If Americans selected their president by the party they preferred, no one doubts that a Democrat would be moving into the White House next January. Since their sweep of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections, Democrats have been enjoying what, under different circumstances, they would likely be calling a surge. From a position of parity in partisan identification in 2005, with each party having about a third of the electorate, Democrats have opened up an impressive five-point advantage (32.5% to 27.7%, according to Gallup). Republicans have been in a free fall. This year's nomination races have also revealed a clear enthusiasm gap between the parties. Far more voters participated in Democratic than in Republican primaries (by nearly a 3 to 2 margin, during the period when both races were undecided), and Democratic candidates have dramatically outraised and outspent their Republican counterparts. Though wealthier voters still lean Republican, the GOP is rapidly becoming the poor man's party, its fundraisers reduced to watching in amazement as Barack Obama's internet cash cow keeps giving and giving.
Unfortunately for Democrats, however, the election of the president is not a contest between generic party labels. As Alexander Hamilton observed in The Federalist, it is "the choice of the person to whom so important a trust [is] to be confided." This fact gives John McCain a fighting chance. And fighting is what McCain knows best.
The Reagan Legacy
Since Ronald Reagan ran for the presidency 28 years ago, all of the presidential elections have been fought within the same ideological framework. Candidates have come and gone, party fortunes have risen and fallen, and the world order has undergone a complete transformation; but the basic structure of the debate between liberalism and conservatism has remained unchanged. During the past two elections, the two camps have dug in, solidifying and consolidating their positions. The result has been an era of strong polarization accompanied by the political equivalent of trench warfare.
Electoral analysts from across the political spectrum have begun to argue that this structure is ready to crumble—a prognosis that seems about half right. There is now strong evidence that significant segments of the electorate are no longer much concerned with the old liberal-conservative divide. In Michael Barone's words, "we have entered a period of open-field politics" in which voters are moving around and "there are no familiar landmarks." This diagnosis applies especially to younger and newer voters, for whom Ronald Reagan is a distant figure from another age. The change is sufficiently large that most campaign strategists, Karl Rove among them, have counseled abandoning the 2004 battle plan of appealing chiefly to a committed base, and adopting instead a strategy that tries to appeal to those at the margin who are less tightly moored. Nonetheless, it is not true that the ideological edifice inherited from the Reagan era is inimmediate danger of collapse. It remains intact—no alternative ideological way of thinking having yet been offered as a viable replacement.
From this perspective, the most noteworthy aspect of the current campaign is surely something that has not taken place. Neither party will select a candidate who has campaigned on the basis of a call to alter or reconfigure the party's ideological position. There has been no general programmatic theme akin to Bill Clinton's "New Democrat" agenda or to George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism." On the Democratic side, Barack Obama, the candidate who enjoys an uneasy lead at this writing, rarely discusses his party's public philosophy. Although liberalism fits him like a glove—National Journal rates his voting record the most liberal among current senators—his whole campaign has sought to transcend the realm of general ideas. Nor is the situation much different with Hillary Clinton. She is a faithful liberal, ready and eager "on day one" to propose a bundle of new liberal policies, but she, too, has shown no interest in trying to articulate a new public philosophy. The current one suits her fine. On the Republican side, although McCain has frequently clashed with his party on important issues, most recently on campaign finance reform and immigration, he has never sought to raise his peculiar mix of positions to the level of a doctrine. There is no such thing as McCainism. Though some conservatives consider him an apostate, he probably thinks of himself, just as he says, as at heart a "foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution."
The absence of new thematic thinking certainly does not mean that ideological controversy will disappear. Just the opposite may be true. In the general election, each party's candidate will be pushed by the opposition to defend a version of the existing party philosophy, perhaps even more faithfully for not having a philosophical platform of his (or her) own. Much time, of course, still remains before the fall campaign to develop new themes, but leopards do not easily change their spots, and dramatic changes in the contenders' ideological thinking are unlikely at this point.
