The Perfect Election

January 14, 2008 on 3:54 am

It’s hard to say when Election 2008 (E-08) began, certainly before November 2006. Indeed, we may be moving to something of a 24/7 election cycle. For the moment, though, it is enough to understand that E-08 is not your garden variety quadrennial event.

First off, E-08 is being contested amid a hardening of our political arteries that began in the mid-1990s and has progressed to what Ron Brownstein characterizes as hyperpartisanship in his book The Second Civil War. The attacks of 9/11 provided a brief respite of national unity, but the ensuing war in Iraq has only deepened and embittered the differences between the parties as was so dramatically demonstrated in November 2006 when both houses of Congress changed hands. Indeed, the continuing inability of the parties to forge a national agenda points to political arteries that are not so much hardened as they are frozen.

But there’s more, much more.

For perhaps the first time in our nation’s history, both national parties are going through an identity crisis at the same time. Having won over the Religious Right, if not having actually created it, the Republican Party finds itself in the same place the Democrats occupied before the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Just as the liberal Democrats of the northeast were unlikely bedfellows with the segregationists of the Solid South, so too do the evangelistic populists of the Religious Right have fundamental incompatibilities with the Main Street/Wall Street of the Republicans’ traditional core. As Sen. Fred Thompson noted in the South Carolina Republican debate on January 10, “This is a battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party and its future.”

 The Democrat’s identity crisis, while less dramatic, rises with reminiscent visions of the Great Society, the exact mindset that Bill Clinton had put aside on his way to the White House in 1992. The Democrats had ridden an opportunity and fairness agenda to success from FDR to JFK. It was LBJ’s morphing of this into his entitlement-driven Great Society that, in part, set the stage for the Reagan Revolution of 1980. Clinton’s success was in pulling the party back to a middle of the road approach that reclaimed Democratic moderates and found favor with many in the business community. For many in the party today, though, there is uncertainty as to where it and they are headed, or even belong.

And it continues. For the first time ever, the leading contenders for a national party’s nomination are minority candidates. Well, one of them is, anyway, with the other, Sen. Clinton, from a majority that has only enjoyed the benefits of national minority status. The joint success of senators Clinton and Obama has taken E-08 to new ground. Indeed, who but the Democrats could stare down certain victory over a Republican party shackled to an unpopular war and a struggling economy with two precedent shattering contenders?

For their part, the Republicans have brought religion back into politics, the exact two realms whose separation was a founding tenet of American democracy. Not only does the  Republican incumbent see himself as the Almighty’s righteous servant and agent of change, in E-08 we are treated to sotto voce attacks against the religion of one contender by another contender. It gets better. He who hath cast the stone hath built his place in politics as an ordained minister of another religious community.

Indeed, the Republican Party, so proud a claimant of the mantel of conservatism and exhibitor of the strongest urgings for strict constructionist judges, won the White House in 2000 and 2004 largely with the backing of a religious caucus. More ominously, many of the purported leaders of this caucus claim as their goal and calling the “taking back” of the nation to their own bosom and beliefs. Conservatives, indeed! In their own hearts, they tread but a few steps distant from the reconstitution of the Divine Right of Kings.

And then there’s the internet. It has radically changed how we communicate and organize, maybe even how we think. Certainly it has had a quantum impact on each individual’s access to information. More importantly, the power of the electronic word has changed how politics is being done in this country. Notable here have been The Drudge Report of the late 1990s, Howard Dean’s breakthrough fund raising bonanza in ’04, and more recently the emergence of Daily Kos, a web blog that for many now speaks with the authority of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

And we haven’t even gotten to the issues yet! Of Reagan’s achievements, none was more notable than campaigning on three issues (lower taxes, stronger defense, reducing size of government) and then actually doing something about each in office. By contrast, the issues of E-08 are mind boggling both in number and complexity. Healthcare, alone, appears intractable with the twin challenges of (1) who is to be covered and (2) trillions in unfunded Medicare obligations. National security: Iraq, Iran and the Middle East, world terrorism, and now the rise of mega economies in history’s two most populous countries, India and China. And the economy? Totally unprecedented deficits in government revenue and international trade, job generation and quality, manufacturing, technology. And now immigration: Who stays? Who goes? Who gets to get in? Global Warming: Something’s going on here and it’s not good. And, of course, education: What is it? Who gets it? How do we pay for it? Then there’s abortion, same sex marriages…

And so it goes and goes, on and on, as the candidates tip toe through land mines of fact and belief, and how whatever they say is going to play with whoever hears it. And with it all grows the question: Are there limits to the capacity of the political process to respond? E-08 may mark the year that these limits are approached, perhaps even broached. Indeed, E-08 may well be a Perfect Election, the Perfect Political Storm.

If this be so, there is no safe harbor. It will be on us to get through as we always have – as best we can. We just have to ride it out. And despite all the jabbering of 18 candidates and that number times 10 in talking heads, there is within E-08 a real election going on, perhaps as few before. It portends a once in a generation happening, a genuine democratic undertaking in which everyone who wanted a shot at the prize got one, and was tested as never before in endurance, knowledge, expertise and character.      

And in this process, not one literate citizen will be able to claim ignorance or denial of access. Not one issue will be left unearthed or unparsed. What you as an Independent will get for your next president will be what you deserve as never before. As one of 40 million Independents, you have never had a better chance to voice and vote your preference — from the primaries, through the conventions, and into the election.

There can be no choice but participation and engagement.


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