What’s So Great About 2008?

Sensationalism Aside, Here’s What Really Happened on November 4th

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: The Friday, Nov. 14 opinion column “What’s So Great About 2008?” misstated the name of the Soviet head of state who tangled diplomatically with President John F. Kennedy. The premier was Nikita Khruschev, not Joseph Stalin. (Stalin died in 1953.)

Last Tuesday saw the conclusion of the longest, costliest, and most reported political contest in the history of United States democracy. Pundits raved over how this election broke all the rules and would be an irrevocable turning point for the course of this nation. However, despite the rhetoric of change that emanated from both candidates McCain and Obama, this campaign was strikingly conventional in many respects.

First, of course, would be that Senator Obama won the Presidency. With 90% of citizens believing that the country is on the wrong path, the Grand Old Party and John McCain had a substantial hole to dig themselves out of to even be remotely competitive in 2008. Really, judging by the media coverage, they shouldn’t have had any chance at all.

Even with Democrats controlling Congress, most voters placed the blame for the country’s current economic woes squarely at the feet of President Bush and the Republicans. 2008 would have been the election of the century if McCain — hardly the GOP’s foremost expert on the economy — pulled off an upset when exit polls overwhelming showed that voters considered the economy their top priority. That upset obviously didn’t happen.

Furthermore, while Democrats picked up seats in both the House and Senate, there was hardly a massive ideological shift suggesting that the United States has swung left since 2004. Again, with an unpopular President standing as the face of the Republican Party, Democrats had a substantial advantage in all of their campaigns. When the 111th congress convenes in January, Republicans will still have a substantial minority, and will certainly use the filibuster as the Democrats did during Bush’s first term. Nothing unexpectedly surprising on the congressional front.

What did happen, however, reveals more about the future of the country than what didn’t. Obama won partly on a claim of broad tax cuts, but also, in one of history’s great ironies, because foreign policy was deemphasized.

As an undeniably liberal Senator, Obama ran a campaign claiming to be a moderate on the issues most important to voters. Taking a page from the Republicans playbook, the President-elect promised to cut taxes. Democrats managed to convince America that giving so called ‘tax-credits’ to those who don’t pay any income tax in the first place somehow doesn’t qualify as welfare.

When it came to selling their economic proposals, Republicans faltered in explaining the inherent strength of their pro-business and growth tax policies while simultaneously failing to successfully call the Democrats out on the issue of income redistribution.

The GOP also faltered in explaining how the country’s economic woes resulted from bad regulation, and fell into the trap of blaming Wall Street for the country’s problems. When John McCain lambasted the finance industry as greedy, he made his job of explaining corporate tax rate cuts exponentially more difficult. While Joe the Plumber gave McCain an economic talking point at the end of the campaign, it was a glimmer of hope among a tangle of poorly argued conservative economic policies.

Given the big backlash against Obama’s “spreading the wealth around,” however, it’s clear that the country still isn’t ready to completely accept the Democrats’ economic policies. Like Bill Clinton, Obama didn’t run his campaign entirely as a traditional ‘liberal’ and ended up promising tax cuts to woo over undecided voters. If the parallels between Obama and Clinton run deeper, Obama will also renege on his tax cut proposals, as he as already scaled back his $250,000 income figure to $200,000 (or $150,000 if you listen to Joe Biden). Democrats raising taxes to support spending programs? Nothing unusual there.

Compared to the GOP’s poorly organized economic message though, Barack Obama’s plan seemed more concrete to most Americans. On taxes, Obama validated a long running U.S. tradition that in politics, being consistently clear trumps being confusingly right.

Finally, in an election that supposedly saw the repudiation of the Bush doctrine, foreign policy played a surprisingly small role in the final vote. Very few people went to the polls to vote for security precisely because Bush’s policies have made us safer, with no terrorist attacks on U.S. soil or embassies since 9/11. It is the very success of these policies that pushes security out of most people’s minds.

However, it is precisely Obama’s pledge to change the Bush foreign policy that makes Joe Biden’s prediction that, “it will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama,” more prophecy than gaffe. The day after Obama’s election, Russians President Dmitri Medvedev held his postponed state of the nation address, and between his anti-U.S. tirades, he stated that Russia would install jamming equipment to counter the Bush administrations plan for a U.S. missile defense system stationed in Poland — A U.S. system that would have no offensive capabilities and would be designed to target Iranian missiles.

Medvedev is starting early to see just how far he can push an inexperienced Obama, and no one should be surprised because of it. Like Stalin testing JFK before him, Medvedev realizes that Russia stands to gain Obama does not oppose hard-line Russian beliefs the way President Bush has. The last time America elected a young President who foreigners felt could be pushed along, we had nuclear warheads ready to attack us from Cuba. In the interest of national security, we should hope that President-elect Obama proves tougher in dealing with other nations.

As such, the 2008 election was no campaign for the ages. Once you break through the rhetoric and 22 months of talk and promises, you find an election that simply incorporates the realities of previous elections with more pomp and circumstance. America has a new President, but actions — not words — cause change. Until we see how an Obama administration will function beginning January 20th, words are all we have.

That being said, I must wish President-elect Obama the best. His campaign was impressive, and to a conservative, shocking in its effectiveness. Thus, I sincerely hope that Barack Obama will take to heart his campaign promise to be a post-partisan candidate, and not blindly walk hand-in-hand with Nancy Pelosi and the Democrat-controlled congress. As Senator McCain said in his concession speech, “Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans.” The success of this country over the next four years depends greatly on how often the President-elect pushes partisan rhetoric aside and puts his country first.