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+Ezra Klein (@ezraklein) just tweeted a link to a Washington Post opinion piece that asks the question: Which was the most important U.S. election ever?

It's an intriguing article, which makes the case that none of the modern, over-hyped elections can possibly match the election of 1860, which brought Lincoln to power and was followed by a civil war, or the election of 1932, which brought us FDR and the New Deal. Modern elections just don't add up, the author, David Mayhew, concludes.

But I think that the author's historical hindsight should be turned forward. It seems to me that the election of 2000 might well be up there. Without the election of George W. Bush, I don't think we would have danced quite so hard to Bin Laden's tune, leading the country into two wars (one of which was entirely gratuitous). Nor would we have had the runaway deficit spending (including the cost of those two wars) that bankrupted our economy.

Even more importantly, we had no action on climate change, and an administration that pretended that what might be the greatest challenge to modern civilization was nothing to worry about. I suspect our descendants, if they care about these things, will indeed regard the election of 2000 as a decisive point in the history not just of our country, but of the world.
Which was the most important U.S. election ever? By David Mayhew,. The United States has held 56 presidential elections, going back to the first in 1789. And every time, we're told that the latest...
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To me the very first Presidential election was the most important cause it was the first.
Agreed. I'd also put in a word for 1876, which ended Reconstruction and changed the course of history for the South for the next 75 years; and the first election of Thomas Jefferson, which was such a furball that it changed the way Presidential elections were held thereafter.

But, yeah, it's hard to imagine just how much better off the nation -- and, indeed,m the entire world -- would have been if Sandra Day O'Connor had voted the other way in 2000.
+Jim Douglas My take on Dubya's place amongst all Presidents in American history is that, if he's lucky, he might come in ahead of Jefferson Davis.
I hate W as much as the next guy, but to compare that to Lincoln? The Southern secession was a direct result of his election - the South promised to secede if he was elected, and he was, so they did - as opposed to being the result of decades of piss-poor foreign policy as was 9/11. The casualty figures are incomparable. Any given year of the Civil War has more American casualties than the entirety of the 21st century to date. The Battle of Antietam alone had more American deaths than the entire Afghanistan War.

As to runaway deficit spending, I suspect that was the endgame of our fiscal policy regardless, though no doubt Bush's militarism did it few favors.
+Gabriel Fitzpatrick The debt & deficit question isn't that clear. There's no way to know how a Gore presidency would have played out, but it's worth remembering that the projection around 1999/2000 was for no debt by 2012, and it seems unlikely that Gore would have started a war with Iraq.
+Jim Douglas The projections tend to be far more optimistic than reality, but you might be right. Certainly it would be very, very hard for him to have fucked things up much worse than W did.
+Shaun Daily Without the first, there would not have been a second, or third, or fourth.

IMHO, an election's importance is measured by which # election it is. (1st -- 1st, 2nd -- 2nd, 3rd -- 3rd.) The reasoning behind this: an election n could not have happened if the elections in the series S_(n-1) did not exist. Therefore, the first one, which all the elements in the election set depend on, is the most important, followed by the second one (applying similar logic), followed by the third, fourth, fifth...
It's not the 2000 election that produced it, it's the machinery behind that and every other election since the 1990s that's producing the outcomes we're seeing today.
Reagan in 1980. It led the American worker down the path to permanent poverty.
Reagan ... Wow did not expect anyone to go there...

2012 will prove to be the most critical.
Bush v. Gore. It was the most important presidential election because it established the precedent that gathering a correct tally of the popular vote could be bypassed by the supreme court. Runner up: FDR's first election. I think U.S. history would be very different if he were not president. The New Deal and his handling of WWII were two of the largest impacts that a president has ever had.
Reconsidering... Perhaps the elections following the fifteenth, nineteenth and twenty-fourth amendments?
+Peter Bennett I have to disagree. We tend to make the mistake of trying to assign blame or praise to the president for events they have little impact on (especially economic trends), but through the cabinet, the U.S. President has a tremendous amount of power to govern. Then there's the military, which has increasingly had the power to act without Congress having to declare war...
+Gabriel Fitzpatrick The secessionists vowed to secede even if Lincoln was nominated. Are you suggesting he or his party or the electorate bear the blame for the 600,000 dead? The Slave Power had a disproportionate amount of power but to try and hold a presidential election hostage was an overreach. There was no talking them down or buying them, as some suggest. The writings and speeches of the CSA leadership makes that clear.

I would actually argue that the election of John Adams would rate higher than that of Washington, as it showed that there could be a peaceful transfer of power. Washington could have ruled as a king, had he chose to, but he was the one who decided the correct form of address was "Mr President" rather than a flowery aristocratic title.

