Rethinking 2008

Can Obama rally the young? Is McCain still a maverick? Are the Clintons finished? Our experts challenge the assumptions that have shaped the campaign.

By Marc Ambinder and Joshua Green

This year, the youth vote will finally make a difference.

Every four years, it seems, especially among Democrats, the idea that the youth vote will rise up and make a difference gets bandied about excitedly and then … well, not much happens. Young people were supposed to put Al Gore over the top in 2000; four years later, they were supposed to deliver the Democratic nomination to Howard Dean. This year, the youth excitement has attached itself to Barack Obama. But unlike in the past, there’s reason to expect that this enthusiasm might produce real results.

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The Atlantic's 2008 Presidential Election Campaign Supplement
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In past cycles, anecdotal evidence of increased youth involvement—the media’s fixation on “Rock the Vote,” say, or on Howard Dean’s Internet supporters—never translated to the polls: no tidal wave of young voters ever materialized. But for Obama, one has. Take Iowa: In 2000, Democratic caucus voters younger than 30 made up about 9 percent of the electorate. In the 2008 Democratic caucus, they made up nearly a quarter. If Obama can replicate that turnout in a general election, he’ll have a very good shot at becoming president.

The “Reagan coalition” is dead.

We’ll see. But it sure looks as if the Reagan coalition—the combination of economic, foreign-policy, religious, and cultural conservatives that helped carry Ronald Reagan and every subsequent Republican president to victory—is on its last legs. Tensions within the movement over the Iraq War, the influence of evangelicals, the wisdom of supply-side economics, and other issues are severely compressing the arteries of the modern conservative movement. George Allen, the senator from Virginia who was a front-runner for the Republican nomination, sought to claim the coalition’s support, but his famous “macaca” comment, immortalized on YouTube, cost him reelection to the Senate and snuffed his presidential hopes. Mitt Romney was the next to campaign as “the Reagan candidate,” during the 2008 Republican primaries, but to no avail.

Among Republicans, genuflecting to Reagan has become as obligatory as expounding on one’s opposition to abortion, on “judges who legislate from the bench,” and on other inviolable positions that any serious conservative candidate must take. At most, these vows solidify a dwindling base; they do nothing to expand it. John McCain is the exception that proves the nostrum: he was closer to Reagan than any of the other candidates and exemplifies the martial values that the coalition holds dear. And yet, for thinking independently, he was an outcast. Demographically, it’s hard to sustain a political coalition with only the votes of white men; pragmatically, Reagan’s ideas seem less suited to a 21st-century world. McCain will likely draw weak support among economic, religious, and cultural conservatives. If he wins, it will probably be because he was able to attract key groups—Latinos, Jews, and blue-collar white women—in bigger numbers than Reagan did.

Both Obama and McCain can “expand the map.”

Yes. Heck, they might as well play cartographer. If you follow politics at all, the infamous red-and-blue electoral map showing the results from the 2004 election is probably burnt onto your retinas. Get new retinas. The following states will be competitive in 2008: Colorado, Virginia, Missouri, even North Carolina, Connecticut, and Oregon. Both McCain and Obama supporters believe their candidate’s personal appeal will make him competitive in states where other members of their party wouldn’t have had a chance.

Neither candidate is yet identified with the extremes of his party, and both have historically demonstrated a propensity (though lately, a diminishing one) to attract independents, and even voters from the other party. McCain excelled in “blue” states like New Hampshire. And Obama, owing partly to his message of “post-partisanship” and partly to his race, ran strongly in “red” states like North Carolina and Georgia (whose large black populations voted for him overwhelmingly). The practical need to become the faces of the Democratic and Republican parties will necessarily limit each candidate’s crossover appeal, but it is a limitation that Obama, in particular, by having the ability to spend massive sums of money, might be able to overcome.

John McCain is a maverick.