The Personal Factor
If a new turn in thinking is not what the candidates bring to the table, there is something else they do offer: themselves. All three of the candidates stand out dramatically in relation to their party, especially as non-incumbents. (Elections involving a sitting president inevitably have a strong emphasis on him personally, if only because the opposition may focus obsessively, as in 1996 and 2004, on what it cannot abide in his mannerisms and character.) What experts dryly call the "personal factor," meaning the voters' evaluation of the candidates' individual attributes and style, seems certain to play a much larger role than usual in the upcoming election. The choice of the person, as Hamilton envisaged, will loom large.
The contrast between the current candidates and the other non-incumbents of the Reagan era could hardly be greater. For the Democrats, besides Bill Clinton, the four non-incumbent nominees of this period were Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry. This is a solid, experienced group of public servants, each of whom had a strong claim to be his party's standard bearer. But one would be hard-pressed to call any of them compelling, much less charismatic.
Now put these rather bland figures next to Barack Obama. Obama obviously lacks their political experience, and by conventional standards would have to rank among the least prepared individuals ever to receive a party nomination. When challenged on this issue, he has often practically confirmed the point, citing his stint as a "community organizer" as his most consequential job training. But it is just this absence of ordinary experience that offers the strongest indication of the power of Obama's appeal. He has made his reputation not by anything he did before running for president, but by what people have seen and heard, in just one year, during the campaign.
Obama's rise has depended more than anything else on his proficiency as an orator. "The reason I came to national attention," he recently observed, recalling his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention, "was a speech in which I spoke of my love for this country." His career thus bears a strong resemblance to another young, politically inexperienced orator, Williams Jennings Bryan, who in 1896 by sheer eloquence took the Democratic convention by storm with his "Cross of Gold" speech, and was rewarded immediately with his party's nomination. Obama has needed only slightly more time to work his magic. This oratorical skill has also inevitably invited comparison to Bill Clinton's. The rivalry between them, a persistent subtext of the Democratic race, has prompted pious Democrats to adapt a famous biblical verse: "Bill hath slain his thousands, but Barack his tens of thousands" (I Samuel 18:7).
Others have turned to religious terminology in an effort to capture the nature of Obama's appeal. One admirer, liberal commentator Ezra Klein, described it as follows:
Obama's finest speeches do not excite. They do not inform. They don't even really inspire. They elevate. They enmesh you in a grander moment, as if history has stopped flowing passively by, and, just for an instant, contracted around you, made you aware of its presence, and your role in it. He is not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of word over flesh, over color, over despair.
If Klein's reaction is typical, then all efforts to parse the political content of Obama's message are bound to fail, for the bond sought between orator and audience is intended to extend beyond the political in any usual sense. Klein calls it "transcendence," though others might think of it as idolatry. Obama's basic stump speech artfully divides the universe of politics, Manichean fashion, into good and bad, with the opposition expressed more in terms of abstract forces than specific groups. There are those who favor "change," against whom are arrayed the entrenched and often corrupt interests in Washington; and those who are willing to hope, against whom are aligned the narrow realists beholden to politics-as-usual. One can detect echoes here of Bill Bradley's appeal to sincerity and Ross Perot's celebration of "outsiderism," both wrapped in evocative overtones of Kennedyesque idealism. In Obama's case, these themes are all connected intensely, intimately, to his personal character. To imagine someone else stepping forward to deliver the Obama message—say, Joe Biden, a man of many words—is an absurdity. The message is inseparable from the messenger.
It is no wonder, then, that the question of oratory itself emerged finally as the central "issue" of the Democratic race, far surpassing in significance what the candidates ritually refer to as the "real issues of concern to the American people," such as health care, trade, or the war in Iraq. Hillary Clinton tried to exploit doubts about the orator, at first questioning the value of speeches as such, praising "deeds rather than words," and then mocking Obama as the "messiah" who preaches that the "celestial choirs will be singing, and everyone will know we should do the right thing, and the world will be perfect." Her hope is that the spell that Obama has cast will be broken and that his believers will cease to believe. Time, in this sense, plays in her favor. The revelation of Senator Obama's complicated relationship with his radical pastor, Jeremiah Wright, Jr., could be the event that precipitates a reevaluation: messiahs have very little margin for error.