I would also put in a vote for Lincoln's, as noted above, as well as FDR's 3rd and 4th, as that was a vote of confidence in his leadership. It's remarkable that, after his 4th term, artificial term limits were imposed on one branch but not on the other two: if I could go back and influence that, I would put limits on congressional terms and retirement ages for SCOTUS judges on the table.
who knows about elections. But for most important presidency, I would have to say JFK's naval blockade of Cuba. It was a game-changer, it prevented nuclear missiles within America's shores, capable of reaching most of the US. We've never been closer to total nuclear holocaust, and his genius maneuvering may have saved the world from mutually assured destruction. IMO
I dunno, Hamid. The USSR was always within reach of NATO and US nuclear weapons -- and we were flying over their airspace on a regular basis -- and that didn't trigger mutual destruction. Maybe if they'd been doing the same things to us that we were doing to them, it would've led to a war, but maybe it would've led to a backing-down on both sides and a much less bloody set of proxy wars in the 1970's.
+John Bump Maybe. Or maybe we would all be speaking ruski by now and quoting stalin, we will never know. Regardless, it was an about face for the USSR, a defeat for communism that made their ideology weaker imo. Remember, Troy only fell when the soldiers tricked their away inside the walls. And Cuba is, in practical terms, "the inside" for us.
In those days of Mutually Assured Destruction, I don't know if Kruschev would have pulled the trigger as a first assault. The best case would be a quicker retaliation if the US struck first. According to wikipedia, there were 100 missiles in place by 1961 in the UK and Turkey that could strike into the USSR.

The weakness and rot that undermined the USSR really took hold in the 70s and 80s, as the differences between the way people lived on both sides of the Iron Curtain became more pronounced.

JFK is a hard call: he wasn't in office long enough to really get much done and who knows if he might not have changed his mind on the things he started (Vietnam, Civil Rights).
Let me comment on a few points here:

1. "Nor would we have had the runaway deficit spending (including the cost of those two wars) that bankrupted our economy."

As much as I hate W+Cheney+Rice trio, not everything should be blamed on them. Cost of 2 wars while significant, did not bankrupt the country. My strong belief is that Goldman Sucks did. In 2003 they devised and lobbied a plot to create free-credit bubble (I say they not because I have a proof but because nobody else got the brain to do it. If you know the names - put them here). They did it by lobbying through (btw, overwhelmingly democratic) congress to allow borrowing backed by securitized dollars. Which in a nutshell is what allowed leverage of ~100:1 for investment banks and "free" credit. GS greased the machine with CDSes that tied everyone in banking together and made sure that if one falls - all fall. That scheme was brilliant, genius even. The problem? Well, there is always an end, and that is (imho) what really bankrupted the country. Super-greed of the super-wealthy bankers.

2. The point above also illustrates another tendency in modern world. "Dramatic" elections were "dramatic" because one person could have had big impact on the country. Liberal institutions play the other way around - they try to "spread" decision making process over several individual/groups in the hopes that this will "decrease the chance of evil to prevail". Net result is that every decision has many fathers. For instance, if one were to find and jail person responsible for bankrupting the country - it would have to be 2/3 or 3/4 of the congress of 2003 and possibly many more. 2 wars contrary to the popular belief were not started by W - same congress did it! Sure congress was helped by the rhetoric - W/Cheney did their homework and covered their butts with a bulletproof material. But legally - they are totally off the hook.

This is the most important remark toward "important elections". Yes, each subsequent election is less and less important. And it is by design. And maybe, that's a very good thing. However:

3. The only modern event where potus did not have any ass-coverage at all - was taking out binladen. In my mind it was THE gutsiest move since Kennedy. And yet what do democrats do? - right, sweep it under the rug. Obama put everything on the table with this decision. Yeah, he got "lucky" but the move itself what should be celebrated. Damn, he's got my vote this year!

4. Climate change. Well, in my mind it's silly to try and pull this one alone or together with PIGGS. Unless China+India+emerging markets all sign hard protocols - it's a bag of hurt. And trying to squeeze China into signing something uncomfortable, is like trying to compress water. Yes, energy independence would be good, public transport arteries would be good, but no, trying to impose more tax onto manufacturing and make it even harder to compete with china - is not good.

I guess what I am trying to say is this: modern world is too complex for a 500-word article to explain, and people should really stop throwing statements around few scapegoats, however despicable those goats are. It's just not simple anymore.
I think +Shaun Daily and Brian Doyle are on the right track. Although the Washington presidency was easier than the first time he did not run. It was the transition of power and the turmoil and division that marked the next three presidencies that established an enduring democracy and its sufficient popular support. For the only time ever, an election went to the House of Representatives and there were mortal consequences. Also, the Vice President as President-in-waiting chain was finally broken.

