The Wild-Card Election
The old rules don't matter. Here's an inside look at what may be a once-in-a-lifetime campaign
As the summer of 2007 begins, the presidential campaign is emulating the season, with fast-moving storms and searing heat. Voters are restless. Seven out of 10 Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction. Seven out of 10 think the president and Congress are doing a poor job, and George W. Bush is on the verge of becoming a lame duck much earlier than the historical norm. Most oppose the Iraq war, and 67 percent are dissatisfied with the two-party system.
Something fundamental seems to be changing as the nation prepares for the election of 2008. "It's such a wide-open race," says historian Robert Dallek, "and the public is so unsettled and discontented." The campaign has started months earlier than usual because, for the first time since 1952, no incumbent president or vice president is running. "Looking back over the last 50 or 60 years," says Rutgers political scientist Ross Baker, "the range of politically available people was very narrow. But today, to a very great extent, the old mold of political availability has been broken."
America itself is undergoing profound change. More of us are single; fewer are married with children. The growth of the Sun Belt continues. A surge of new immigrants is altering communities and stirring angst nationwide. Frustration with the Iraq war permeates our politics. Fear of another terrorist attack is palpable. Many are doing well economically, but millions are concerned about their jobs. H With all this uncertainty, it is no wonder that the presidential campaign has become such an unconventional race, full of fascinating characters, unending surprises, and wild cards of every sort. It could be on par with the most important elections in history, such as 1932, when Franklin Roosevelt won and greatly expanded the scope of the federal government; 1960, when John F. Kennedy grasped the torch of leadership passed to a new generation; and 1980, when Ronald Reagan led America on a more conservative path.
"Time marches on," says Frank Donatelli, former White House political director for Reagan. "You might argue that the era of Ronald Reagan is finally ending, that the conservative era is ending....Different factions in both parties are trying to break through." So there are new kinds of candidates and new kinds of issues. A compressed primary schedule and a changing political calculus in many regions of the country. It's certainly not your father's presidential campaign, or your mother's, or your grandparents'. In fact, it may be one of a kind.