Five questions about America this election may answer

Is America ready to move beyond racial division? Is America ready to move beyond racial division? (Associated Press Photo / Jae C. Hong)
By Peter S. Canellos
Globe Staff / November 2, 2008
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While Barack Obama enters the final days of the presidential campaign with a clear lead in the polls - but not so big as to rule out a surprise victory for John McCain - the impact of the 2008 presidential campaign will depend not only on who wins but also on whether the results signify a deeper realignment in American politics.

"We like to tell the election story through the candidates," said Thomas Patterson, a professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "But this time there are larger forces in play."

And while Obama's lead, between three and seven percentage points in most national polls, is big enough to make him the favorite going into Tuesday, the other big questions of the election are all too close to call.

Is the "Reagan Revolution" over? Going down the stretch, McCain is campaigning heavily on Obama's comment that he wants to "spread the wealth." And McCain has even discovered a seven-year-old radio interview suggesting that Obama may believe in "redistributive" economics.

During the heyday of the Democrats' New Deal coalition, which dominated politics from 1932 until 1980, the idea of spreading the wealth around was hardly political poison - it was the backbone of the party's economic philosophy. Since 1980 and the "Reagan Revolution," however, using tax policies to redistribute income has been widely viewed as an outmoded approach that chokes off economic growth.

Obama hasn't fully embraced '60s-style tax-and-spend liberalism, but he hasn't run away from it as much as other Democratic presidential nominees since 1984 have done. Bill Clinton, the most successful Democratic vote-getter of that period, went out of his way to declare that "the era of big government is over," and assure voters that he is a "pro-growth" Democrat who favors "third way" policies.

Obama also touts his policies as pro-growth, but has emphasized that he believes people earning more than $250,000 should bear the brunt of tax increases to cover social initiatives that would disproportionately benefit lower-income people. To the extent that such a mechanism "spreads the wealth," he's in favor of it.

Many observers have noted that Americans want more economic security in their lives, including guaranteed healthcare, pensions, disaster relief, and improvements to public infrastructure. And the McCain campaign, in a break with Ronald Reagan's creed of smaller government, has called for the government to pay up to $300 billion to buy up home mortgages and chop the monthly payments to reflect diminished home values.

In addition, the McCain proposal that follows the Reagan creed most closely - his call for extending the Bush tax cuts and adding new cuts of business taxes - seems to be falling on deaf ears; in recent weeks, the GOP nominee has concentrated more on warning of tax hikes under Obama than touting the benefits of his own tax-cut plan.

David Brooks, the conservative New York Times columnist, has predicted that the economic uncertainty will lead to a Democratic sweep followed by an intensive return to tax-and-spend liberalism. "What we're going to see, in short, is the Gingrich revolution in reverse and on steroids," Brooks wrote last month.

McCain believes that voters still fear the kind of overreach that Brooks predicts. A modest victory for Obama could easily be ascribed to a simple desire for a change, benefiting a candidate who tried to present his policies in modest terms.

A big Obama win, however, could be read as a mandate for just the kind of liberalism that Brooks fears. And it could signal a much longer-term political realignment. The New Deal era and the Reagan Revolution each followed failed presidencies that, fairly or not, are still invoked as cautionary tales - the Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter administrations. George W. Bush's administration, with record-low approval ratings, may join the list.

Is America prepared to move beyond its racial divisions? On the day of Obama's Democratic nomination acceptance speech, tens of thousands of African-Americans, most with children in tow, waited for hours in security lines to enter Denver's football stadium to celebrate the crowning of the nation's first black presidential nominee.

Despite the football setting, it was more of a church crowd - uplifted, generous, and full of faith. While some black voters would express concerns for Obama's safety and nervousness about his campaign, many others have remained quietly confident, even when polls narrowed and other Democrats worried that Obama wasn't as far ahead as he should be, given the country's problems.

Much of black voters' faith is in Obama himself. But there is also a quiet recognition among many that, whatever the extent of racial divisions, they don't preclude a majority-white country from electing a black president.

That by itself could change racial pathologies that have existed throughout American history.

Since George Washington, the president has been the symbol of the nation, as much as European monarchs once embodied their nations' identity. Having a black president just four decades after the end of legal segregation would force a reconsideration of almost all assumptions about race relations in America.

