When historians look back at the 2008 presidential landslide, they won't focus on the fact that Barack Obama — soon to be our 44th President and our first African-American Commander in Chief — ran a smart and steady campaign. They won't focus on William Ayers or Joe the Plumber or socialism or racism. They won't debate whether John McCain blew it by targeting Pennsylvania or by avoiding the press or by ignoring the Rev. Jeremiah Wright or by picking Sarah Palin as a running mate. They won't remember the robo-calls or "cling" or the Paris Hilton ad or the crazy chick who carved the B into her face. The pundits filling airtime on their 24-hour news channels might have cared, but posterity won't.
No, when historians analyze the 2008 campaign, they're going to remember that the two-term Republican President had 20% approval ratings, that the economy was in meltdown, and that Americans didn't want another Republican President. They'll also remember that Obama was a change candidate in a change election. And of course they'll remember that America elected a biracial leader less than a half-century after Jim Crow. But that's just about all they'll remember. Politics is a lot simpler than the pundits pretend.
The Republican recriminations will be ugly, but McCain was probably the most electable candidate the party had: a genuine war hero with an impressive record of public service that didn't always include marching in lockstep with George W. Bush. He threw some Hail Mary passes — Palin; the "suspension" of his campaign — but he didn't have much of a choice against a Democratic tide. He was the right guy in the wrong year. If Washington Republicans decide that he lost because he was too squishy on immigration or too pro-regulation in his response to the economic crisis or too mavericky, they could find themselves cocooning in the wilderness for a long time.
Remember what eight years of Republican rule has wrought: missing weapons of mass destruction, the promises we'd be greeted as liberators, Jessica Lynch, torture, the disintegration of Afghanistan. Also: Enron, WorldCom, Bear Stearns, AIG, Fannie and Freddie, GM, Chrysler, Social Security privatization, the $700 billion bailout. Also: Brownie, John Ashcroft covering up that bare-breasted statue at the Justice Department, Alberto Gonzales politicizing the Justice Department, Harriet Miers, the oil lobbyist who edited those global warming reports. Also: Jack Abramoff, Duke Cunningham, Bob Ney, Tom DeLay, Ted Stevens. Also: the Vice President shot a guy, and the President almost choked to death on a pretzel.
And McCain still almost won Virginia! It's going down to the wire in Florida! All things considered, that's a pretty impressive showing.
The pundits are already warning that Obama could overreach, that Democratic congressional leaders are still unpopular, that this is still a center-right country. But it wasn't tonight. Obama will have the luxury of taking office at a time when the GOP is the AIG of electoral politics, when his predecessor has set the lowest bar since James Buchanan, when a supposedly conservative Administration just started nationalizing the banking system, when the public is desperate for change. What is it about tonight's results that suggests Obama should be afraid of progressive action on the cusp of a depression?
But those are questions for another day. The big news tonight is that whether or not there's a Bradley effect, it's nowhere near as big as the Bush effect. And now a guy who would have had to ride the back of the bus in some of this country when he was a kid has grown up to run this country. Historians will remember that.