A Nation Tired of Old Fights Looks Ahead With Hope
When you look at the returns from yesterday's election, it is evident that this was more than a personal triumph for Barack Obama.
The president-elect has richly earned the praise he has won for the extraordinary campaign he waged to defeat Hillary Clinton for the nomination and John McCain for election. The history books will properly focus much more on his breaking the racial barrier to the White House for the first time -- an achievement that will echo around the world -- than on the Democratic gains in Congress.
But the fact that the Democrats strengthened their position in the House and the Senate more than had seemed possible coming out of the conventions after Labor Day will be almost as significant for the governing of this country as Obama's taking over the White House.
The link between the top of the ticket and the down-ballot races is clear. Had Obama not charted such an extensive and expensive battle plan, it is unlikely that Democrats would have won Senate seats in such diverse states as New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina and New Mexico. In past elections, Democratic Senate candidates in such states as Colorado and North Carolina have urged their party's presidential candidates to stay away, figuring the nominees would just antagonize their constituents. This year, they welcomed Obama and his organization.
But this was not simply a case of Obama coattails. When the economy collapsed in September, McCain, who had been running at least even with Obama, found himself looking at an impossible situation. Confidence was already lacking in President Bush, thanks to Iraq and Hurricane Katrina, but when the housing market foundered and the banks and investment houses tanked, the reaction was devastating. Republicans I talked to late in the campaign in Ohio and New Hampshire just shook their heads in despair.
McCain had more appeal to independents -- in part because he had never been a slavish follower of Bush -- than any other Republican. But his choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin had a devastating effect in places like the Philadelphia suburbs, and national exit polls showed an overwhelmingly negative judgment on her qualifications.
The way the campaign developed, it seems to me very likely that Clinton would have been elected had she managed to deny Obama the nomination. The dynamic would have been different in a Clinton-McCain race, but the power of the economic issues would not have been any smaller. I'm not at all certain which state, if any, carried by Obama would not have been won by Clinton.
But the reaction would have been very different had Clinton been the candidate. Much as she has strived to carve out her own image and reputation, her victory would inevitably be seen as a restoration of the Clintons' presidency. It would have looked back to the quarrels and scandals of Bill Clinton's administration, and it would have meant a continuation of the travails of the boomer generation.
That generation -- the cohort that includes Bill and Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, Al Gore and Newt Gingrich -- came of age politically in the 1960s, a divisive time for this country, roiled by the civil rights movement, the issue of women's rights and, most of all, Vietnam. The members of that generation have never resolved their differences; they keep refighting the old fights.
But Obama is blessedly unscarred by those battles. At 47, he was too young to get caught up in those fights, and his youth in Hawaii kept him a safe remove from the divisions that afflicted so many who were a decade or two older.
I think that has made it easier for him to deal with conservatives and Republicans as a legislator. And it may well set the stage for his construction of a genuinely bipartisan administration. He would inherit the leadership of a nation fighting two wars and threatened by recession. But it is still an enormously hopeful moment for the nation -- a genuine new page.