On her current book tour, Hillary Clinton is still blaming the Russians (among others) for her unexpected defeat in last year’s presidential election. She remains sold on a conspiracy theory that Donald Trump successfully colluded with Russian president Vladimir Putin to rig the election in Trump’s favor.
But allegations that a president won an election due to foreign collusion have been lodged by losers of elections throughout history. Some of the charges may have had a kernel of truth, but it has never been proven that foreign tampering changed the outcome of an election.
In 2012, then-president Barack Obama inadvertently left his mic on during a meeting with outgoing Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. Obama seemed to be reassuring the Russians that if they would just behave (i.e., give Obama “space”) during his re-election campaign, Obama would have “more flexibility” on Russian demands for the U.S. to drop its plans for an Eastern European missile defense system.
Medvedev’s successor, Vladimir Putin, did stay quiet for most of 2012. Obama did renege on earlier American promises of missile defense in Eastern Europe. And Obama did win re-election.
But that said, Obama would have defeated Mitt Romney anyway, even without an informal understanding with Russia.
In 2004, there were accusations that the George W. Bush administration had struck a deal with the Saudi royal family whereby the Saudis would pump more oil, leading to lower U.S. gas prices. Bush supposedly wanted to take credit for helping American motorists and therefore enhance his re-election bid.
Whether the conspiracy theory was true or not, Bush beat lackluster Democratic nominee John Kerry for lots of reasons other than modest decreases in gasoline prices.
During the 1980 presidential campaign, supporters of incumbent president Jimmy Carter alleged that challenger Ronald Reagan had tried to disrupt negotiations for the release of the American hostages being held in Teheran. They claimed that Reagan’s team had sent word to the Iranians that they should keep the hostages until after the election.
The Reagan team countercharged that Carter himself timed a hostage rescue effort near the election to salvage his failing re-election bid.
The truth was that by November, nothing Reagan or Carter did could change the fact that Carter was going to lose by a large margin.
Sometimes challengers have been accused of turning to foreigners for election help.
There were allegations that in 2008, Obama secretly lobbied Iraqi officials not to cut a deal with the outgoing Bush administration concerning U.S. peacekeepers in Iraq. Supposedly, Obama didn’t want a stable Iraq, which might have helped Iraq War supporter and rival candidate John McCain, who had argued that after the surge, Iraq was largely under control.
Such allegations were mostly irrelevant, given that there were plenty of other reasons why McCain lost the election.
There were also allegations that in 1983, Senator Ted Kennedy sent a letter to Russian leader Yuri Andropov, asking him not to overreact to President Ronald Reagan’s hard-nosed anti-Soviet stance. This was supposedly an attempt to undercut Reagan before the 1984 election. Whether the rumor was true or not was immaterial: Reagan beat Democratic nominee Walter Mondale by a landslide.
Recently, another old charge of foreign collusion has been resurrected. Democrats allege that during the 1968 campaign, Republican nominee Richard Nixon opened a back channel to the South Vietnamese to convince them to stall peace talks to end the Vietnam War. Supposedly, Nixon was worried that President Lyndon Johnson might order a halt to the bombing. Then, Johnson opportunistically would start peace talks in order to help his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, defeat Nixon in the election.
Regardless of these unproven charges and countercharges, Nixon’s narrow victory in 1968 was a result instead of a law-and-order message, a new Southern strategy, the third-party candidacy of Democrat George Wallace, an unpopular incumbent Democratic president, an inept Humphrey campaign, and unhappiness with the ongoing quagmire in Vietnam.
What can we conclude about these multiple charges that foreigners polluted an American presidential election?
One, these charges have been habitual, and only leveled by the failed candidate, blaming a shadowy conspiracy rather than the loser’s own poorly conducted campaign or lack of political support.
Two, even if some collusion charges had elements of truth, they did not affect the final outcome of an election. There were always other far more important and decisive issues that won or lost voters over months of campaigning.
Three, most presidents and their political challengers have in some way attempted to massage events to favor their candidacies — synchronizing legislative agendas, peace initiatives, summits, national addresses, or surprise disclosures of scandals to enhance their campaign messages.
Hillary Clinton lost the election for dozens of logical reasons. Foreign collusion was never one of them — nor has it ever been a valid reason for a presidential candidate’s defeat.