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SHOULD HE or shouldn't he? Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about whether 2008 is the right time for Barack Obama to throw his Bears cap (famously donned during that "Monday Night Football" set piece) into the ring. Even in the unscientific realm of political punditry, rarely have assertions so plainly unprovable been delivered with such unyielding certitude.
He's too young; no, quite the contrary, he'll be too old if he waits. He needs more Senate experience, some legislation to his name; nonsense — years of service in the Senate are a negative, not a positive (just ask John Kerry). He doesn't stand for anything; pshaw — he stands for a great deal simply by being who he is.
All these claims have to do with Obama himself. But there is another factor, one that argues for an Obama candidacy that has nothing to do with Obama and everything to do with George W. Bush. I call it the Attraction of the Opposite.
The most reliable guide to presidential winners over the last quarter of a century is not ideology or charisma or any of the other established factors. It is instead what we might call character typology. That is, after four (or especially eight) years of one type of person, American voters tend to turn their affections toward someone who is that person's opposite — someone whose personality and affect provide a direct contrast to the fellow who's leaving office, who has something the other guy lacked.
Looking at the last four times the Oval Office has changed hands, it's quite easy to make the case that this was dramatically true in at least three cases.
In 1980, Jimmy Carter — serious, austere and full of warnings about the nation's crisis of confidence — gave way to the congenial optimism of Ronald Reagan.
In 1992, George H.W. Bush had come to be seen as remote, awkward and out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans. He yielded to that flesh-pressing natural and soulful feeler of pain, Bill Clinton.
By 2000, Clinton to many had become the reckless lothario who had sullied the nation's highest office. This was precisely why George W. Bush emphasized his sobriety, his piousness and his goal of restoring "honor and dignity" to the White House.
They fit the thesis like a glove. And even the race I've left out works pretty well. Yes, in some sense, Americans elected George H.W. Bush in 1988 to continue Reagan's policies. But Bush also strained to differentiate himself from Reagan. His "kinder, gentler America" and his "thousand points of light" were direct attempts to show voters that he recognized the ways in which Reagan was seen as having pursued heartless policies toward the poor and to signal that he would be different.
Which brings us to the present. George W. Bush, to most voters, is no longer the man who restored honor and dignity to the White House. Nor is he — in another line from his 2000 campaign — a "uniter, not a divider."
He is now instead the stubborn, highly partisan unilateralist who doesn't listen to others.
So what character type does this mean voters will be looking for in 2008? Someone who speaks of his frustration with our polarized politics and his fervent desire to transcend the red-blue divide.
Sound like anyone you know? I thought so.
If my theory is correct, then 2008, coming directly off of Bush's tenure, will be exactly the right time for Obama to run. His themes and his personality — his agreeable nature and penchant for self-contemplation, so utterly unlike the incumbent's petulant, unreflective swagger — will be uniquely in demand in 2008 in a way they just might not be in 2012 or 2016.
The only problem with my theory is this: Bush has revealed himself to be so deficient in so many regards that it's possible that several candidates can just choose a Bushian shortcoming and become its opposite.
For example, it's unlikely that New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a woman about whom Americans are so divided, can plausibly run as the candidate who will transcend the red-blue divide. But she can exploit a different Bush personality trait by showing her intelligence, her command of the details of policy and her ability to speak in well-structured sentences that are clearly recognizable as the English language.
Arizona Sen. John McCain can exploit a third Bush weakness — that of having been a dreadful commander in chief — and present himself as something that he in fact is: a former soldier who knows the military and can be assumed to make decisions in what he believes to be its best interests. And so on.
So the Attraction of the Opposite could work in any of several ways in 2008. But Bush's greatest flaw to the greatest number of voters has to do with his unrelenting partisanship. And this greatest flaw plays right into Obama's greatest strength. He will have other opportunities to run, but it's highly unlikely that he'll ever again have an opportunity quite like this one.