The coming election will also present voters with a choice, not between two sets of ideas or competing visions for America, but between one party, the Democrats, that has failed to either solve the myriad problems facing America or even demonstrate a genuine ability to govern, and another, the Republicans for whom solving problems and governing are simply not priorities. Over the last two and a half years, the Republican Party, even after winning back control of the House of Representatives in 2010, has remained focused on defeating President Obama and refusing to veer from their extremist and dangerous economic ideology of low taxes and cutting spending as the overriding priority.
The 2008 presidential election may have been the beginning of a new era in presidential politics where assumptions and ground rules which we have known for decades will have to be revisited but, in at least some respects, the 2008 election looked quite similar to other recent elections. At least some of the things we knew about presidential elections remain relevant even after this election that seemed to have changed everything.
Now that the presidential campaign of 2008 has been over for more than a month, it is possible to begin to get some perspective on that extraordinary election. All presidential elections are different and, almost by definition, historic, but this one was particularly groundbreaking, not just because of Obama's victory but because it forces us to rethink many of our assumptions about presidential elections. Many of the things that strategists, pundits and other observers knew about presidential elections were proven wrong during the last twelve months.
There was one part of this election season, however, which was a real disappointment. That, of course, was the Republican primary. For pure theater, the cast of characters seeking the Republican nomination promised perhaps even greater drama than the Democratic primary. The Republican primary had a 1970s style curmudgeonly Cold Warrior, a slick and well-spoken 21st century capitalist, a charmingly reactionary evangelist, a perpetually angry former mayor of New York City whose personal life had been an ongoing soap opera for years, a very thoughtful and serious 19th century Whig, and, for good measure, a conservative southern senator who almost literally came from central casting.
One important component to reducing the aggressively partisan climate of American politics is to hold politicians, and others, accountable for their often hyperbolically divisive rhetoric and attempts to question the integrity and patriotism of their opponents. Politicians would be a lot less likely to use defamatory, vicious and untrue attacks if they knew they would be held accountable for what they said during the heat of campaigns. For example, John McCain's concession speech was certainly gracious, but perhaps we should pause a second from congratulating the senator from Arizona for the class he exhibited in conceding defeat to ask him about what he said during the campaign.
The Obama family captures what is best about America and the American dream. Both Barack and Michelle Obama show us, and the world, that in the US if you work very hard and get a few breaks you can make it-regardless of who you are or who your parents are.
Obama's victory, however, does not just belong to him. It also belongs to many Americans who are no longer with us-not only the Martin Luther Kings, Thurgood Marshalls, Paul Robesons, Rosa Parks and other civil rights leaders, but also for anybody who ever marched for the right to vote, got arrested for fighting for equality, or believed enough in the ideals of the United States to fight and sacrifice for them. Obama's victory is a victory for all Americans who have ever worked hard to get into a good school, get a good job or get ahead, worked to raise their kids with a belief in hard work and the value of education, were naïve or innocent enough to believe in the American dream or that in Obama's famous words "in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope."
The Republican campaign has collapsed among a sordid and backward looking combination of incompetence, red-baiting that feels bizarrely anachronistic and almost quaint, the growing acceptance among many in the Republican establishment that Sarah Palin is about as qualified to be president as I am to play first base for the Yankees, an adolescent, but deeply disturbing attempt to fake a racially charged attack on a McCain supporter, attempts to suggest that the Democratic president is a supporter of terrorism essentially because he has an unusual name and through ugly anti-Muslim bigotry. Lastly, the dreaded October surprise that many Democrats feared would turn this election upside down and defeat Obama turned out to be a shopping spree in which Republican handlers bought Sarah Palin $150,000 worth of clothes and makeup.
We are on the cusp of a very special moment in the US. Barring extremely unusual or dramatically unforeseen circumstances, we are less than two weeks away from a great day for the United States as we definitively close the book on the dishonesty, incompetence, belligerence and ignorance which has characterized the Bush administration. Election Day will not just mean the end of almost a decade of dysfunctional Republican governance, but will also show that Americans are ready and anxious for progressive and thoughtful leadership.
That is not, however, the reason, I hope McCain dwells on this issue. The Bill Ayers issue underscores just how out of touch John McCain is with the country he seeks to lead. To McCain's ears, Bill Ayers and the Weatherman conjure up images of dangerous radicals seeking to overthrow the American government, which is, to a large extent, what the Weatherman were. However, for many Americans, Bill Ayers and the Weatherman are something from the history books, and probably from a chapter they didn't bother to read. The Weatherman were, after all, a fringe group and largely a footnote to the history of the late 1960s and 1970s.
