic Party seems to be turning into Nixonland.

Krugman goes on to lament the “bitterness of the fight for the Democratic nomination,” and all the “venom out there.”

Maybe I’m in the minority, but this primary fight hasn’t seemed that ugly to me at all. Indeed, aside from occasional moments of discomfort, and a few annoying direct-mail pieces sent by both of the leading candidates, it’s actually been kind of mild. Plenty of hardball, but not much in the way of dirtyball, at least not yet.

In 2004, a Democratic group affiliated with Dick Gephardt ran a TV ad that focused in on image of Osama bin Laden, while telling viewers that Howard Dean is unprepared for a “dangerous world.” That was ugly. Ron Brownstein recently noted, “At one New York City debate late in the 1984 race, Walter Mondale and Gary Hart battered each other so relentlessly that Jesse Jackson almost needed to physically separate them. In an especially heated 1992 encounter, Bill Clinton appeared ready to lean over and deck Jerry Brown.”

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This year has been quite pleasant by comparison. Blog commenters have been hitting each other pretty hard, but the candidates? Not so much.

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