Clinton herself also stands out as a singular figure, but for different reasons. Her prominence derives from her time as first lady, when she was both a powerful political voice, most notably in the failed reform of health care, and a complicated symbol, both victim and enabler of her husband's infidelities. There was virtually no part of the nation's psyche with which she did not connect, if not by fact then by projection. Many admired her greatly for her intelligence and fortitude, while others despised her for what they saw as shrill ideological zealotry coupled with chilling ambition. The intense animosity of her foes became the source of her notorious "high negatives," which enabled the mere mention of her name to forge a momentary harmony among her enemies. Much of her effort over the past eight years was devoted to toning down or "depersonalizing" her image; she became a serious workhorse as a senator and has run for office, in her last senatorial campaign and now again for the presidency, as a disciplined, business-like candidate. She had clearly achieved some success in this project, inasmuch as the most inveterate hostility to her began to abate. During the campaign she has been criticized more for being mechanical and not "connecting" than for exhibiting many of her previous deficits.
But Clinton has not been able to escape another aspect of the personal factor, which revolves, paradoxically, around the question of whether she is her own person. Her problem is the widespread concern, at issue from the moment her presidential ambitions blossomed, about what role an ex-president—a particular ex-president—might play in her presidency. Managing this concern, at least among Democrats, seemed possible while Mrs. Clinton was ahead in the polls, which allowed her to keep her husband somewhat in the background. But when her campaign faltered badly in Iowa, Bill Clinton was called in, and the race began to be characterized by media of all stripes as one not between Obama and Hillary Clinton but between Obama and the Clintons (plural). Mrs. Clinton's problem is that while she cannot win the nomination without Bill Clinton, she might not be able to win it with him, either.
On the Republican side, the non-incumbent candidates of the Reagan era have been George H.W. Bush (1988), Bob Dole (1996), and George W. Bush (2000). As with the Democrats, this group consists of respectable politicians, all with political experience (especially the first two), and all with strong support of the party's establishment. But none of them really stood out very much at the time of their nominations (and certainly not for their eloquence). John McCain is a candidate of a different breed. His prominence owes much to his extraordinary personal story as a prisoner of war for nearly six years in North Vietnam, including 31 months in solitary confinement. This record has obviously given him immense credibility, but what has made this tightly wound man so distinct—and so often the scourge of his party—is a strong independent streak, coupled with a certain irreverence, that backs down at no challenge. His career, even in the military, often found him just at the edge of staying inside the rules. McCain is a great patriot, but not a pious one. He stands up for his country rather than preaching about God and country.
He has been faulted for an eagerness, after 2000, to buck his party and president. No doubt he harbored great ill-will toward George W. Bush, whose campaign against McCain had not been gentle. Like Achilles, he may have gone to his tent to sulk, but he finally emerged to fight hard for the president in the 2004 election. And in Bush's second term, McCain has been the president's most valuable ally, supporting victory in the Iraq war and, to the disappointment of so many in the party, serving as the president's point man on immigration. McCain's fighting spirit has also been on display during the presidential campaign this year. Having plunged from near the top among Republican candidates in national polls in winter 2006 to slightly better than asterisk status last fall, he persisted in a race in which it would have been easy, especially for a man of his age, to withdraw. And not only did he persist, he did so by actively supporting the surge in Iraq, a risky plan that most of the other Republicans backed but preferred not to emphasize. McCain's appeal during the campaign calls to mind Plutarch's assessment of Pericles' sway over the public in Athens, which he attributed not chiefly to "his power of language, but…the reputation of his life, and the confidence felt in his character." Character can speak as loudly as words.
Chasing the Nomination
For a longshot to win a party nomination in America is, by definition, unlikely. For this to occur in both parties in the same year would be unprecedented.
Obama and McCain each faced what seemed at one point or another in the past two years almost insuperable odds. At the beginning of the political season, Obama's nomination appeared more improbable than McCain's, because few could have imagined the junior senator from Illinois contesting seriously for his party's nomination. But once the campaign got underway, ages ago in spring 2007, it was McCain's nomination that seemed the more daunting. Obama had only to overcome a person and the party would be his. McCain had to work around formidable ideological obstacles within his party.