But if Obama were to lose - and if white resistance to a black nominee were cited as a major factor - black hopes would be dashed in a way that could increase racial tensions, at least in the short term.

Still, the legacy of the Obama campaign, win or lose, on race relations probably won't be clear until long after Tuesday.

Are young people becoming a driving force in American politics? Back in the '60s, the emerging Baby Boom generation pushed American politics leftward. But through the '80s and '90s, voters under 30 see-sawed between backing Democrats and Republicans, while turning out in smaller numbers overall. Their strongest sentiment seemed to be their indifference.

In the 2000 race between Al Gore and George W. Bush, only 40 percent of registered voters from ages 18 to 29 bothered to vote, compared with 65 percent of voters over 30, according to a survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

In 2004, the turnout of voters under 30 jumped by nine percentage points, to 49 percent, while that of older voters increased by only three. And those younger voters supported Democrat John Kerry over Bush by a seven-point margin, 48 to 41 percent.

This year, voters between 18 and 29 are backing Obama by a whopping 29 points - 61 to 32, according to a Pew survey. And while more young voters showed up for this year's Democratic primaries than in 2004, no one is sure whether turnout of young voters will take another big leap in the general election.

"We're expecting them to at least match their turnout level of 2004, if not increase it," said Scott Keeter, Pew's director of survey research. "Given the enormous lead Obama has among young voters, they'll be a key to whether he wins or not."

How much do Americans care about their image in the world? Arguably, the opinions of foreigners have never counted for anything in US politics. Some of the most unpopular American presidents in the outside world - such as Reagan - were hugely popular at home, while those most concerned with the world - like Hoover and Carter - were domestic flops.

But the latest plunge in America's standing in the world, spurred by the policies of the Bush administration, has gotten some political attention at home, especially when linked to the administration's failure to persuade enough allies to share the costs of intervention in Iraq.

Obama has cited his own racial background and time spent in Indonesia as a reason why "the world will look at America differently when I'm president."

That argument drew voters to Obama during his primary race against Hillary Clinton. And he reinforced just how much his election could do to improve relations with US allies by staging a campaign-style rally in Berlin, attended by hundreds of thousands of adoring Germans.

Elsewhere in the world, from Europe to Asia, there has been intense scrutiny of the American election - and excitement over the Obama campaign. The global interest suggests that millions of foreigners might be prepared to change their opinions of the United States under a President Obama.

But in recent weeks, foreign policy has taken a back seat in the election, so it will be hard to judge how much an Obama victory would be a mandate to be more attentive to US allies. And it remains to be seen whether a President Obama would be able to meet the high expectations that American allies seem to have for him.

What does it mean to be a conservative? The Republican coalition has been compared to a stool with three legs - strong national defense, low taxes, and conservative social values. It's never been a secret that many Republicans buy into only one or another of the three legs, but they've bought in strongly enough that their disagreements with the others haven't mattered. Recently, though, the stool has been wobbling.

Back in Easter of 2005, the president and both houses of Congress rushed back to Washington to intervene in the case of Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged woman whose husband had chosen to remove her from a respirator. Polls showed vast majorities of Americans opposed to government intervention, but Bush and GOP congressional leaders pushed legislation through anyway.

That weekend was a triumph for abortion foes, but may have driven other Republicans away. Likewise, the unexpected toll in Iraq has sparked concerns among evangelicals, and the recent Wall Street meltdown has made many middle-class Republicans question their party's economic policies.

McCain is mostly aligned with the defense wing, but also has credibility as a budget cutter. He has tried to hold together all three conservative constituencies, even wooing social conservatives - who have long resisted him - with his pick of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his vice presidential nominee.

Still, his presidency, compared with Bush's, would probably reduce the impact of the religious right. And if McCain is defeated, the three branches of the GOP will have to decide whether to hang together - or go their own ways.

"They may choose to dampen down the role of social conservatives, a bit like the Democrats after the '80s really pushed down as much as they could on the African-American agenda," says Patterson. But in the short term, he said, much will depend on events outside the party's control, like the economy.

"If the economy's weak, they'll gain seats in Congress in two years," assuming that Democrats, as expected, maintain control of the House and the Senate, Patterson said. "They'll declare that the party's back."

But in what form will remain to be seen.

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