PARIS — “It was invisible, as always,” begins Theodore White’s classic “The Making of the President, 1960,” describing the mysterious process by which millions of voters combine to make their most important political decision.
This time, it was visible.
The crowded lines at the polls, the frenzied communications on the pathways of the Internet, the huge crowds at political rallies revealed this to be an election like no other. Most of the time history just happens and we see it in the rearview mirror. This time history happened right in front of our eyes.
The Democratic Party that has won a mandate to govern the White House and the Congress is a party transformed. In the Roosevelt and Truman years, the Democrats were the party of the working class, of the urban and rural areas, and Jewish voters, among many others, were enthusiastic supporters of the New Deal and Fair Deal coalitions. But the issue of race had to be glossed over because a party of Southern rural whites could not be racially progressive.
In the 1960s, the Democrats had to choose, and they chose the side of racial equality, supported by Jews, who were actively engaged in the civil rights movement that forced the hand of national Democrats.
The party paid a steep price for that choice, as white voters in the South and many whites outside the south deserted the Democrats for a rejuvenated Republican party that clearly placed itself on the side of whites. After Lyndon Johnson’s landslide election in 1964, only one Democrat, Jimmy Carter, has received more than 50 percent of the popular vote — Carter got 50.1 percent — and Republicans have dominated presidential elections. (Bill Clinton managed to win twice without breaking 50 percent of the vote.) How to hold onto white working voters and minority communities in the same party became the agonizing task of a party that hoped to provide health care and other progressive economic policies. Meanwhile, the African American militancy of the 1960s and the apparent softening of support for Israel in some corners of the left opened up serious rifts within the Jewish community, concerns that would reemerge in Obama’s run for the presidency.
When this campaign started two years ago, no one anticipated that not only would Democrats finally overcome their painful standing in a presidential election, but that the candidate who would do it would be African American. In fact, history suggested that to be, perhaps, the least likely option. The expectation was that it would take another Bill Clinton, a white candidate who could walk comfortably in both racial camps, to solve the problem. And that maybe Democrats could hold their industrial base and the Northeast and West Coast to squeak out a victory, with one or two more states added in.
Instead, Obama obtained more than 52 percent of the popular vote, the most for a Democrat since 1964. He redrew the political map with victories in Nevada, Colorado, Indiana, Virginia, Ohio and Florida. The most dramatic moments came with his victories in Pennsylvania, and the big fish, Ohio. These blue-collar states, with lots of conservative Democrats, were seen as difficult for Obama, but he won them both. White suburban voters helped Obama win, a significant shift from the days when suburbs helped Republicans beat the urban turnout, and Jewish voters undoubtedly helped Obama turn Florida blue.
The Republican Party, and particularly George W. Bush, helped make this historic election possible. Certain of their dominance of national politics, Republican leaders came to believe that if they simply stuck together and mobilized their conservative base, that the feckless Democrats and moderate Republicans would continue to recede as a threat. Having taken control of the White House in a disputed 2000 election, the Bush team moved to enact their program with discipline and contempt for Democrats. Inspired by Vice President Dick Cheney, they came to believe that they could do whatever they wanted. Victory in the 2002 congressional elections appeared to them to be evidence that the strategy was working. The result was the ill-advised invasion of Iraq in 2003. That invasion set in motion the forces that led to the 2008 watershed.
As weak, demoralized and disorganized as they were, Democrats nursed a grudge that grew into a burning rage against the Bush administration. They could not agree, however, on how to fight back. The Iraq war divided Democrats between the Howard Dean wing of the party that wanted to fight against it, and the Clinton wing that had succeeded by narrowing the differences with ascendant Republicans and hoping to win narrow national victories. Dean proposed a 50-state strategy to put the party into every state and to concede no state. He could not win the party’s nomination in 2004 and instead became party chair where he tried to get the strategy going. When the Democrats finally openly opposed the war in 2006, they won a major victory in congressional elections.
Meanwhile the deterioration of the Bush administration, its handling of Hurricane Katrina and the slowing economy eroded the re-elected Bush’s popularity. His has become the most unpopular presidency since polling began. Obama challenged the inevitable nominee, Hillary Clinton, with his early opposition to the war. That issue, and his decision to implement Dean’s strategy by competing for delegates in red states, catapulted him to a shocking upset of Clinton for the nomination of his party. Yet Obama could not easily crack Clinton’s base among women, Jews, older voters, and Latinos.
Republicans had every reason to believe that they could beat Obama. As an African American candidate, he could directly embody the racialized images of “otherness” that they had so successfully glued to the Democrats. But they ultimately discovered that the “base” strategy that had won the 2002 and 2004 elections would not work in 2008, just as it had failed in 2006. The base strategy cost them the suburbs. It cost them blue-collar voters. It cost them Latinos. It cost them a generation of young voters. It cost them women. And it also cost them Jewish voters. No one understood that black turnout in the south would be so large as to put several red states into play.
The problem with building a party around white racial resentment is that the spigot cannot easily be shut off. Bush, Karl Rove and John McCain all understood that the future of the Republican party rested with the immigrants who had come from Hispanic and Asian nations. The conservatism within those groups could make them natural Republicans. That was the Republican hope for a long-term majority, and it was a pretty smart plan. But the base that Bush and Rove had fed so long turned on immigrants, just as they had earlier turned on African Americans. The Bush-McCain immigration plan that might have built a bridge to Hispanics died, and McCain was forced to renounce his support for his own plan to have a chance of winning the Republican nomination. The result? Obama and the Democrats reaped a massive harvest of Latino votes in the Southwestern states of Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado. McCain, the candidate whose image of moderation made him the best choice for the Republicans in a tough year, had to hew the party line as that line became unpopular on issue after issue.
