On November 14 President Barack Obama spoke about the disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act. During that interview with NBC News, he profusely apologized for the website problems and for misleading the American people about their ability to keep their insurance policies. Obama stated that:”Those who got cancellation notices do deserve and have received an apology from me.” He went on to apologize to congressional Democrats for “letting them down.”
The apology only ratcheted up the criticism from conservatives. Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) attacked the president’s statement as a “phony apology” and went on to say “It was like telling someone you’re sorry their dog died, but refusing to acknowledge you ran over the dog.” Similarly Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) went after President Obama’s honesty by stating: “There’s nothing more damaging than when your word is devalued and people think they were misled.”
President Obama’s apology, while not unique in American political history, was a poor political decision. Former presidents have declared “regret” over policies.
John Kennedy expressed regret over the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. In an April 21 press conference, Kennedy stated: “There’s an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan … Further statements, detailed discussions, are not to conceal responsibility because I’m the responsible officer of the Government …”
Richard Nixon stated on the eve of his resignation that “I regret deeply any injuries that may have been done in the course of the events that led to this decision.” He added: “I would say only that if some of my judgments were wrong, and some were wrong, they were made in what I believed at the time to be the best interest of the nation.”
Ronald Reagan, after being criticized for the failed arms-for-hostages policy in 1987 said: “A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages,. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.”
After months of denying an illicit relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and fighting impeachment, Bill Clinton said: “I know that my public comments and my silence about this matter gave a false impression. I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that.”
Most recently George W. Bush, in reflecting on his presidency in 2008, said about the rationale used to begin a military action in Iraq: “The biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq. . . A lot of people put their reputations on the line and said the weapons of mass destruction is a reason to remove Saddam Hussein …. And, you know, that’s not a do-over, but I wish the intelligence had been different, I guess.”
Presidential apologies are funny things. Most presidents would rather use the term “regret,” rather than “apology.” Reagan and Bush offer regrets even while implying that their motives were pure, thus failing to accept full responsibility for their actions. Others such as Kennedy and Clinton use circuitous statements of regrets that could their personal responsibility.
President Obama is the only president who gave a full-throated apology and he is being excoriated because to if. In today’s political climate, an apology is seen as a sign of weakness, not a normal human response for something that causes pain for others. There should be little surprise when 39 House Democrats voted the next day in favor of a Republican bill giving existing insurance policyholders and those wanting to by what is now referred to as “junk policies” a year’s extension. Those Democrats saw that a president apologizing for the implementation of a policy stands little hope of regaining the political strength necessary to save the Affordable Care Act or offer them any cover in the 2014 midterm elections.
Chris Christie has dominated the news cycle since winning reelection as New Jersey governor on Tuesday. His huge margin of victory in a state that supported Barack Obama in 2012 has led many pundits to state that Christie is the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. However, just three weeks ago, Senator Ted Cruz was dominating headlines and being proclaimed as a leading prospect for heading the Republican ticket, at least within the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party.
Although Christie has many admirers and does draw some bi-partisan support and Cruz revs up the Tea Party base, lessons from the previous Republican nominating processes should create pause for Christie or Cruz supporters. There are at least four reasons why neither is a likely nominee in 2016:
1. Republicans don’t favor big personalities. Both Chris Christie and Ted Cruz have big egos and big personalities. These characteristics cause them to be popular on the talk show circuit and a fun interview with reporters. The Republican nominating process, however, punishes candidates with big egos and personalities. In 2012, almost every leading Republican contender–Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, and Herman Cain–with charisma ended up being undone because they believed so much in the force of their personalities that they self-destructed. It was ultimately the least charismatic candidate–Mitt Romney– that survived the process. Other bland Republicans ended up being nominated despite having far more charismatic challengers in the nominating process–Richard Nixon, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush to name three.
2. Both have geographical liabilities. Chris Christie comes from a northeastern state, New Jersey, where many Republicans seems more like Democrats or independent in other parts of the country. Republicans from southern and western states are highly suspicious of northeastern Republicans as being less doctrinaire. Mitt Romney had a hard time with this suspicion and even all the verbal gymnastics in the world could not help him overcome policies he implemented or supported while governor of Massachusetts, like Romneycare. Ted Cruz has a very different geographical problem–Texas. Most Americans, including those who vote, have a love/hate relationship with Texas. While Americans admire the big bold image Texas and Texans display, politically Texas worries people. George W. Bush did not end up being the strict conservative he purported to be and the periodic threat made by politicians like Governor Rick Perry that Texas will secede from the United States reminds people that some Texans are more loyal to the “nation” of Texas than the United States.
