American presidential politics have many frustrations, but one of the most persistent ones is over the people who don't run for president. This frustration, one of the main themes of a landmark 1888 essay by Lord Bryce, has had its modern expression in the presidential campaigns of Gov. Mario M. Cuomo and retired Gen. Colin L. Powell that never occurred.
Until last week, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois had every characteristic of becoming a modern-day Cuomo or Powell - a charismatic figure possessed of one singular quality (the ability to prompt people to focus their own hopes and their own views on him, regardless of what the candidate actually felt and thought himself) and one singular disqualifying impulse (a distaste for the distasteful process of actually running for president).
Now Obama, who in truth is far less known and far less accomplished than either Cuomo in 1992 or Powell in 1996, has signaled that he actually will run for president. He has Cuomo's remarkable ability to speak eloquently of the fundamental purposes of politics rather than to be distracted with the prosaic tactics of politics. He has Powell's remarkable ability to represent American diversity at its best even as he erases the racial component of politics.
No one knows how good a candidate Obama will be in Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire, whether the idea of Obama might turn out to be a lot more appealing than the reality of Obama, or how well he'll respond to being, along with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, the co-front-runner in the Democratic presidential race and thus the target of all the other candidates in the field. No one knew any of those things about Cuomo or about Powell, and no one had the chance to find them out.
That's why the 2008 presidential campaign is different - and, with both nominations more open than they were at any time in eight decades, potentially more exciting. It's not necessarily important that the race be exciting; politics is not entertainment, and with the world economy changing and an unpopular war in Iraq deteriorating, Americans have more important work to do in the 2008 election than to be entertained.
Obama could turn out to be a lousy candidate, and he could turn out to have a rancid record, but for the moment let's assume that neither is the case. With an electronic announcement (recorded while wearing an open-necked blue dress shirt), Obama already is a semifinalist in the first primary of 2008, the fight to be different. Speaking of "a different kind of politics," Obama is, in the spirit of the age, seeking to empower ordinary citizens (or, more precisely, to mobilize them on his behalf): "A change in our politics can only come from you; from people across our country who believe there's a better way and are willing to work for it." In a nation where everyone has his own home page, everyone surely can have his own political revolution.
There's another semifinalist in the first primary of 2008, and that of course is Sen. Clinton. Surely a race where the front-runners are a black man who has used marijuana and cocaine and a white woman who was humiliated by her husband's comportment in the White House is a different kind of contest. But the country diminishes both candidates, and diminishes itself, if the 2008 campaign is about what Obama did when he was young and stupid and what Clinton's husband did when he was acting stupid and feeling young.
This is a race between two substantial, serious people who came to politics and to their status as front-runners in the most unconventional way since any prominent American politician since Wendell Willkie. (Ronald Reagan, no conventional politician, at least won office in 1980 after eight years as governor in Sacramento and had run for president once before, in 1976.) For years we have been screaming for something different, for someone different. This time Democrats have a choice between two differents who, separately or together, might make a difference. (I'm putting that line out for bid on eBay in case the two are on the same ticket.)
All of which makes one wonder what Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware are doing in this race. (Former Sen. John Edwards at least has a serious message to peddle, and Tom Vilsack of Iowa at least is a former governor, and four of the last five presidents have been governors.) In an ordinary Democratic race, there's room for a Dodd or a Biden, because in an ordinary Democratic race there's either no front-runner (1988, the last time Biden tried it) or a single front-runner (most of the time). This year there are two.
So the 2008 race is on. Obama is in. Clinton is in. In 1972, Sen. Edmund S. Muskie, one of those traditional Democratic front-runners, distributed ill-fated campaign pins in New Hampshire that said: President Muskie! Don't You Feel Better Already? No one will ever do that again. But in January 2007, we can say: Candidates Obama and Clinton! Doesn't That Feel Different Already?
¢ In last week's column, for about the 900th time, I attributed a pretty good line ("Where you stand depends on where you sit") to former House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. Credit for that line properly belongs to Rufus Miles Jr., a distinguished public administrator, academic and writer in the last century.