UI grad John B. Anderson 'didn't put party ahead of principle'

UI grad John B. Anderson 'didn't put party ahead of principle'

Seventy-five years after earning his bachelor's in political science from the University of Illinois, former GOP congressman and third-party presidential candidate JOHN B. ANDERSON died Sunday at age 95. To put his political legacy in perspective, we turned to UI Professor and occasional N-G contributor BRIAN GAINES.

Some obituaries for John B. Anderson describe him as a moderate Republican, driven to mount an independent campaign for president in 1980 because of his distaste for the right-wing policies advocated by candidate Ronald Reagan.

Was Anderson a social liberal with conservative economic views? Yes and no.

For one thing, his roll-call profile was unremarkable for his first few terms — he didn't really drift left until the 1970s. Sometimes, he led the party, as on civil rights, and later, when he turned against the Nixon White House early in the Watergate scandal.

But he was also a critic of executive power, and although he expressed admiration for Barack Obama in his later years, some of his complaints about presidential overreach by Nixon could easily have been echoed in the late 2000s.

And he wasn't a party maverick only on social matters. A telling moment in the 1980 campaign came in a nationally televised League of Women's Voters debate, oddly skipped by Jimmy Carter. With the incumbent absent, Anderson had a window to distance himself from both major-party candidates and stake a middle ground.

On the topic of energy policy, Reagan espoused optimism, predicting vast reserves of untapped oil and natural gas. Some contemporary viewers will surely think of the "fracking revolution" and score one for the Gipper. Anderson, however, was incensed and called instead for a "new conservation ethic," including much reduced use of private automobiles.

Other modern viewers will see in that call a prophetic kindred spirit, but his scolding and his call for a large gas-tax hike won him little support.

Anderson's passions did not always map neatly to left or right — he was a process-oriented type who cared about campaign finance and electoral rules deeply.

Following 1980, he promoted proportional-representation election tirelessly but fruitlessly, and with a tinge of irony, since his home state had abandoned cumulative voting for the Illinois House — one of the few long-term experiments with alternative electoral rules — in 1980, while he was busy chasing the presidency.

He didn't put party ahead of principle, and in that regard, he compares favorably to many of his contemporaries and successors (think of present-day Republicans inventing excuses for Roy Moore's creepy antics and Democrats tolerant of Al Franken and John Conyers).

An articulate and civil debater, Anderson might seem a bit out of date in 2017, lamentably so.

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Beebalm wrote on December 06, 2017 at 9:12 pm

Anderson was a fool who embraced a quixotic path that had no lasting effect other than to normalize Reagan-esque radicalism and foment wedges of discontent into the natural allies of the New Deal and Great Society. There was nothing honorable about his self-serving time in the spotlight. He ultimately did not offer a choice and was but an empty vessel in which litanies of disaffection were poured.