Opinion

What Obama's win means for politics and America

PoliticsBarack ObamaElectionsRepublican PartyHistoryParties and Movements

Today's question: What stood out most about Tuesday's victory for Barack Obama? Previously, Schnur and Cain discussed voter enthusiasm about the election and the factors that shifted the race in Obama's favor.

Watching history in the makingPoint: Dan Schnur

I've been listening to Jesse Jackson for about a quarter of a century now, and I've watched him gradually spiral downward, from civil rights leader to Democratic Party gadfly to post-generational relic. But last night, Jackson helped me realize something I'd somehow missed over the course of this presidential campaign.

When the networks called Ohio for Barack Obama and it became apparent that the Illinois senator was going to be our nation's next president, the television cameras showed tears streaming down Jackson's face. I'm not old enough to remember Jackson's relationship with Martin Luther King Jr. But recalling the irritation he provided to Democratic Party leaders throughout the 1980s and his slide into irrelevance over the last decade or so, it was jarring to me to watch as Jackson witnessed something he had probably assumed to be an impossibility. I don't agree with Jackson on very much, but for the first time since Obama declared his candidacy for president 21 months ago, I finally realized the enormity of this accomplishment.

Over the course of Obama's campaign, first against Hillary Clinton and then against John McCain, his race was too often treated by the chattering class of pundits and prognosticators (myself included) as a strategic consideration for his and his opponents as they mapped their respective paths to victory: whether Obama could attract the support of white voters, how he could convince Latino Americans to switch their allegiance from Hillary Clinton to himself and, most notoriously, whether and how he would distance himself from the rantings of his former preacher. But because the mainstream media tend to overemphasize the horse race aspects of a presidential campaign, it was too easy for us armchair analysts to miss what the activists and advocates on the front lines of this election season were seeing all along.

I watched the election returns last night with several hundred USC students, the majority of whom had supported Obama's candidacy. But even those of us who cast our ballots for his opponent understood that we were not only watching history in the making but seeing politics in an extraordinary and unique light. By that, I'm not referring to the specific outcome. Whether the right candidate won is obviously a matter of individual perspective and preference. But it's been a long time since I've seen the exhilaration that I witnessed on campus last night. Young people of all races, genders and political ideologies woke up this morning with a fundamentally different and expanded view of what their own futures might hold.

For tomorrow's posting, I promise to get back to questions of political strategy and post-election positioning. There's plenty of time over the next several days to analyze precinct returns and in the weeks and months ahead to analyze the new president's governing capabilities. The realities of his challenges will be apparent soon enough. But this morning's question to us was, "What stood out most about Obama's victory?" And the answer, even from the other side of the aisle, was history.

Dan Schnur, national communications director for John McCain's 2000 presidential bid and a veteran of four presidential and three California gubernatorial GOP campaigns, is the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.

How long will the GOP be in the cold?Counterpoint: Bruce E. Cain

Well, Dan, it is hard to argue with you today. Like you, I was in the trenches last night watching the returns with the undergraduates at the University of California Washington Center. After midnight Eastern time, I was walking through the celebrating crowds on my way to various media commitments. The euphoria among young voters was astounding. These children of baby boomers now have their historical moment to savor, matching what their parents experienced in the 1960s. And the reaction among my various African American colleagues was moving to watch. Like Jackson, they were overwhelmed by the moment's significance, witnessing what none of us a few years ago thought we would ever see in our lifetime.

Last night also had great international significance. Beyond repairing the damage of the last eight years to our reputation overseas, Obama's victory in the world's most transparent democracy demonstrated that a multiracial society can rise above its deep historical racial divisions. Integrating people from different religions and races is one the thorniest challenges contemporary democracies face. If the U.S. can overcome its racial past, it gives hope to other democracies as well.

But let me kick off the post-mortems with a few quick observations.

* This election was a rebuke of Rovism. The hallmarks of former President Bush aide Karl Rove are to maximize base turnout, ignore the middle and perform so-called political jujitsu to turn the other candidate's strength against him or her by relentless personal negative attacks. I do not mean to imply that Democrats are angels in this regard, but the exit polls confirm that this tactic did not work for the Republicans. Putting ridiculous labels on people (such as accusing Obama of socialism), impugning the patriotism of blue America (the "real Virginia" comment) and attempting to change the subject in the middle of a real crisis failed to do anything except whip up a base that was too small to carry John McCain to victory. You and I have always said the reason candidates use negative tactics is that they work. Not this time.

* The Republican Party is at an important juncture in its history. Not only did the Republicans lose the presidency, but for the second election in a row they lost seats in the House and the Senate, many in red states. The party can move in one of two directions. First, it can retreat into a rigid ideological bubble and blame the defeat on the liberal media (even though they won in 2000 and 2004 despite the liberal media) or on McCain. This is the path of the California Republican Party, pre- Arnold Schwarzenegger. Or Republicans can loosen the coalition, tame the Palinistas and libertarians and try to win back more of the middle class and emerging minority voters. The failure to take the second path could have long-lasting consequences: The Republicans cannot concede a whole new generation of voters and the nonwhite population to the Democratic Party, or they will be shivering in the political cold for a very long time.

* Whither John McCain? Like the Republican Party as a whole, he has choices. He could retire and do Viagra ads a la Bob Dole. He could stay in the Senate and lead the loyal opposition to all things Obama. Or -- and this is my suggestion -- he could prove all those who doubted his maverick credentials wrong and resume his role as a pivotal vote in a Senate that will still be short of the 60 votes needed to override a filibuster. What I heard from him last night gives me hope that he might join history rather than resist it. What do you think, Dan?

Bruce E. Cain is a political science professor at UC Berkeley and executive director of the University of California Washington Center.

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