A Time for Unconventional Wisdom
The impact of the Iowa caucuses was immediately evident in the campaigning for the New Hampshire primary. All the Republican and Democratic candidates campaigning in New Hampshire began talking, some rather abruptly, about the need for change in America, a theme that had been at the center of the Obama candidacy and was, even to his rivals, vividly symbolized by his Iowa victory.
But on election night, Jan. 8, the conventional wisdom was once again overturned. The come-from-behind victories of Mrs. Clinton and Senator John McCain in the New Hampshire primary indicate that voters may want the change they seek coupled with a candidate with the experience to implement it.
The question before voters, therefore, is what kind of change shall we have? Many, including Senators Obama and McCain, have argued that true change must transcend traditional partisan divisions. Indeed, in this final year of the Bush presidency the nation does seem polarized to the point of paralysisto such a degree that a group of elder statesmen, both Republicans and Democrats, organized a conference at the University of Oklahoma, whose president, David L. Boren, is a former Democratic senator, to explore the possibility of launching a candidacy that would move beyond partisan polarization. Their guest of honor was Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, who at various times in his political career has been a registered Democrat and a registered Republican and has most recently identified himself as an independent. While consistently denying that he is considering a run for the presidency, Mr. Bloomberg has done little to discourage the efforts of his staff and supporters to arouse enthusiasm for a Bloomberg presidential campaign that would be self-financed and officially nonpartisan.
The conventional wisdom, of course, says that a third-party candidate cannot win a general election, that the obstacles are too great. But 2008 is already shaping up to be an extraordinary political year; and as the campaign moves forward toward other important primary votes and state caucuses, the candidates and their consultants will have to decide whether the conventional campaign wisdom of the past remains effective. Are the citizens of the United States truly wearyed of the polarization that was the goal of Karl Rove and his generation of political strategists? Will the television attack ads that cost millions of dollars and insult the intelligence of the voter remain a profitable investment for the campaigns? Or have we reached a turning point in American political history, where the challenges of our time, which include international terrorism abroad and growing economic disparity at home, demand a new kind of politics that better reflects the aspirations that all Americans share rather than the particular interests that may divide them?
In the weeks ahead, the American people will have an opportunity to measure Barack Obama against his own rhetoric and decide whether he is the best qualified candidate to bring about the change his candidacy symbolizes. Other, more familiar candidates can be fairly judged by that standard as well: Do they truly recognize that politics-as-usual is an exhausted strategy for the America of tomorrow and that a different campaign strategy that seeks to overcome divisions rather than exploit them must lead to a different kind of government?
Could the presidential marathon of 2008 prove to be such a historic moment? A new politics of hope would really be a recovery of the genius of the distinctively American proposition, e pluribus unumout of many peoples one nation can be formeda promise to be renewed and fulfilled at different moments for different generations.