The Guardian - There's been no contest like it

There's been no contest like it
This is not just the most joyously unpredictable election
in US history, writes Michael Tomasky. It is fundamentally
about whether America is finally ready to give liberalism
another chance
Michael Tomasky
Tuesday February 05 2008
The Guardian


Ever since those days and weeks in late 2006 when this
longest of presidential campaigns began to assume form,
commentators have been reaching back into history to find the most
apt and dramatic comparison to insert into that evergreen
sentence of American punditry, the one that begins "Not
since..."

Some landed on 1976, when contested nomination battles in
both parties lasted well into the spring and summer. Some
went back to 1952, which is the last time both parties'
nominations were truly "open" - no incumbent president seeking
re-election, and no vice-presidential heir apparent on
either side.

Some, anticipating the possibility that the nomination of
one party or the other might not be settled by the time of
the party's summer conventions, invoked 1924, that tuneless
cacophony of a year when the Democrats weren't able to
unite around a candidate until the 101st ballot at their
convention.

And finally, the more erudite among them showed off by
mentioning, say, 1876 or 1828 (never mind, you don't need to
know; they were messy).

Now, with the race in full swing, we can say that all of
those analogies are wrong. My "not since" sentence consists
of three words: Not since never.

I'm not usually given to hyperbole or (I hope) to purple
prose, but I believe this to be absolutely true: There has
never been a presidential race quite like this in the history
of the United States.

It has genuinely impressive candidates. It has a grand
theme. It's really, meaningfully, about something. It may
result in a woman or, perhaps more incredibly still, a black
person being the president of the United States. Or, if not
one of them - this is footnote-ish by contrast, but still
quite interesting - maybe, then, the oldest person ever
elected president, a man who would, if he served two full terms,
have 80 candles to blow out on his last White House
birthday cake.

And not least, as spectator sport, it has been joyously,
raucously unpredictable. Hillary Clinton's eleventh-hour
comeback win over Barack Obama in New Hampshire is the single
most stunning election result I've seen in 20 years of doing
this stuff. And there have been numerous other surprising,
even stupefying, plot twists besides.

But let's talk big picture.

The grand theme of this contest, to hear the candidates
tell it, is "change." That's a shallow buzzword that doesn't
say much, and to listen to the candidates strain to persuade
the public that "I represent change too!" (Obama was
first) is to be reminded of schoolchildren in pursuit of gold
stars from teacher.

But amazingly enough, it's not entirely inapt. This
election is fundamentally about whether a majority of Americans
are prepared to give liberalism another chance. The story
goes like this. The modern conservative movement in America
was founded in the mid-1950s. We had conservatives before
then, Lord knows. But this was something new. This was
conservatism as a dedicated project.

Clarence "Pat" Manion, a dean at the University of Notre
Dame and a founder of the movement, convened groups of
conservatives to get together and start infiltrating (legally and
above board - by winning elections) their local Republican
parties. Rich conservatives in various walks of life
started putting massive amounts of money into
conservative-movement politics - financing candidates, starting ideological
magazines, publishing rightwing books. If you drink Coors
beer or have ever visited the California theme park called
Knott's Berry Farm, you've pitched in yourself.

The Republican party of the day, I should note, was a
mostly moderate amalgam. Dwight Eisenhower as president embraced
the New Deal. There is a quote of Ike's, famous now in the
era of George Bush and Dick Cheney, and piquant enough in
light of current circumstances to warrant reproducing here
in full:

"Should any political party attempt to abolish social
security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labour laws and
farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in
our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of
course, that believes that you can do these things. Among them
are a few Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional
politician or businessman from other areas. Their number is
negligible, and they are stupid."

Ah well. By 1964, this faction had taken over the
Republican party. It nominated Barry Goldwater. But he was massacred
that November by Lyndon Johnson, and the wise observers of
the day declared this strange conservative thing, this
malformed aberration, mercifully deceased.

But it turned out that that was liberalism's high-water
mark. The changes, political and cultural, set in train that
year - the House of Representatives passed the historic
civil rights bill the very day after we Americans first saw the
Beatles, on Ed Sullivan's TV show - had, within four or
five years' time, unleashed uncontrollable forces.

By that time, the American left - broadly construed to
include everyone from Hubert Humphrey to Noam Chomsky - was at
war with itself. I expect you know the litany: on race,
women's rights, the war in Vietnam, the generation gap,
Israel, the developing world and more, liberals were at
loggerheads. In the 1970s, things got worse - crime, energy crises,
a hostage crisis, malaise and turpitude. Meanwhile,
conservatives - who believed some of their negative press in 1964
and retreated for a time - decided enough was enough and
rededicated themselves to pouring still more millions of
dollars into building an infrastructure of interest groups and
media outlets to promote conservative ideas and denigrate
liberal ones. They met with a willing public.

Then came Ronald Reagan - history's first movement
conservative president. Obama was right, in his now-famous remark
of three weeks ago, the one the Clinton campaign ran with
(and distorted, eventually to its detriment in South
Carolina), that Reagan changed the country in profound ways. It's
true that a sizeable minority did not care for the man or
his politics. But for most Americans, the Reagan years showed
that conservatism worked and had answers.

