Everybody thought that super Tuesday would resolve the nominees. Wrong. For most of '07, everybody thought Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani would have a fairly clear path to the nomination. Wrong. Everybody thought John McCain's candidacy was finished. Wrong. Everybody thought Barack Obama would win the New Hampshire primary and the California primary. Wrong. As President Bush quipped, "The New Hampshire polls were off by 16 percent. By that standard, I am a popular president."
America faces a leadership crisis. In a poll by Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, no fewer than 79 percent of respondents think that this vacuum means that, unless we get better leaders, we are in danger of declining as a nation. Even more—88 percent—think the media are part of the problem, focusing on little gotcha stories and not enough on either character and values or substantive policies. In truth, we require a combination of vision and executive competence of the highest level. We don't want any more Katrinas, falling bridges, airport chaos, and governmental paralysis. We do want an equitable healthcare system, sensible funding of entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) that consume more than 40 percent of the federal budget today and 70 percent by 2030—an intolerable burden to pass on to our children. This is why the country wants change and a clean break with the past.
Senator Clinton's slogan is "Ready from Day One." She capitalizes on her deep understanding of how the White House and Congress operate, her mastery of the issues, and her familiarity with the bureaucratic byways that can bog down the best of intentions. She focuses on programs to assist middle- and working-class families but has yet to develop the voice or themes to match the lofty rhetoric of Obama.
Reform rhetoric. Obama, whose slogan is "Change We Can Believe In," downplays concrete programs, thus circumscribing his appeal to middle-class and blue-collar workers. He relies on a generational shift to make his youth and inexperience a plus instead of a minus. The Internet generation has the confidence it can run the world better than my generation. Inspired by Obama's lofty reformist rhetoric, his supporters are comfortable with his assurances he can work in a bipartisan way and restore the effectiveness of and faith in our government. Pressed to be specific, he says he will turn to the American people for answers. Perhaps he thinks that drawing attention to his extremely liberal voting record is not a winning proposition in the general election.
For the Democrats, Super Tuesday turned out to be a Super Standoff. The two candidates emerged from this continent-size competition still running virtually step for step, dividing the party along thin lines of gender, education, income, age, and race.
The Republican side is clear. McCain is the front-runner. His resurgence reflects the success of the surge in Iraq. He understood from the beginning that the small-force strategy was wrong. He called for more boots on the ground. His unequivocal—and lonely—support for the surge turned a political negative into a plus. He is entitled to argue that his experience makes him ready to lead as commander in chief from Day 1. He is certainly clear-sighted about the threat from Islamic fundamentalism and how to fight it.
The conservative base may remain wary of McCain, but right now he is the only Republican capable of attracting bipartisan and independent support in the general election. As a champion of immigration reform, he is the only one who can battle for the Hispanic vote, which was the key to Bush's re-election. McCain is the most electable Republican.
Huckabee's achievement in consolidating his southern and evangelical base is impressive, but that is about as far as it goes. Gov. Mitt Romney has now rightly ended his campaign. He could have introduced fresh approaches to national issues, but instead he was a weather vane, willing to say anything to soothe his audiences.
Super Tuesday raises questions, though, about our selection process. With 24 primaries and caucuses in one day, it lent itself to the distortions of money. The Democratic Party changed the raw primary system after being badly burned by vagaries that produced George McGovern in 1972 and then Jimmy Carter, whose inexperience doomed the Democrats to one term in the White House, in 1976. Both parties now have a few hundred superdelegates to keep the system from throwing up an obviously flawed candidate. It is not as undemocratic as it sounds, since many are elected officials—governors and members of Congress.
Is it not worth giving more superdelegates, who possess a closer view of and insights into the leadership skills of the candidates, a larger role in both parties' selection process? Given the deadly threat we face from Islamic terrorists abroad and from the danger of breakdown in our financial system, we need leaders of the highest order who possess that rare combination of competence and vision.