Party Like It’s 2008
ANOTHER weekly do-or-die primary battle, another round of wildly predicted “game changers” that collapsed in the locker room.
Hillary Clinton’s attempt to impersonate a Nascar-lovin’, gun-totin’, economist-bashin’ populist went bust: Asked which candidate most “shares your values,” voters in both North Carolina and Indiana exit polls opted instead for the elite and condescending arugula-eater. Bill Clinton’s small-town barnstorming tour, hailed as a revival of old-time Bubba bonhomie, proved to be yet another sabotage of his wife, whipping up false expectations for her disastrous showing in North Carolina. Barack Obama’s final, undercaffeinated debate performance, not to mention the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s attempted character assassination, failed to slow his inexorable path to the Democratic nomination.
“It’s still early,” Mrs. Clinton said on Wednesday. Though it’s way too late for her, she’s half-right. We’re only at the end of the beginning of this extraordinary election year. While we wait out her self-immolating exit, it’s a good time to pause the 24/7 roller coaster for a second and get our bearings. The reason that politicians and the press have gotten so much so wrong is that we keep forgetting what year it is. Only if we reboot to 2008 will the long march to November start making sense.
This is not 1968, when the country was so divided over race and war that cities and campuses exploded in violence. If you have any doubts, just look (to take a recent example) at the restrained response by New Yorkers, protestors included, to the acquittal of three police officers in the 50-bullet shooting death of an unarmed black man, Sean Bell.
This is not 1988, when a Democratic liberal from Massachusetts of modest political skills could be easily clobbered by racist ads and an incumbent vice president running for the Gipper’s third term. This is not the 1998 midterms, when the Teflon Clintons triumphed over impeachment. This is not 2004, when another Democrat from Massachusetts did for windsurfing what the previous model did for tanks.
Almost every wrong prediction about this election cycle has come from those trying to force the round peg of this year’s campaign into the square holes of past political wars. That’s why race keeps being portrayed as dooming Mr. Obama — surely Jeremiah Wright = Willie Horton! — no matter what the voters say to the contrary. It’s why the Beltway took on faith the Clinton machine’s strategic, organization and fund-raising invincibility. It’s why some prognosticators still imagine that John McCain can spin the Iraq fiasco to his political advantage as Richard Nixon miraculously did Vietnam.
The year 2008 is far more complex — and exhilarating — than the old templates would have us believe. Of course we’re in pain. More voters think the country is on the wrong track (81 percent) than at any time in the history of New York Times/CBS News polling on that question. George W. Bush is the most unpopular president that any living American has known.
And yet, paradoxically, there is a heartening undertow: we know the page will turn. For all the anger and angst over the war and the economy, for all the campaign’s acrimony, the anticipation of ending the Bush era is palpable, countering the defeatist mood. The repressed sliver of joy beneath the national gloom can be seen in the record registration numbers of new voters and the over-the-top turnout in Democratic primaries.
Mr. Obama hardly created this moment, with its potent brew of Bush loathing and sweeping generational change. He simply had the vision to tap into it. Running in 2008 rather than waiting four more years was the single smartest political decision he’s made (and, yes, he’s made dumb ones too). The second smartest was to understand and emphasize that subterranean, nearly universal anticipation of change rather than settle for the narrower band of partisan, dyspeptic Bush-bashing. We don’t know yet if he’s the man who can make the moment — and won’t know unless he gets to the White House — but there’s no question that the moment has helped make the man.
For five years boomers have been asking, “Why are the kids not in the streets screaming about the war the way we were?” The simple answer: no draft. But as Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais show in “Millennial Makeover,” their book about the post-1982 American generation, that energy has been plowed into quieter social activism and grand-scale social networking, often linked on the same Web page. The millennials’ bottom-up digital superstructure was there to be mined, for an amalgam of political organizing, fund-raising and fun, and Mr. Obama’s camp knew how to work it. The part of the press that can’t tell the difference between Facebook and, say, AOL, was too busy salivating over the Clintons’ vintage 1990s roster of fat-cat donors to hear the major earthquake rumbling underground.