For 25 long years, it remained so. It remained so even
during the term of Bill Clinton, who felt he had no choice but
to govern as a moderate progressive in a fundamentally
conservative era. It remained so after September 11.

But many Americans' faith in conservatism was injured on
the streets of Baghdad and finally died in the flood-soaked
streets of New Orleans.

Furthermore, Americans look around themselves and see a
middle class that is prosperous but deeply anxious; a
healthcare system that works reasonably well, except when you
really need it; a world that hasn't reacted very positively to
our attempts at bullying it; a planet that might indeed be
suffering for our, pardon the pun, sins of emission.

Americans have given up on Bush. That much we know. What we
don't know is whether they've given up on his ideology. It
may be they look at Bush's failures and see an ideological
failure, a failure of conservatism. But it may also be
that they see only an execution failure, a failure of
competence.

So these are the questions - and they're very important and
profound questions - this election will answer: will
American voters say that they want a "change," to go back to the
key word, only from incompetence to competence, keeping
basic conservatism intact (John McCain, arguably)? Will they
say they want a shift away from conservatism, but the
cautious and incremental shift that Clinton represents? Or will
they want the broader change that Obama signifies - a
change not dramatically to the left of Clinton in ideological
terms, because he is not, but potentially a vast change in
the political culture, toward something that does not accept
our red v blue divide and culture wars as a given and would
redeem America's most solemn original sin of racism?

Liberals around Washington, indeed around the country, are
upbeat because it feels like it might be one of those
moments. It feels like enough Americans are tired of
conservatism, not just of incompetence. It feels like enough of them
see that conservatism doesn't have good solutions to some of
the new problems America confronts. Not that many
Americans, still, are willing to call themselves liberal; just
about one adult in five. And no one is hankering for a return
to the 1970s or seized with a burning desire to pay higher
taxes. But the current mood in the country seems to indicate
that Americans are willing to give liberalism that second
chance.

And if liberalism gets that chance and succeeds, the modern
conservative movement will enter into a period of
introspection and recrimination unlike any it's ever experienced.
What in this context does "succeed" mean? As little as two
things. If a Democratic president and Congress - and
everyone expects that Congress will stay in Democratic control -
can 1) pass healthcare and 2) articulate and implement a
strategic foreign policy vision that defends America and
charts a new course in the world, then Americans will embrace
this new liberalism. Movement conservatism will be forced to
transform itself so utterly as to be unrecognisable as its
erstwhile self; which is another way of saying that, short
of its 60th birthday, it will in essence perish.

That's all that's at stake.

But of course most voters don't think about these big
ideas. Elections are always about a thousand things, little
things, some silly things, some not-so-silly things, emotional
things. Ah, emotion; now that's a very political word.

In the past year or so, there has arisen a certain vogue in
brain research and political behaviour. Why, of all
things, brain research? Because some scientists have been
studying how citizens arrive at political decisions. They have
concluded that voters use emotion far more than reason.

We should always remind ourselves that this election will
be about these things, too. It already has been. Clinton did
not reason her way to victory in New Hampshire - voters
felt sorry for her after she showed a human response to
attacks many saw as unchivalrous. Most people couldn't tell you
three specific policies Obama advocates, but they sure can
tell you how he makes them feel.

Those researchers have also found that among the various
emotions, the negative ones - anger and especially fear - are
usually better motivators. They have even found quite
specifically that scenes or thoughts of death make most people
adopt more conservative political views (see The Political
Brain by Drew Westen, from which this paper ran extracts in
August last year).

Republicans know this, and they understand what they're
doing when they allege that Democrats won't protect the
country from more terrorist attacks. Democrats except for Bill
Clinton haven't understood the role of emotion very well. Al
Gore and John Kerry seemed to think voters did things like
read the details of healthcare plans. And they responded
very weakly to attacks, allowing conservatives to define them
in many voters' eyes (remember how the swift boat veterans
tarnished Kerry).

So another interesting question: will the Democrats finally
understand that a campaign isn't a college debate but is
an obstacle course that must be negotiated with a velvet
glove on one hand and a switchblade in the other?

We head now to super-duper Tuesday. We will probably have a
candidate on the Republican side, McCain. On the
Democratic side, if Clinton wins all the large states, especially
California, she will probably be able, to use a metaphor from
American football, to run out the clock on Obama,
eventually winning - one officially "wins" by amassing 2,025
delegates, which one does by winning state primaries and caucuses
- in March or April.

But if Obama does well tonight, and especially if he wins
California, look out. The inevitable candidate, Clinton,
will start looking awfully ... uninevitable. It would be
fitting to the extent that that's the kind of election it's
been. Remember Rudy Giuliani? He led his Republican opponents
almost the entirety of 2007, only to experience in 2008 one
of the most astounding flameouts in presidential history.
Giuliani was on top back when McCain was finished, dead,
kaput.

If you've been watching, you know what I mean. And if you
haven't - well, start tuning in. This will be one to tell
the grandkids about.

From SuperTuesday, an 8-page supplement in tomorrow's paper

Michael Tomasky is editor of Guardian America

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited

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