Reflecting on the campaign of 1800, the popular biographer James Parton once noted in our pages that what he called the Campaign Lie, though not invented in the United States, “has here attained a development unknown in other lands.” Lies, told so often, had simply lost their power to influence votes: “We have exhausted the efficiency of falsehood uttered to keep a man out of office.”
Hmm. Parton was writing in 1873. If the campaign lie was already so tired—and if the practice of politics had grown as cynical and weary as Parton’s conclusions suggest—then what, beyond the earth-shaking ambitions of those few who aspire to the presidency, has sustained American politics through the subsequent 34 presidential cycles? And what explains the passions on all sides in 2008, in this very particular presidential year?
What follows is an Atlantic chronicle of this campaign so far, and a look ahead at what remains of the contest and what it portends for the two parties. We’ve included an assessment by Joshua Green and Marc Ambinder of conventional political wisdom overturned or confirmed in this race, as well as predictions by Ross Douthat and Matthew Yglesias about the respective futures of the Republican and Democratic parties. Running throughout is a timeline that highlights some of our political blog posts from the past two years; judge for yourself whether our bloggers got it right.
One intuits that Parton himself wasn’t quite ready to throw up his hands about our political system. A certain romantic impulse toward a finer politics seems to abide in another observation of his: that along with the lies, “Campaign Truths, however important they may be, are equally ineffectual.” In 1873, some candidates, sometimes, were trying to get at important truths, as, no doubt, were many citizens, and even some journalists. In other words, when it comes to the still-astounding experiment of American politics, some things, fortunately, never change.