The demographic reshaping of the electoral map, though more widely noted, still isn’t fully understood. From Rust Belt Ohio through Tuesday’s primaries, cable bloviators have been fixated on the older, white, working-class vote. Their unspoken (and truly condescending) assumption, lately embraced by Mrs. Clinton, is that these voters are Reagan Democrats, cryogenically frozen since 1980, who come in two flavors: rubes who will be duped by a politician backing a gas-tax pander or racists who are out of Mr. Obama’s reach.
Guess what: there are racists in America and, yes, the occasional rubes (even among Obama voters). Some of them may reside in Indiana, which hasn’t voted for a national Democratic ticket since 1964. But there are many more white working-class voters, both Clinton and Obama supporters, who prefer Democratic policies after seven years of G.O.P. failure. And there is little evidence to suggest that there are enough racists of any class in America, let alone in swing states, to determine the results come fall.
As the Times columnist Charles Blow charted last weekend, Mr. Obama’s favorable and unfavorable ratings from white Democrats are both up 5 points since last summer in the Times/CBS poll — a wash despite all the hyperventilating about Mr. Wright and Bittergate. (By contrast, Mrs. Clinton’s favorable rating among black voters fell 36 points while her unfavorable rating rose 17.) Gallup last week found that after the Wright circus Mr. Obama’s white support in a matchup against Mr. McCain is still no worse than John Kerry’s against President Bush in 2004.
But this isn’t 2004, and the fixation on that one demographic in the Clinton-Obama contest has obscured the big picture. The rise in black voters and young voters of all races in Democratic primaries is re-weighting the electorate. Look, for instance, at Ohio, the crucial swing state that Mr. Kerry lost by 119,000 votes four years ago. This year black voters accounted for 18 percent of the state’s Democratic primary voters, up from 14 percent in 2004, an increase of some 230,000 voters out of an overall turnout leap of roughly a million. Voters under 30 (up by some 245,000 voters) accounted for 16 percent, up from 9 in 2004. Those younger Ohio voters even showed up in larger numbers than the perennially reliable over-65 crowd.
Good as this demographic shift is for a Democratic ticket led by Mr. Obama, it’s even better news that so many pundits and Republicans bitterly cling to the delusion that the Karl Rove playbook of Swift-boating and race-baiting can work as it did four and eight years ago. You can’t surf to a right-wing blog or Fox News without someone beating up on Mr. Wright or the other predictable conservative piñata, Michelle Obama.
This may help rally the anti-Obama vote. But that contingent will be more than offset in November by mobilized young voters, blacks and women, among them many Clinton-supporting Democrats (and independents and Republicans) unlikely to entertain a G.O.P. candidate with a perfect record of voting against abortion rights. Even a safe Republican Congressional seat in Louisiana fell to a Democrat last weekend, despite a campaign by his opponent that invoked Mr. Obama as a bogeyman.
A few conservatives do realize the game has changed. George Will wrote last week that Mr. Obama was Reaganesque in the stylistic sense that “his manner lulls his adversaries into underestimating his sheer toughness — the tempered steel beneath the sleek suits.” John and Cindy McCain get it too, which is why both last week made a point (he on “The Daily Show,” she on “Today”) of condemning negative campaigning. But even if Mr. McCain keeps his word and stops trying to portray Mr. Obama as the man from Hamas, he can’t disown the Limbaugh axis of right-wing race-mongering. That’s what’s left of his party’s base.
Now that the Obama-Clinton race is over, the new Beltway narrative has it that Mr. McCain, a likable “maverick” (who supported Mr. Bush in 95 percent of his votes last year, according to Congressional Quarterly), might override the war, the economy, Bush-loathing and the bankrupt Republican brand to be competitive with Mr. Obama. Anything can happen in politics, including real potential game changers, from Mr. McCain’s still-unreleased health records to new excavations of Mr. Obama’s history in Chicago. But as long as the likely Democratic nominee keeps partying like it’s 2008 while everyone else refights the battles of yesteryear, he will continue to be underestimated every step of the way.