Not anymore. The truth is that, as the country begins a slow migration leftward, McCain now hews more closely to a rightward partisan line than at any point since his career began. In campaign style: McCain and his staff have developed the reflexive contempt for the national political press corps that’s in the DNA of regular Republicans. In tone and policy: In 2002, McCain opposed a permanent repeal of the estate tax. Now he supports an almost complete repeal and calls it “one of the most unfair tax laws on the books.” His speeches are studded with conventional Republican policy talking points. There are remnants of apostasy, but not on the economy or Iraq, the two most important issues facing the country. Good luck finding an important McCain economic policy that could not have been devised and proposed by the Bush administration. McCain’s support for the surge, which was mavericky at the time, has transmogrified into support for an even longer war.

McCain has been witheringly critical, in private, about the Bush administration’s domestic-security policy; on warrantless wiretapping, McCain’s beliefs are unclear, but his campaign is happy to let national-security conservatives think that he supports the Bush administration’s legal position. On energy policy and climate change, on a federal marriage amendment, on embryonic stem-cell research, he simply disagrees with Bush.

The McCain campaign hopes that independents have long memories that cast the candidate’s rightward moves in a more favorable light. The signature element of McCain’s political brand has always been his willingness to reach across party lines when it is not politically safe to do so. Indeed, McCain’s prickly relationship with the Republican establishment developed partly because he repeatedly separated himself from his party when it most needed unity: in 2005, his judicial-nomination caucus called the Gang of 14 scuttled the Republican majority’s plan to force Bush’s nominations through; similarly, his 2002 campaign-finance reform occluded a major source of party funding. In many ways, the McCain of 2000—younger, tangier, bolder, more confrontational (did he even vote for Bush that year?)—is much better suited to the 2008 election. The question for November is: Was his move to the right too much?

2008 was the year when independent media drove politics.

No, it was the year when big media companies learned to exploit the independent press by adopting its aggressive pose and changing their own standards. Blogger Joshua Micah Marshall justifiably won a Polk Award for his coverage of the Bush administration’s unprompted firing of U.S. attorneys, but his service to the nation consisted mostly of haranguing major newspapers and television networks until they jumped on the story. A few right-wing blogs began to highlight the Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr.’s audacious comments as pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, but it wasn’t until ABC’s Brian Ross broadcast the sermons on Good Morning America that the story took off.

True, newspapers and magazines and television networks adopted the tone and tempo of the Web. Reported blogging became the norm; ABC correspondent Jake Tapper’s blog became as influential as his television reporting. Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin of Politico regularly beat their competition to stories, and it was Smith’s reporting on Rudy Giuliani’s indiscretions as mayor of New York that first exposed how vulnerable his presidential campaign was. MSNBC learned to love liberalism, and set out to tap and reflect the left’s enthusiasm. Political stories in The New York Times and The Washington Post became edgier and more analytical. But for all their influence on the methods of media coverage, the major partisan political blogs—Daily Kos, MyDD, The Corner, RedState—played almost no role at all in determining who won the nomination in their respective parties.

As forces in politics, the Clintons are dead.

No. Hillary Clinton has a bright political future, and Bill Clinton, however tarnished by this election, is poised for a PR comeback. Moreover, many of Barack Obama’s policy proposals are updated variants of Clinton-era thinking.

There’s no question that Obama’s victory has given Democratic activists permission to disengage from the confusing psychodrama of the Clinton years, which began with promise but ended with Republicans in power and Democrats mortified by oral sex in the Oval Office. Clintonism—triangulating, soulless, overpolled politics that vacillated between hyper-partisanship and milquetoast middle-of-the-roadism—has been replaced by Obama Nation, a fresher, sharper, less threatening, more inclusive, and ultimately more purely distilled essence of what the party believes in today.

Hillary Clinton’s transformation from the ultimate establishment creature to the establishment’s most derided politico is astonishing, but she may well conclude that the trade-off was worth it, especially if Obama does not win the presidency in 2008. When she began to campaign, Clinton had a base in theory; now she has 18 million voters in fact. Washington may remember her as an annoying obstacle to Obama’s nomination, but these white, working-class voters identify her as their champion.

In some ways, what brought Bill Clinton down will disinter him from oblivion this fall: Bubba can speak to bubbas; nobody does it better. This bubba-wooing may have exacerbated racial tensions in the primary, but it will be critical to Obama’s success. Hurt feelings need to be smoothed out, but Clinton can restore his star luster if he helps Obama win in November.

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http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/10/rethinking-2008/306983/