Voters weigh at least three factors in deciding on a party nominee: the candidate's ideological position, personal attributes, and, as the campaign proceeds, momentum—a judgment of where the race is going. A concern about ideological stance, when differences are significant, usually ranks first in importance, and voters have been known to switch preferences quickly among candidates with the same ideology, just to make sure that they do not divide their support.
Obama's rise occurred in a race having really only one ideological slot, in which all the important candidates were liberals. This narrowing of the political field had its origins in the 2004 nomination campaign when the moderate candidates (especially in foreign policy), Joe Lieberman and Richard Gephardt, exited early. Even so, many in the party still thought the 2008 race would feature a moderate, perhaps Evan Bayh or Mark Warner, versus a liberal, Hillary Clinton or John Kerry. When none of the moderates decided to enter, perhaps judging the liberal wing too strong, Clinton emerged as the clear front runner. Her initial plan was to bank on her solid support on the Left, and position herself for the general election by tacking to the center. Obama's emergence as more than a token opponent forced her to abandon this experiment and hew to a more orthodox liberal line.
Of the three major Democratic contenders, John Edwards was from the outset the weakest. His position dictated moving further to the Left to seek some differentiation, which gradually had the effect of pushing the other two in the same direction. Edwards's strategy was to help one of the two major candidates knock out the other—it didn't matter which—in order to create a two-person race. There is little doubt that if Edwards's campaign had begun to take off, he would have faced criticism for recently holding, always from "the core of [his] being," opposite positions on crucial issues ranging from the Iraq war to the Patriot Act. As it was, he was largely praised and then ignored. He also suffered from being the self-described "white guy" competing against a "woman" and a "person of color" in a party in which minority status counted as an advantage, a plight readily recognizable by any white male applying for an academic position at a major university. His greatest problem, however, stemmed from a $400 haircut and a related YouTube video of him primping before the mirror, neither of which did much to contribute to a tough populist image.
Hillary Clinton, unable to shake her high negatives, reached a level of support above which she could not climb, which gave hope to others. Democrats who professed admiration for Bill Clinton, especially when he was under conservative attack, were also beneath the surface partly ashamed of him. Obama's rhetoric of change, although overtly directed against George Bush, was in fact deftly targeted at Bill Clinton and the Clinton Administration. This election within the election was a necessary first step to securing the upper hand in the race: Obama was offering the Democrats a chance to have all they wanted while "moving on" from the Clinton era. The repressed animosity against the former president burst to the surface following the South Carolina primary, when liberal commentators joined conservative radio talk show hosts in assailing the Clintons' tactics.
It is difficult not to view Hillary Clinton's fall from front-runner status with sympathy; she seems to have been the victim of an extreme malignity of fortune. As the first woman to be competing seriously for the Democratic nomination, she happened on a year in which the first African-American was running seriously as well. All the advantages that were supposed to accrue to her for being a great historical "first" were suddenly put in jeopardy. More important, African-American voters, whose backing she had cultivated assiduously for so many years, were no longer automatically hers. The spectacle of Hillary Clinton trying to rally her new voter base among older people, lower income voters, and women (more working class than professional) – she, who had every reason to expect being enthusiastically greeted at black church services and warmly admired by university audiences – is an instructive lesson in both the cruel shifts of fate and the inconstancy of human nature. Yet by soldiering on under these conditions, seeking her votes from Wal-Mart rather than Saks, Clinton has probably gained a stature she never enjoyed before with the average American. If she prevails in this race, her travails will have served her well. She will run as a new woman, one who can play up the grit shown in her own rebirth as a response to John McCain's remarkable comeback.
Many will wonder in the years to come why so many professional women and female students so readily deserted her. Was it because they chose to rise above identity politics and judge the candidates on what they took to be individual merit (even while African-Americans remained staunchly attached to one of their own)? Or was it because, in the deepest recess of most liberals' souls, race trumps gender? Or was it because these women found the younger, kinetic Obama a more attractive figure, able to command them with more audacity?
The Democratic nomination race could be heading for a stalemate in which each candidate could boast a rightful claim to the nomination, Obama for having won more of the elected delegates, Hillary for having won all the large states (except Obama's home state of Illinois) and more votes near the end. In this Democratic version of an imperfect tie, both candidates would appeal to an aspect of the democratic principle, and both would have a strong case. The adjudication of the merit of these two democratic arguments would then fall to the least democratically selected delegates in the process: the party's superdelegates. If Democrats cannot accept this venue of last appeal, or if they run into legal problems in Michigan or Florida – there is always the Supreme Court!