Political slogans are usually vague and devoid of any real meaning. Neither Obama's nor McCain's slogan are any real exception to this. However, there is something particularly disturbing about the slogan "putting country first." When I first saw it I winced, but attributed that to the slogan being so embarrassingly childish, although in fairness I don't think any of the students in my son's 4th grade class would come up with something quite so meaningless. It also struck me as a bad riff on Bill Clinton's 1992 slogan "putting people first."
An Obama presidency will, almost no matter what, be a welcome relief and major improvement on the current administration. The impact of that alone should not be understated. If, however, Obama is a four year interlude between Republican administrations like Carter was, or if, like Clinton, he fails to pass any major legislation or build the party, Obama will have been a disappointment. Moreover, a truly successful Obama administration will not only succeed legislatively, but strengthen the Democratic Party moving forward.
Interestingly, pundits focused on expectations while voters focused on mundane things like positions on issues and knowledge of these issues. While the punditry seemed to agree that Palin did not verbally implode and therefore had exceeded expectations, a CNN poll showed that voters viewed Biden as having won the debate by a margin of 51%-36%. A CBS poll showed that among uncommitted voters, Biden won by a substantial margin of 46%-21%. Tellingly, the same CNN poll showed Palin won the all important likeability question by a margin of 54%-36%. This demonstrates that a fair amount of voters like Palin but don't want to see her in national office.
These are the words I kept waiting for Barack Obama to say while I listened to Friday night's debate. I lost track of how many times John McCain called Obama naïve, but it seemed like at least a dozen. You can be certain that some Frank Luntz type within the McCain campaign did focus groups and other tests and determined that voters could be persuaded that Obama is "naïve." The Republican logic behind this is understandable. After all, Obama is a skinny 47 year-old who looks younger than his years, has never served in the military and seems to believe that we should take an approach to foreign policy that is less militaristic and confrontational. In McCainland, this makes you naïve.
To some extent describing a campaign as "coming down to turnout" is a polite way for pundits to say they have nothing left to say about an election. More seriously, in every election it is easy to find people from both campaigns predicting record turnout because of an array of reasons. Democratic operatives in 2004 were promising record turnout among the Democratic base for John Kerry, in 2000 for Al Gore and so on. Republican operatives made similar claims for Bush in both those campaigns.
This ideologically driven and deadlocked electorate means that this election will not just be decided in a handful of swing states, most of which, were also decisive in 2004 and 2000, but that the same types of swing voters in these swing states will determine the next president. While turnout will be important, it will probably be high on both sides due to the closeness of the race and excitement about Obama on the Democratic side and excitement about stopping Obama on the Republican side. This election, which in many respects is like no other in American history, is turning out to look quite a bit like two others, at least in terms of voting patterns and is likely to come down efforts to persuade the same fraction of a fraction of the electorate as in 2000 and 2004.
In the last few weeks the Republican Party has gone back to its base by nominating a right-wing extremist with reactionary views on a range of social policies. They have sought to represent John McCain, of all people, as an agent of change in Washington, tried to build an appeal to voters based on the notion that they are the regular Americans and the Democrats are out of touch elitists, accused Senator Obama of being a sexist for using a common figure of speech and more or less lied about their records and that of their opponents.
You have to give the Republicans credit-if nothing else for sheer chutzpah, albeit a cynical and divisive kind of chutzpah. Facing a tough election campaign with an uninspired base and an uninspiring candidate, John McCain made an extraordinary vice-presidential choice and then rallied the Republican Party to shift their message from experience and character to a nasty campaign that seeks to frame the election, yet again, as being a battle between Americans against elitists.
John McCain's decision to choose Sarah Palin as his running mate indicates that his approach to making this decision falls into the category of "Swing Hard in Case You Hit It." Clearly McCain made this decision based on being taken with the possibility, albeit a somewhat remote one, that Palin be able to somehow change the dynamics of this election and put a fresh, young, female face on what has become an increasingly older, grumpy and male Republican campaign.
While I have lived, worked and frequently visited Georgia since 2002 and have written extensively on Georgian politics, I am not going to address the specifics of the conflict here. Instead, it might be useful to explore some of the questions which the conflict between Georgia and Russia raises for domestic politics in the US. The conflict has, appropriately, led to debate online and elsewhere about the limits, impact and attitudes of American power foreign policy. It has also, again not unsurprisingly, become an issue in the presidential race as Senator McCain has responded with blustery statements stressing Russian aggression and the need to defend Georgia, while Senator Obama has emphasized these points, but also stressed the need for partnership with Europe on this issue.
During the last week or so it seems like the frustration with Obama's inability to expand his lead in the national polls has spread to pro-Obama quarters where supporters are getting nervous as the election approaches. The election is far from over; and it would be surprising if there are many people left who still think Obama has this wrapped up. However, the news is not all bad. Obama, while unable to move decisively ahead, still leads in most national polls, while the state level data still indicates that Obama will likely win the election.