There were certainly defining moments and major challenges since, but having a successful Federal System and Executive at a time when there had not been any such thing is as defining as it gets. I would place the Lincoln presidency and the civil war as the supreme test, fruit of seeds that arose in the early Constitution itself. We are preoccupied with the fears and distrust of the present age. With all the tumult, the Republic is in no more doubt than previously.
Speaking as a non-USer, I'd say George W. Bush's second term. For much of US history, who you've elected as president has meant very little to the rest of the world. In 2004, in the eyes of many non-US people, the US re-elected a naive simpleton backed by some VERY evil people. There have been good and bad leaders everywhere, across the entire political spectrum, and people get fooled all the time by political promises and biased media, but to have the US return that group for a 2nd term marked a turning point for how many of us outsiders viewed your country.
Experts can debate the past, I hold that it may be the next one. If you take the current crop of candidates at their word, each of them would overturn healthcare reform, fight to dissolve or de- tooth financial reform, treat global warming and science based policy with contempt, likely have at least one SCOTUS appointment and use it to solidify a more socially conservative court and generally or specifically work against progressive social progress from the past three years. And then there is Israel: Would/will any of the candidates provide a strong voice against action on Iran without compelling and verified information? Would another action in that part of the world be more, or less, likely?
Hard to pick one, but I would agree that the modern elections are not as groundbreaking. Washington deciding not to seek a third term. FDR's first term and his third were both critical. Lincoln's election in 1860 set off a war that was almost inevitable, and his reelection was critical, as well as his choice of Andrew Johnson as VP in his second term, which led to a bumpy transition after his assassination and set the stage for congress to take over Reconstruction. And let's not forget the disastrous election of 1876, which was the most corrupt election in US history between voter intimidation on one side and outright rigging the results on the other, leading to the end of Reconstruction. For foreign policy, nothing tops McKinley for supporting the war with Spain and making America an imperialist power, and as a bonus his selection of Teddy Roosevelt for VP and eventually President after his assassination.
+Evgeni Belin I hear you about the complexity. But I will stand by my point that in my lifetime, at least, the election of GWB marked a turning point for America, a turning point for the worse along a number of dimensions, and one that we will look back on as profoundly significant as its consequences continue to unfold.
+Tim O'Reilly I think even limiting it to the current generation, GWBush simply extended the work Reagan started, of defunding government, of undermining people's faith and confidence in their country, of the dog whistle politics of racism and division.

Reagan is so venerated by today's cargo cult republicans that they will deny he raised taxes (it was the right thing to do and he did it, several times). He or his handlers did much to create today's culture of "borrow and spend" economics with lower spending, resulting in deferred maintenance that threatens to wreck the inheritance passed down from several generations. I doubt Bush will rate much of a mention 30 years on but Reagan still looms large in the minds of a lot of people.
+paul beard I completely agree. Reagan enabled a GWB presidency, though I think that foul play was also involved in the whole florida & Supreme Court fiasco too or GWB would not have been elected.
It was actually far more innocuous, in one writeup I saw: consider that Gore didn't win his home state (unheard of, right?). It seems there were other ballot issues besides the "hanging chads." There were the well-publicized ballot issues in Florida where seniors voted for candidates erroneously: in some cases, they realized the mistake but any other passed through. A lot of poorly-designed ballots (apparently, there is no design methodology for them) and a diverse population gives us undesirable results.

There is a whole side discussion on why voting is as messy as it is, with Diebold and the threat(?) of machine tampering, etc. Why not paper and pencil, counted at the precinct, monitored by a local bi-partisan board, and then committed to electronic storage and retrieval? Wait, I know. Because the news media need the ratings of election night. And with the election in November and inauguration day in January, we can't wait for results.
Once again Tim proves what a liberal whacko he is. 2000 was somewhat important. I shudder to think what things would have been like if 9/11 happend with Kerry in charge.

And why would we do anything concerning the alleged "man-made" climate change when there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever nor even a scientific theory that would explain how man would be producing climate change. I'm sorry, but there is none zero, zip.

Things likely are getting warmer, but to blame man for it and to enact huge economy destroying programs to counteract it when there is no reason to believe that man caused it would be hugely irresponsible.

I am finally unfollowing you. I like what you do in publishing, but your whacko views are more than I can bear.
+Dale King Hmm, Kerry didn't run against Bush in 2000. That was Gore. And there is evidence of that, though you may be as skeptical of it as you are of climate change.

Says a lot about our current business and political "leaders" if their response to a challenge is to throw up their hands and run away. The chance to develop new technologies, update the old business models of power generation, and achieve energy independence should be good news. But if you are a bought-and-paid-for representative of the resource extraction industries, it's bad news.

It turns out we may have already seen a small example of climate change that models what scientists have been describing. The Little Ice Age looks like it may have resulted from a rapid change in atmospheric CO2 as the Columbian Exchange got underway. And 500 million dead trees in Texas, as a result of the drought, are of no consequence, I suppose. Sad to see but perhaps Texas is the best place to showcase what's in store.
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