Archive for Sunday, November 2, 2008

Elections: The day after

November 2, 2008


Columnist David Shribman offers speculative next-day analyses of both an Obama victory and a McCain victory as a way to assess what each would reveal about the state of America in 2008.

If McCain comes back :

John McCain's stunning victory, the biggest comeback and upset since Harry S. Truman defeated Thomas E. Dewey in 1948, is a reminder of the essential character of American politics since the end of the New Deal/Great Society era and the conclusion of the Vietnam War:

This is a nation firmly rooted in center-right politics - skeptical of big-government social programs even as it applies a big-government response to an economic crisis and worried about 21st-century dangers even in a world that has been shaped by American power and will.

McCain's victory symbolizes the hold that Vietnam still has on the American consciousness and the appeal that military heroism always has held for the American electorate. It is, moreover, testimony to the terror that the word "socialist," wielded with devastating skill by McCain sympathizers against Sen. Barack Obama, incites in the American conversation.

The triumph of McCain, who lost the Republican nomination to George W. Bush in 2000 and whose campaign was left for dead only 13 months ago, was as well a remarkable personal triumph - a personal triumph for a man whose personal courage allowed him to endure five years of torture and travail in a North Vietnam prison and a sense of isolation in his own party that can be matched in Western politics only by that endured by Winston Churchill in Great Britain.

America's new president is a curious combination of independence and dependence, of impulse and probity. His rise was fueled in equal measure by a maverick sensibility and by the indispensable entree and financial support provided by his father, grandfather and second wife. In his life as well as in his campaign, he trusted his instincts more than his intellect - and yet his is a cultivated mind, watered by the reading of serious books on serious subjects.

His unlikely triumph was helped by the collapse of the youth vote, which was expected to be the oxygen of the Obama campaign, and by the resilience of religion in American civic life, a force that Republicans mastered long before they knew the governor of Alaska but a force that Sarah Palin helped them harness in her remarkable 10-week star turn on the American stage.

Two other factors helped power McCain past Obama, who seemed to have an insurmountable lead even at the last weekend of the campaign.

One was the appeal of experience; Americans were unwilling to take the risk of putting a nation already at risk - both in terms of national security and economic security - in untested hands, even in the hands of one of the most gifted speakers and compelling politicians of the 21st century.

They also were unwilling to deliver both the legislative and executive branches into the hands of the Democrats. Americans, who have given both branches of government to one party for only six of the 28 years since the election of Ronald Reagan, seem to prefer divided government. Americans have spoken again, in defiance of both polls and pundits.

America holds few stories as dramatic and poignant as the life of its 44th president, a natural rebel who now will rule the world's oldest democracy, an enemy of authority who is now the ultimate earthly authority. McCain's life, much like the life of the country he now leads, has been a grand adventure spanning 72 years, an admixture of trial and triumph, and one whose most vital chapter is only now beginning to be written.

If Obama makes history:

Of all the collisions of politics and culture in American life since the Civil War, none may have occurred with the force, impact and historical significance of what Americans did on Nov. 4, 2008:

In selecting Barack Obama as their 44th president, they redeemed the created-equal promise of their founding document, freed both blacks and whites from the imprisonment of racial expectations, set a great nation on an uncharted political course and rewrote the rules of politics for a generation.

Obama's triumph was a remarkable narrative, a classic American chronicle of a swift ascent to celebrity, a morality tale of grit and determination overcoming long odds, an instant fable that affirmed the American conviction that an opportunity society can also be a meritocracy.

The first Illinoisan since Lincoln to win the presidency, and with as little conventional political experience as Lincoln, Obama had no family connections but a compelling family story. He offered himself at once as a quiet and contemplative man, possessed of an inner serenity at odds with the timbre of the times, and as a man strangely suited for the moment, full of impatience with war, unease about the economy and discomfort about the direction of the country.

Born during the John Kennedy years, with a touch of the Kennedy magic and a strong updraft of latter-day Kennedy support, Obama was the first Democratic presidential candidate with a post-Kennedy outlook and political profile.

He reclaimed the Catholic vote for the Democrats, to be sure, but his rise was fueled by a new generation of voters who were animated by a new Internet culture with its own means of social-networking, by mobile Americans without geographical roots but with netroots and by an upswelling of young educated whites. Obama's margin of victory among voters under 30 - the sort of voters who, a generation earlier, fled to Kennedy because he personified the Frank Sinatra song "High Hopes," which became part of his campaign soundtrack - was more than three times greater than the Democratic margin in 2004.

The result left the Republican Party, which had won seven of the 10 presidential elections between 1968 and 2004, in full retreat, its coalition of entrepreneurs and executives, white working-class men and religious conservatives, in confusion and in tatters. The Democrats controlled not only the White House but both chambers of Congress, as well, much as they did in the Kennedy years.

But the historical echoes that penetrated the American psyche the morning after came not from Kennedy, who pushed but did not pass a major civil-rights bill, but from Lyndon B. Johnson, who uttered a sad but prescient aside after signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 exactly 101 years after the Battle of Gettysburg.

"We have lost the South for a generation," he said, after signing perhaps the most significant piece of legislation of his era.

Johnson was right. The Civil Rights Act, which owed its passage to Republican votes, nonetheless identified the Democrats with the aspirations of African-Americans and delivered the onetime Solid South of the Democrats into GOP hands. But it also empowered blacks to vote and, in 2008, to vote for a black president.

Forty-four years after the Civil Rights Act was signed, the 44th president shattered the Solid South of the Republicans even as he overcame one of the nation's greatest obstacles to racial inequality. No longer could Americans say that the White House was for whites only.

- David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


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