By far the most astute analysis of the Republican race came from a most unlikely pundit, McCain's 95-year-old mother, when she declared that "holding their nose [Republicans] are going to have to take him [John]." The Republican contest was more complicated than the Democrats' because it involved a clash both of persons and ideologies. The four ideological slots available were the libertarian, which Ron Paul won unopposed; the evangelical, which Mike Huckabee won unopposed after Sam Brownback left the race; the general conservative slot, sought by Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson; and the strong internationalist, which was a race between two men who had also strayed considerably from conservative orthodoxy, McCain and Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani ranked highest in the national polls for a long time, but many analysts suspected that though the slot he occupied was popular, the candidate himself was too far from the party center ever to allow his nomination.
To confront each other on fair terms, each of the GOP subgroups would have needed to complete its choice—its primary within a primary—at nearly the same time, to avoid allowing a candidate from another group to develop too much momentum. As matters turned out, the important McCain-Giuliani contest was decided almost immediately because Giuliani put off competing until Florida, which was too late. These two men had been on a teeter-totter all year competing for many of the same voters, with one man going up as the other went down. When McCain appeared as the more viable candidate after New Hampshire and South Carolina, supporters rapidly deserted Giuliani. With no competition remaining in his slot, McCain became a plurality winner of the key primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
The generally conservative voters did not decide on a candidate so quickly. Thompson cut into Romney's support, slightly, in Iowa and South Carolina. Romney eventually won this slot, but never attracted much devotion. His chances depended on being able to win a share of the evangelical vote, too, which Mike Huckabee, an extraordinary orator in his own right, locked up. Huckabee's popularity and decision to stay in the race constituted the final blow to Romney's campaign. Whether the Huckabee constituency would in fact have preferred Romney to McCain is not known; the personal factor would have weighed heavily. Nor is it known whether Huckabee, had he defeated McCain in South Carolina, could have broken out of his evangelical slot and appealed to the rest of the party.
The opposition to McCain by so many within the party made his nomination, to say the least, far from a sure thing. His march to victory could easily have been halted at many points along the way without anyone concluding that the party's will had been thwarted. The selection of a more conservative candidate, had one emerged in time, was perhaps a more logical outcome. Chance thus played more than its usual part in the GOP nominee's selection, but no one can say that McCain was not fighting at every point to take advantage of whatever opening fate offered him.
In the past three national elections (2002, 2004, 2006) attention focused primarily on the question of national security. The Republicans won the first two, although they appeared in 2004 to "lose" the part specifically focused on the Iraq war. The Democrats won the third contest. Following that victory, the Democrats expected that 2008 would be a repeat of 2006—another national security election in which Republicans would suffer defeat, on the basis of the Iraq war. The improving situation in Iraq over the past six months has already altered calculations about what the major issue of this election will be. John McCain not only argues that national security will remain at the top of voters' concern, but he also has the audacity to suggest that progress in the Iraq war will help turn the electorate in his favor. Democrats doubt this, but they are no longer so sure. They now seem to prefer a campaign focused on domestic questions, like health care, and on national economic conditions, where a looming recession would supply the out party with another favorable issue on which to run.
Both parties are hostage to events. With the campaign stretching to November, it is probable that some important event of unforeseen shape will intervene before election day. Of the imaginable events, Republicans would have most to fear from a reversal in Iraq (which the Iranians might engineer), while Democrats might fear both a continuing improvement of the situation in Iraq and a terror incident somewhere in the world that strikes home to Americans. The Democrats, who initially tried hard to stay to the Republicans' right on certain dimensions of the war on terror, such as homeland security spending, have all but abandoned this stance and have come close to denying the very existence of a genuine war on terror.
At the center of attention, and enmeshed in these debates, will be the two persons vying to be president, both certain to be individuals of unusual distinctiveness. The qualities of each one, and the way the two match up, make this election impossible to predict. Republicans can find more than a measure of solace in this incertitude.