The 2008 Election Is Not the Greatest Ever

It's too soon to tell, but this year might make the top five.

By + More

Superlatives, like expletives, come cheap in the Internet age.

Before the votes are counted, we're hearing that the 2008 election is the best in recent history.

It takes a little chutzpah, I'll admit, to argue with the likes of David Broder, who claimed in yesterday's Washington Post that as a horse race, the strategies and personalities of 2008 are unmatched in his professional experience.

Nevertheless, I disagree.

A campaign without meaning, lauded for tactics and spectacle, is like a summer movie—filled with expensive special effects but ultimately short on story and heart.

And in politics, story needs perspective. Election Day is a particularly lousy time to make such a claim.

Just four years ago, George W. Bush was asserting his mandate to democratize the Middle East and privatize Social Security, and books were being written about the long Republican reign to come.

Republican hegemony was inevitable, the wiseguys said then—the Democrats just couldn't match the GOP at fundraising, targeting, mobilizing, or Bush-Rove strategerizing.

It took one hurricane to puncture that heckuva myth. Then, it collapsed with stunning speed, at the hands of Democratic people power.

So, I think we'd better—even after considering the historic nature of Barack Obama's nomination, Hillary Clinton's campaign, and Sarah Palin's vice presidential candidacy—wait a few years before ranking 2008 above the other classics of our lifetimes.

For the sake of argument, this fledgling historian's list would be:

1. The raw, violence-scarred return to power of Richard Nixon in 1968, a year marred by assassinations, war, riots, and the sickening growth of a cultural divide that continues, four decades later, to sap American strength and unity.

2. Ronald Reagan's landslide triumph of 1980, which put an end to a 50-year period in which center liberalism was the predominant American political paradigm.

3. The Johnson landslide of 1964, which led to both liberal fulfillment, with the passage of the civil rights and Great Society legislation, and conservative revival, in the form of Barry Goldwater's candidacy and Reagan's emergence as a national political player. Not to mention the first killer negative ad.

4. The recount of 2000. I can't believe that we're still playing russian roulette with the Electoral College and bickering over voting machines and ballots after allowing the U.S. Supreme Court to decide the presidential election.

5. Should Obama win, here is where I would rank 2008: in a three-way tie with John F. Kennedy's triumph in 1960 and Bill Clinton's victory of 1992.

These three elections stand out as moments when the vision of American democracy was embraced and restored by the arrival of a new generation on the political scene.

And though Clinton cannot claim to have shattered religious or racial barriers, like JFK and Obama, his eight years in office marked the successful return of the Democratic Party, under the leadership of "New Democrats," to a centrist foreign policy and economic platform.

If John McCain wins tomorrow, I will drop 2008 even further down my list—and pray that it is not remembered as the tragically historic year when Americans had an opportunity to break from their bankrupt politics of division but lacked the courage or wisdom to do so.

  • Click here to read more by John Aloysius Farrell.
  • Click here to read more about Campaign 2008.
  • Click here to read more about the most consequential elections in U.S. history.