It’s often been said that this November’s presidential contest "will be the most important election in our lifetime." This is not hyperbole.
Given the mess that George Bush will leave, and not only in the Middle East, the next president will face monumental challenges at home and abroad. The mess includes the instability and security challenges that now define much of the Middle East (especially in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine), the vulnerability felt by many of America’s long-time allies, and diminished respect for the U.S. worldwide. At home, there is also a broken economy and a loss of public confidence in government.
Given all of this, it will be an important election, with real choices before American voters. That much is self-evident.
What we didn’t anticipate, however, was just how interesting an election this would be – interesting on both the Democratic and Republican sides of the contest.
Watching the debate last Thursday night, for example, one could not help but be struck by the fact that the two Democratic candidates left standing were a woman and the son of an African immigrant. Gone are the Governors and Senators of long-standing. Remaining are two rather junior Senators, either of whom, should they win, would represent a first in the Oval Office.
Clinton and Obama, in fact, agree on many issues, but it is their differences (and not so much their policy differences) that contribute to making this election so very interesting. Both have political ideals, to be sure, and both are practitioners of hardball politics (or they wouldn’t be where they are). Nevertheless, it is fair to say, with Clinton running on her experience and Obama running on his judgment and his commitment to "bringing people together," there is a difference in not just style, but also in political orientation.
Clinton receives rave reviews for her effectiveness and her mastery of the subject matter of legislation. Obama, on the other hand, is the subject of praise for the degree to which he has inspired a new generation with idealism and hope. Seeing television commercials with images of Kennedys morphing into this junior Senator from Illinois say it all.
On the Republican side, an equally interesting contest of contrasts is underway. At the last Republican debate, what was once a group of nine, is now but four white men (no contrast here), three of whom are considered as having a chance to win. Each represents distinct and divergent wing of the Republican Party, with appeal in specific regions in the country, and each is regarded with mistrust from the other wings of the Party.
Most intriguing of all is the resurgence of John McCain. In the summer of 2007, the popular wisdom saw his campaign as dead, but he is now the leading candidate in the national polls. McCain is the last of a generation of Americans whose lives were defined by honor and shame, by duty and service. He often speaks in language such as this when he describes his military service, his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, his time in the U.S. Senate, and now, in what he calls his "final mission," this run for the White House. He is an unreconstructed defense hawk, who speaks in sometimes frightening language of "the transcendental conflict of our lifetime, which is this battle against Islamic extremism," suggesting that this will last at least into the next century. But on other matters, McCain is moderate, and often a thorn in the side of the Republican establishment, as when he challenges them on budget deficits, campaign finance abuse, immigration and their sometimes extreme partisanship.
Challenging McCain is Mitt Romney, once the liberal Governor of Massachusetts, now darling of the conservative set. As remarkable as his political makeover has been, even more remarkable is the degree to which it has been accepted by the conservative movement. This is probably due more to their fear of McCain than anything else.
Next in line is the religiously conservative former Governor Mike Huckabee, who bears impeccable credentials on matters of "social values," but who is also feared by the economic conservatives for his belief that the government has a role in pursuing social justice.
Now comes Super Tuesday, the date on which twenty four states hold contests that will involve about half of the American electorate. Once thought to be the date on which the elections will finally be decided, it now appears more likely that when the dust settles on Wednesday morning, the contest will still be alive.
Clinton, once the prohibitive favorite in many states, is now being challenged by a surging Obama, buoyed by his early victories and major endorsements. While Clinton is still expected to win her share of states, Obama will no doubt win some, as well. Moreover, given the way that Democrats allocate delegates based on the proportion of votes received, it is likely that neither Clinton nor Obama will emerge with a clear victory. And so it will be onto the next round of states.
So, too, on the Republican side, where the ideological differences between the candidates will show up in the states and regions of the country where they are expected to do well. McCain will dominate on the two coasts where moderate Republicans are strongest. Huckabee is expected to do well in several southern states where conservative Christians are strongest. Romney, bowed but not beaten, will win his share of voters, including those in the west where his Mormon Church is headquartered.
This election was supposed to be over shortly after it started. It now appears that voters in states whose primaries are in late February and March, who once thought their votes would not matter, may end up being the deciding voice.
This election is important, but, more than that, it is also interesting.