Trying to determine what is significant in the results and controversies of the early presidential primaries and caucuses is simply impossible. By the time this issue of Commonweal is in the hands of our readers, a frontrunner may have emerged in one or both parties, but it seems likely that the contests will remain fluid at least until Super Tuesday (February 5).
Truth be told, most Americans are only now beginning to pay attention to the race. There have been good reasons for that seeming indifference. The nomination process goes on too long, with most voters rightly feeling they will have little influence on the process. With the political parties and legislatures of each state competing to maximize their own interests, both political and financial, the resulting primary schedule seems irrational. Worse, the amount of money raised and spent, and the political debts any winning candidate incurs, will significantly limit what he or she can do once elected. Finally, the level of discourse in the debates and the media has often been tedious, if not frivolous. All of this has taken a toll. With the general election still ten long months away, the candidates and the electorate are showing signs of fatigue.
A plausible argument can be made, however, that the indeterminacy of the race is a good thing, allowing more states and many more voters to hear what the candidates have to say and to become familiar with the policies and character of those running. Let’s hope so. As we go to press, Senator John McCain has strengthened his position with a narrow victory over Mike Huckabee in South Carolina. On the same day, Hillary Clinton followed her “upset” of Barack Obama in New Hampshire by winning more votes (but fewer delegates) at the caucuses in Nevada. While the Republicans campaign in Florida, where the independent voters McCain has relied on cannot participate in the January 29 primary, the Democrats take their turn in South Carolina (January 26), where Obama is favored. Should Obama prevail and McCain lose to Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani in Florida, a consensus nominee in either party may not appear until well into March.
Much has been written about the inchoate nature of the Republican race, and how it is symptomatic of the dissolution of the coalition Ronald Reagan forged among business interests, foreign-policy hawks, and the Religious Right. Conservative pundits have been among the most outspoken of those declaring that the old Republican juggernaut—which has held the White House for twenty of the last twenty-eight years—is dead. No one candidate is trusted by all factions. Huckabee’s populism gives the antitax advocates fits, while Evangelicals remain suspicious of McCain and of Romney’s Mormonism. Immigration policy deeply divides the GOP. What all the Republican candidates do share is an unremitting, and unreflective commitment to “victory” in Iraq, whatever that might mean.
Policy differences among the Democrats are imperceptible by comparison. Clinton, Obama, and John Edwards are all committed to ending the war in Iraq, to heath-care reform, and to combating global warming. Because the candidates agree on so much, the race has often devolved into dustups about “change,” “hope,” and “experience,” or how to measure the relative importance of electing the first female or the first African-American president. Few dispute Obama’s charisma and rhetorical gifts or Hillary Clinton’s command of policy details and strength of will. In addition to the support of the party’s establishment, Clinton is running strong among traditional Democratic groups, especially women and those with lower incomes. Obama has energized more affluent Democrats as well as younger voters and independents. How African Americans and Latinos vote may well determine who wins the nomination. Whether Obama’s inspiring rhetoric would overcome questions about his youth and relative inexperience, and whether the Clintons’ polarizing personalities would deter independents from supporting Hillary Clinton, are perhaps the big questions for the Democrats as they look toward the general election.
Meanwhile, the candidates of both parties seem to be saying less and less about the endgame in Iraq. With U.S. casualties down, Iraq has faded from the front pages and from the everyday concerns of voters now worried about a recession. It is doubtful that Americans want one hundred thousand U.S. troops policing Iraq for the next decade. Even if we are facing a serious economic downturn, the most urgent problem facing the next president is likely to be how to extract the United States from Iraq without igniting sectarian civil war or a larger regional conflict. No candidate in either party seems to have any idea of how to accomplish that. As a consequence, what happens in Iraq will most likely be determined by events, not policy.