3. The constituency issue. Both Chris Christie and Ted Cruz have huge liabilities with major voting blocs in the country, particularly women. Chris Christie was able to get through his reelection bid for government without having the “War against Women” label applied to him, even after using the veto on many issues supported by women, such as abortion rights and increasing the minimum wage.Likewise, Cruz favors limiting women’s access to abortion clinics, is against marriage equality, and wants drastic cuts in the food stamp program, all ideas that have hurt other Republican candidates.
4. There is too much time before the nomination process runs its course. Both Christie and Cruz peaked too early to be considered likely nominees. As seen in the 2012 nominating process, Republicans were vicious toward one another, leading to what some pundits referred to as the “Republican Circular Firing Squad.” That approach seems alive and well within Republican circles as Rand Paul has engaged in a blood feud with Chris Christie and many Republicans have taken pot shots at Ted Cruz since the government shutdown and Cruz’s failed attempt to defund the Affordable Care Act. A Republican with a legitimate shot at the 2016 nomination would need to peak in popularity in late 2015/early 2016 to withstand the arrows aimed at her or him.
As a political analyst, I am often asked who the respective parties will nominate in 2016 and my answer is always the same: I don’t know. I am an analyst, not a fortune-teller. I do think the Republican nominee will end up being a more reserved personality from a southern or western state and who can at least hold her or his own with women and Hispanics. I also think that person is much more likely to be a governor or former governor, not someone from Congress or the business community.
In June 1987 Joe Biden announced he was seeking the Democratic nomination for president and was considered a strong challenger for the nomination. In September he withdrew from the nominating process after allegations that he had plagiarized a speech from Irish labor leader Neal Kinnock and that Biden had plagiarized assignments in law school. In withdrawing, Biden apologized and said he had been “overrun by the exaggerated shadow” of his past mistakes.
In June 1990 three-term Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry announced he was not seeking reelection after a January arrest for possession and use of crack cocaine. Barry’s use of the drug was captured on video and widely circulated in media outlets. After serving a six-month sentence, Barry returned to politics, running for Washington city council with the campaign slogan “He may not be perfect, but he is perfect for Washington, D.C.”
In the last two days two current political leaders, Senator Rand Paul and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, responded to similar charges. Paul, who has been accused of plagiarizing material for several speeches and his book from sources like Wikipedia and the Heritage Foundation website. Rand’s initial reaction to reports on MSNBC and Buzzfeed was to state “I am being unfairly attacked by a bunch of hacks and haters.” A day later, in talking to a New York Times reporter, Paul said he was going to be more careful in the future because he wanted people “to leave him the hell alone.” Ford, after denying allegations of crack cocaine usage for months, including after a video of him smoking the drug went viral held a press conference yesterday in which he apologized for using crack, blaming it on a drunken binge. He also said he would remain in office and allow voters to decide whether he should be reelected in October 2014.
Although Biden and Barry remained in public life and Biden even returned to the national stage, both appeared to feel shamed by their respective incidents or at least embarrassed by the public’s response to their actions. Paul and Ford, on the other hand appear far less affected by their behavior. Paul has given no indication that he has given up on his presidential ambitions and Ford’s approval ratings in public opinion ratings are up over the last two weeks. To be fair, Paul has been dropped by the Washington Times as a weekly columnist and Ford has become the butt of late night comedian’s jokes, so both have been affected.
People in the United States have often been referred to as a “forgiving” group. Clearly with Joe Biden, he has been forgiven for his past transgressions, as have other leaders such as Bill Clinton. Perhaps Canadians will also prove to be equally forgiving. I am left to wonder, however, if Biden and Ford survive, unscathed except for minor repercussions, if we are forgiving, or that we simply don’t care and that we treat politicians that same way we treat other celebrities like Lindsey Lohan or the Kardashians as fodder for social media chatter.