Is 2008 a change elec­tion?

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Tony Blank­ley

The 2008 elec­tion is con­ven­tion­ally be­lieved to be a change elec­tion. So far, there is some ev­i­dence to sug­gest that it will be — al­though we won’t in fact know un­til elec­tion night — and per­haps not for many years there­after.

It is worth con­sid­er­ing what a gen­uine change elec­tion is, and what that may mean for the cur­rent can­di­dates. It is not a change elec­tion just be­cause an in­cum­bent or his party is de­feated. A gen­uine change elec­tion not only in­volves dis­sat­is­fac­tion with a his­toric na­tional is­sue or two, but of­ten oc­curs in the con­text of shift­ing cul­tural val­ues and pro­duces a win­ning pres­i­den­tial can­di­date with dif­fer­ent skill sets and a dif­fer­ent style of com­mu­ni­cat­ing.

One could ar­gue that FDR in 1932 and Ron­ald Rea­gan in 1980 were the only two gen­uine change elec­tions in mod­ern times. Mag­gie Thatcher’s 1979 elec­tion was also such a change elec­tion in Bri­tain. It is note­wor­thy that in each of those cases, the next time the other party won an elec­tion af­ter such a change (Dwight Eisen­hower, Bill Clin­ton, Tony Blair) the win­ner did not con­test the shift­ing prin­ci­ple of the change elec­tion — but merely sug­gested he might im­prove on it.

Eisen­hower did not re­ject the New Deal pro­grams. Mr. Clin­ton sup­ported Mr. Rea­gan’s mar­ket eco­nomic ori­en­ta­tion and more con­ser­va­tive cul­tural val­ues (Mr. Clin­ton cam­paigned as a wel­fare-re­form­ing, church­go­ing, choirsing­ing Bap­tist). Mr. Blair fol­lowed Mrs. Thatcher’s lead on mar­ket eco­nomics and dis­card­ing old union and left­ist sup­port.

The Nixon elec­tions of 1968 and 1972 were not change elec­tions, I would ar­gue, be­cause Mr. Nixon con­tin­ued the FDR-Tru­man-Kennedy poli­cies of a mus­cu­lar for­eign pol­icy, mixed eco­nomics and cul­tural con­ser­vatism. It was the Democrats, par­tic­u­larly un­der Ge­orge McGovern, who rep­re­sented gen­uine change to iso­la­tion, more left­ist eco­nomics and cul­tural change — and he was de­feated in a land­slide.

So, is 2008 likely to be a change elec­tion? Cer­tainly, the mere fact that the pub­lic may be pas­sion­ately anti-Iraq war (an event that though fairly likely, re­mains to be seen a year and a half from now) will not make it a change elec­tion. The 1952 and 1968 races were anti-war elec­tions, but not change elec­tions. Nor will it be a change elec­tion merely be­cause a ma­jor­ity of the pub­lic has grown to be re­pulsed (ap­proval rat­ings un­der 30 per­cent) by the in­cum­bent. That was the case in 1952 (Tru­man) and 1976 (Nixon).

But there are el­e­ments that sup­port the change elec­tion the­ory. By about 75 per­cent to 25 per­cent, the pub­lic has steadily be­lieved the coun­try is go­ing in the wrong di­rec­tion. (While some of that is cul­tural anger at Hol­ly­wood, dirty record lyrics, tri­allawyer abuses, abor­tion, etc., those con­ser­va­tive con­cerns, which have ex­isted for many years, are not enough to ex­plain this record high dis­plea­sure with the na­tional path.)

Since Septem­ber 11, 2001, the pub­lic has con­sis­tently been dis­sat­is­fied with the state of the econ­omy — even though by tra­di­tional mea­sures of eco­nomic health (GDP, un­em­ploy­ment, in­fla­tion, in­ter­est rates) we are in the fifth year of a healthy econ­omy. That sug­gests that dif­fer­ent un­met eco­nomic con­cerns are com­ing to be the mea­sure of pub­lic eco­nomic sat­is­fac­tion — prob­a­bly re­lated to glob­al­iza­tion, low­er­ing wage rates driven by global price of wages, out­sourc­ing, re­duced man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs, the rise of China, lack of pen­sions, fear of nurs­ing home costs and health care costs, and en­vi­ron­men­tally caused eco­nomic fears.

That is to say that long-term anx­i­eties now seem more im­por­tant than (or at least as im­por­tant as) cur­rent eco­nomic per­for­mance.

The other change fac­tor I no­tice as I travel and speak around the coun­try — even among con­ser­va­tives, is the sense of sheer gov­ern­men­tal in­com­pe­tence. From Ka­t­rina, to air traf­fic con­trol, to — of course, the Iraq war — there seems to be some grow­ing doubt about Amer­ica’s con­tin­u­ing abil­ity to be a “can-do” coun­try with a “can-do” gov­ern­ment.

It is hard to know whether this is merely an overly harsh judg­ment on the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion or whether it has broader im­pli­ca­tions. But cer­tainly on the war, with Pres­i­dent Bush sur­rounded by such ex­pe­ri­enced men as Dick Cheney, Don­ald Rums­feld and Colin Pow­ell, how­ever un­fair it might be to th­ese men, there may be some punch to Sen. Barack Obama’s ar­gu­ment that if the cur­rent mess was cre­ated by peo­ple who have the tra­di­tion­ally val­ued Wash­ing­ton ex­pe­ri­ence, maybe it’s time to try some­thing com­pletely dif­fer­ent.

It is note­wor­thy that Mr. Obama — with no tra­di­tion­ally val­ued ex­pe­ri­ence — con­tin­ues to run fairly strongly. And in the Repub­li­can Party, Rudy Gi­u­liani, the cur­rent front-run­ner, is merely a for­mer mayor. There is no mod­ern prece­dent yet for the jump di­rectly from mayor to pres­i­dent. Nor is there a prece­dent since the emer­gence of the so­cial is­sues with Mr. Rea­gan for a Repub­li­can front-run­ner to be “wrong” on all the so­cial is­sues.

So, we Wash­ing­ton in­sid­ers should be care­ful not to jump to the con­clu­sion, for in­stance, that Mr. Obama’s seem­ingly shaky for­eign pol­icy per­for­mance last week will nec­es­sar­ily hurt him. A change elec­torate might be will­ing to give a bright, well-in­ten­tioned young man some lee­way as he searches for new an­swers.

And Repub­li­can can­di­dates (and Hil­lary Clin­ton) would also be wise to heed Newt Gin­grich’s warn­ing that if they don’t pro­pose real change, they may get left be­hind by a change-driven elec­torate.

If there are 10 per­cent to 20 per­cent of the pub­lic that are look­ing for real change in this elec­tion, we could have that change elec­tion.

(That is a suf­fi­cient de­vi­a­tion from usual par­ti­san vot­ing pat­terns to cause a change elec­tion. Ob­vi­ously most Democrats al­ways want to re­ally change a Repub­li­can in of­fice — and vice versa. A gen­uine change elec­torate is not merely fol­low­ing its par­ti­san in­stincts. Sta­tus-quo can­di­dates should take lit­tle com­fort from the fact that 80 per­cent of the elec­torate seems not to be in a gen­uine change mood. Just like tax rate cuts, rev­o­lu­tions oc­cur on the dy­namic mar­gins.)

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