In an election cycle that saw the explosion of “Fact Check” articles written from thinly-disguised partisan bias, there is one fact that the overwhelming majority of voters going to the polls on Tuesday cannot deny: The 2008 election will finally end.
Regardless of the outcome, we all should be thankful for this fact, if only for the sake of the battered American psyche.
Some academics over the years have intoned that the voting process itself can be considered a legal act of peaceful revolution, in keeping with Thomas Jefferson’s oft-cited musing that “A little rebellion now and then…is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.” If this comparison is accurate, then the only logical conclusion in the aftermath of this contest is that, in the modern age, a little democracy now and then is bad medicine indeed for the mental health of America.
America is so very tired of it all – tired of the hacks, the flacks, and the attacks. Ah, for the older, simpler days of politics, when dirty-fingered men would hand out pamphlets on the street corner with more veracity than the accusations of the 24-hour networks.
Closing the book on the 2008 election would take the strength of a full grown elephant and donkey, yoked in tandem, if the volume held a full accounting of the twists and travails of this never-ending contest, with full appendices of fiends and follies.
What a range of surprises the bizarre tome would contain. How could even the wisest minds of Washington have predicted these two candidates, even a year ago, would emerge from the primary season as the party nominees? How could they have predicted that their stances on the war in Iraq, the largest contributing factor to each man’s victory, would barely be a topic of mention in the final weeks of the campaign, pushed aside by the controversy of an Alaska Governor’s fashion choices and the economic viewpoints of a Toledo plumber?
How could they have predicted that John McCain, for years the Republican most popular with the press, would become a jilted lover? How could they predict that Barack Obama, based on fewer than 200 days experience in the U.S. Senate, could predict with a messianic aplomb unseen since the days of William Jennings Bryan, that his election would be retold to children in decades hence as “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal” with a straight face?
Perhaps most shocking of all: who could have predicted that this cycle, featuring two men who repeatedly declared their ability to unite the country in bipartisan spirit in the wake of eight divisive years, would put the charge of “Socialism” back in common usage?
Speaking to one of his glorious rallies on Wednesday, Sen. Obama claimed that “By the end of the week, [Sen. McCain] will be accusing me of being a secret communist because I shared my toys in kindergarten. I shared my peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”
There’s only one problem with that line, of course: Sen. Obama isn’t talking about sharing his sandwich as President. He’s talking about sharing yours.
As the overwhelming favorite on Tuesday, Sen. Obama stands to emerge from this race with the most ethereal presidential mandate of the modern era. How can one give a mandate to a party headed by a politician who insists his election alone will accomplish his policy goals? As the old song goes, he doesn’t want to set the world on fire – he just wants to spark a flame in your heart. And spark it he has – but if the polls are to be believed, it’s very unlikely this spark will transfer to Senate Democrats, who may gain as few as 4 net seats in an election cycle where a 60-vote filibuster proof majority had once seemed a foregone conclusion.
Sen. Obama’s model for success, in other words, is a model dependent entirely on the person of Barack Obama. It is not exactly a model for a new Democratic majority.
Consider former Gov. Mark Warner, poised to win Virginia by a significant margin, as the contrast. In him, you see the model for a pro-capitalist Democratic majority that recognizes the center-right nature of the electorate. Where Warner once denounced social conservatives and gun rights voters as “threatening to what it means to be an American,” he went on to earn “A” ratings from the National Rifle Association, and proved to be a centrist on fiscal issues. Gov. Warner has no buoyant cult of personality around him – his keynote speech to the Democratic Convention earlier this year was widely viewed as a flop – but rather a practical resume of solid government work.
In Gov. Warner, we see the kind of pragmatic politician who represents the policy viewpoints of a permanent Democrat majority. But in Sen. Obama, we see the kind of hubristic politician who could very well squander an electoral victory – attained not so much thanks to his policies or celebrity charisma as fatigue over President George W. Bush – by overreaching.
A regrouped conservative movement, likely to have an even firmer hold on the GOP, will be ready if he does. The successful politicians on the right in 2008 almost all share one attribute: a populist streak that is very strong and vibrant. There’s no question that, as we saw in ’92-93, the next 2-4 years will find this third of the GOP increase the strength of this variety of politics.
Today, the American people are sending a mandate for change. But getting them to agree on what the word “change” means, and what government results from it, is a very difficult thing. If Sen. Obama makes the mistake of believing that his election represents a mandate for redistribution of wealth, for socialized medicine, for a reintroduction of the welfare state through tax credits to those who pay nothing…he may soon find that his electoral coalition is more delicate than he imagined. Matt Yglesias is already urging him on toward this course, suggesting that this election will grant an unrestrained mandate to American progressives.
The right can only hope the new overlords believe the hype.
We shall see. For now, be thankful the election that would not die is finally, at long last, proving to be mortal. Come Tuesday, put the yard signs away for a bit, and say farewell to our most modern folly. Americans now should take their cue from T.S. Eliot, and saying “Well now that’s done, and I’m glad it’s over,” put a record on the gramophone.