Certain that white, working-class voters would be driven by culture and race to support Republicans, the White House dithered as the economy slid. To the end, McCain stuck to traditional Republican economics, downplaying the crisis and calling for trickle-down economics. Instead, there would be red meat for the culture wars. Joe the Plumber would symbolize the white guy who fears that his tax dollars will go to some vaguely described “welfare” program. It probably did work with some voters. But many other cross-pressured, older white Democrats in the industrial states seem to have ultimately decided that while Democrats may sometimes act like latte-drinking goofballs, they at least ought to get a chance to do something about the economy. That probably blunted some of the much-feared Bradley Effect.
The social conservatism symbolized by a rigid pro-life stance caused heartburn for Republicans among suburban voters, with women, and ultimately with Jewish voters. Jewish women are the most pro-choice group in the electorate, and Jews tend to be on the most tolerant end of most measures of social liberalism. One could almost hear moderate Jewish voters crying out to Republicans to send them a real moderate, a Dick Riordan, an Arnold Schwartzenegger, a Nelson Rockefeller for those with a longer memory. Instead, Republicans sent them the message that Democrats would weaken Israel — don’t worry about those other issues. The Sarah Palin nomination may have been the final push for wavering voters. The relentlessly anti-intellectual Palin was hardly the ideal candidate to appeal to Jews.
It was Obama, of course, who took this situation and turned it into an unlikely victory. If Iraq was his road to the nomination, the economy was his road to November. As the war receded as the decisive issue for the fall election, the economy turned out to be the monster one. As a first time African American candidate, Obama had to run a near-perfect campaign. Many Americans had never had the chance to vote for a black candidate, and voters are extremely cautious about the new and the different. In the debates, Obama showed steadiness and maturity and easily won all three. The comparison between the vice presidential picks of Joe Biden and Sarah Palin could not have been clearer. The Wall Street collapse tore the ground out from under the McCain campaign, and the race did not change much from then until the end. Obama’s organization turned out to be a thing of beauty, and it has replaced the rickety, amateurish Democratic Party organization with a 21st-century version that actually works.
The mood of celebration that has greeted Obama’s victory belies the hard days ahead. The nation expects answers on the economic crisis and also hopes that Obama, inexperienced in foreign policy, will show the steadiness at the helm that he demonstrated in his presidential debates. Pre-election polls showed that Jews had in the main overcome their initial suspicions of Obama to reach more than 70 percent levels of support, but many want to be sure that their decision to take a chance on the new guy over the well-known older guy was well founded. That means close attention to Israel and its defense, even in a period when domestic economic matters are likely to dominate the new president’s agenda.
In the inside-baseball world of politics, Obama’s election probably means a complete shift from one set of Jewish foreign policy advisors for another. Neo-conservatives, a number of whom are Jewish, comprised a core block of Bush’s advisers, and they were a major force in pushing the war in Iraq. As the war went bad, they drifted from the White House to media punditry and other perches. Quite a few gravitated to the McCain campaign, which in that sense campaigned to the right of the Bush White House — which had begun in its late days to quietly walk back from its own unilateralism in foreign policy. McCain’s loss means that they now have to fight for their place in their own defeated party rather than sitting in the seat of power. Their most prominent political ally, now that McCain has lost, is independent Senator Joe Lieberman, who now has to find his own place in a Senate where Democrats no longer need his vote to have a majority.
Obama will bring to the White House old hands like Dennis Ross and Jewish Democrats in the Congress with a different view of foreign policy than the neo-conservatives. How this new foreign policy team operates may not be a central concern for American voters as a whole, but it will certainly be closely watched by Jewish voters and organizations.
New presidents face their first political test in the congressional elections that follow two years after their initial election. In 2010, voters will render their first verdict on Obama’s presidency and his party’s performance. This cycle is a sobering reminder that in a democracy voters only give you the chance to prove yourself, not a blank check. The Republican party, soon to have a bitter internal debate about its future, will be a formidable competitor once again if it can open its doors and its minds to the same winds of change that drove them aground for now.
From my temporary perch in Paris, where I not only talk to lots of people from all walks of life, but collect news from around the world, I can tell you that the global interest in this election has been phenomenal. The raw excitement and expectation that has been set off in recent weeks by the possibility of Obama’s election has been transformational. It is, for me, a reminder that the world has only the greatest hopes for America. In Paris, any discussion of the U.S. election draws a standing-room-only crowd, and it is quite entertaining to hear people discourse about what is going to happen in North Dakota or to debate whether or not there is a Bradley Effect. I think that the often-opaque American political system has now, for the first time, become understandable around the world because of the intensity of the event.
The French now understand that Obama’s election will set off a long overdue debate about the status of minority communities within their own nation. Why, people are asking, are there not more minority members of the national legislative bodies? Would France elect a president of African origin? Nothing is going to be left untouched by these historic events. One of my students, who is black, flew to America to campaign for several days last week, and he told me that if Obama wins he is going to get active in French politics and maybe run for office.
When all is said and done, this is still a time for celebration. Racial divisions do not go away just because of an election, but we might think of these issues in a different way, and sometimes that is how intractable problems become tractable. In his inaugural address in 1961, John F. Kennedy said memorably “We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom.” Obama’s victory gives his party a chance at the helm, but more importantly, it has tapped into a rich vein of hope too long hidden by the false confidence of cynicism. For Jewish voters, the decision to give Obama a chance is an important one. If he can fulfill those expectations, some of the ill will that is rooted in recent decades may lose its sting.
Hope is not always rewarded, but it is the one thing that generates the strength to face the worst of problems, and it is therefore the one thing we cannot do without.
Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton, is the 2008 Fulbright Tocqueville Distinguished Chair in American Studies at the University of Paris VIII.