It's the Voters, Stupid

The numbers voting in U.S. elections have been appallingly low for too long.


Who would have thunk it? The American voter did. Voters in Iowa and New Hampshire put an end to the coronation first of Hillary Clinton and then of Barack Obama—the first coronation long presumed by the insiders and the second created by the media and the pollsters who have egg all over their faces after the Reality Express rolled into town on Think Again Tuesday.

On the Republican side, we had in Iowa the triumph of a candidate nobody had heard of, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and now in the Granite State the comeback triumph of a granite figure in our political life, Sen. John McCain. He deserves a salute.

What's going on? Forget the personalities for a moment. The notable feature of this election so far is not the brilliance of Senator Obama's oratory or the poignancy of Senator Clinton's final burst of emotion. It is the turnout and allied to that the impressive force of independent minds, helped by the open primary system. The numbers voting in U.S. elections have been appallingly low for too long in comparison with those in other major democracies.

Of course, Obama's golden voice (with help from John Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen) has had an impact, especially on the young. In New Hampshire, the Clinton campaign realized what a blunder it had made in Iowa when on the night Obama was amid an exultant, youthful crowd of unknowns, the tableau behind Clinton included former President Clinton, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and former NATO Commander Wesley Clark. You could choose whether it brought to mind Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum or the movie Night of the Living Dead. This was the past and not the future.

Uncertainty. Iowa made it seem that Clinton's historic campaign to be the first female president had fallen flat and that with Obama's big victory racism was dead and we could have the first black president. But those judgments were made when 99-point something of the electorate had yet to vote.

This is not to say that the crossover appeal of Obama as an African-American is not impressive. His victory in a nearly all-white state shattered conventional wisdom. Race may be part of his political character, but it clearly does not define him.

He delivered his stump speech countless times, but he nonetheless gave his audiences a feeling of spontaneity and authenticity. Even his partisan comments seem not partisan; he attracts the idealists who still believe in the American experiment. They are inspired by the contrast between him and the harsh partisanship of these past eight years. Even in defeat in New Hampshire, he brought the same verve to his concession speech. It was clearly the victory speech he had prepared, prefaced with a breath of concession to Clinton, but his manner of delivery contrasted with that of Clinton, who spoke more directly than she normally does but still looked down at notes. She will not be able to match Obama for oratory—there is nobody in American politics who can—but if she is to continue her revival, she will have to be as spontaneous and real as when she seemed to tear up on the eve of polling.

There is one consistency in the two upset votes—former Gov. Mitt Romney is consistently not in first place for all the money he has spent and for all his well-honed charm. Romney conveys the persona of someone who would do or say anything to become president. The man who governed Massachusetts as a moderate, favoring abortion rights, courting gay voters, and crusading for the environment, now says that many of these leanings were a mistake. Instead he tried to present himself as a hard-core Republican, shedding many of his previous views. Ah, he said, he was entitled to change and evolve. But this seemed more like repackaging a process and tailoring his policies to the polls. That lack of authenticity was at the core of the failure of his candidacy. McCain knew how to frame Romney when he said, "We disagree on a lot of issues, but I agree that you are the candidate of change."

What now? As we head into Michigan, South Carolina, and Florida, it will surely be time for more of a focus on substance—for a real examination of specifically where a president will lead us. I believe that the economy will become the defining issue. We will have to hear what Obama can say beyond the rhetoric of themes and good feelings: Just precisely how can we address economic distress? Otherwise, the "Where's the beef?" epithet will be revived.