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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Gerald Ford RIP

The passing of the 38th president of the United States has not received the kind of attention often paid to such events, in part because of its timing in the midst of the holiday season, and in part because of the brevity of his tenure in office. In addition, he was very much a transitional president. His administration marked the liquidation of the Watergate and Vietnam disasters; the advent of a period of economic stagflation and perceived national decline; and the death throes of the old (relatively) non-ideological party system. Ford’s own political career was appropriately bifurcated. Up until 1974 (when he was already over 60), he was the most conventional of Republican politicians, climbing the ranks in the House by virtue of stolid hard work, exceptional loyalty, and the abundant good nature that made him the best possible successor to the eternally saturnine Richard Nixon. Then in short order he became the first appointed vice president in U.S. history, and then the first non-elected president. He survived the first serious nomination challenge to an incumbent Republican president since William Howard Taft, and then fell just short of winning re-election in what would have been a comeback rivaling Harry Truman’s. Few people remember the odd denouement of Ford’s political career, when he very nearly became Ronald Reagan’s running-mate in 1980, which would have almost certainly stopped the Bush Dynasty before it began. It’s not easy to identify a an enduring Ford legacy in American politics or government, precisely because of the transitional character of his presidency. But there is one item of contemporary importance: his one Supreme Court appointment, John Paul Stevens, who may well be the one Justice standing in the way of a conservative reshapement of U.S. constitutional law, particularly when it comes to privacy and abortion rights. Ford’s post-presidential life was relatively quiet, most notable perhaps for the close friendship he developed with the man who denied him re-election, Jimmy Carter. Indeed, their friendship became something of a totem to those of my generation who long for a return to bipartisanship.Maybe that kind of bipartisanship could indeed return if Republicans could find themselves more leaders like Gerald Ford. May he rest in peace.

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