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That Was The Year That Was

A Commentary By Larry J. Sabato

We have reached the end of another election cycle, but this has been no ordinary campaign.

The marathon of presidential politics was everyone's focus, and the unforgettable cast of characters was long, from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side to John McCain and Sarah Palin on the Republican. These people were fascinating, but events were in the saddle.

  • The economy melted down into the slag of near-depression. Wall Street's "greed-is-good" manipulators became everyone's favorite pinata, though we had an odd way of poking at them--shoveling $700 billion in taxpayer dollars their way, a bailout backed by top leaders in both parties.

  • A deeply unpopular war cost over 4,100 American lives, wounded 30,000 more, and ran up bills that most experts believe will easily top $1.5 trillion before a projected troop withdrawal in 2010. The announced purpose was to capture Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that apparently did not exist. The unintended consequence of the war was to produce a Democratic presidential nominee unlike any other.

  • An exceptionally disliked incumbent president became King Midas's polar opposite: Everything he touched turned not to gold but to (bleep).

  • Speaking of bleeping, a certain Democratic governor of Illinois reminded us at year's end of Robert Penn Warren's immortal words from All the King's Men: "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud." Luckily for Rod Blagojevich, his passage into obscurity (probably via a jail cell) will be assisted by his difficult-to-pronounce surname.

In my own lifetime, there has been only one other year as packed with people and events that loomed as large. In 1968 America endured its final year of Lyndon Johnson, a failed president forced to abdicate; a tragic, unnecessary war in Vietnam far bloodier than the one we have lamented this year; the brutal assassinations of two great leaders whose talents we sorely needed (Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Francis Kennedy); and the election of the globally shrewd but fundamentally flawed Richard Nixon, whose vices and expletives deleted (the predecessor to bleeps) would lead to a constitutional crisis and the worst scandal in U.S. history. Yet we ended 1968 in surreal, stirring orbit around the moon. Apollo 8 reminded the country of the great things we could do with enough will and resources.

No doubt President-elect Obama will try to inject similar hope and inspiration into his administration and the nation come January 20th. He starts from a solid base. Every four years the Center for Politics produces the "Political Map of America," which restructures the states within the continental boundaries of the United States. On the political map, each state takes up only the volume merited by its Electoral College weight. After all, trees, rocks, and acres do not vote; only people do. Giant geographic Alaska and Montana shrink to pea size while states such as California, Texas, and Florida swell considerably on this political map.

Political Map of the United States, 2008

Copyright 2008 by U.Va. Center for Politics

Obama's base is broad and his Democratic Blue ranges widely. Every region of the nation is represented in his coalition, and the sectional polarization that occurred under George W. Bush has been considerably reduced. It isn't just the sweep of the territory won by Obama. Amazingly, Barack Obama's 52.7 percent of the national vote ranks sixth best among Democrats in the 38 elections since 1860. Obama ran more strongly than all but Franklin Roosevelt in his four victories from 1932 to 1944 and Lyndon Johnson's 1964 landslide. Obama ran stronger than Grover Cleveland in both his winning races (1884 and 1892), Woodrow Wilson's twin triumphs in 1912 and 1916, Harry Truman's upset in 1948, John Kennedy's paper-thin plurality in 1960, Jimmy Carter's 50.2 percent majority in 1976, and both of Bill Clinton's under-50 percent successes in the 1990s.

Partly, this is testament to the Democrats' weak White House record overall, with the party having elected only nine presidents in 148 years. Just four post-Civil War Democrats had ever won a majority of the popular vote: FDR, LBJ, Carter, and poor Samuel J. Tilden, who was denied the presidency in a disputed 1876 Electoral College allocation despite having secured 51 percent on Election Day. Obama is the fifth majority-vote Democrat.

Therefore, Obama's proportion of the vote is notable historically. Moreover, aided by widespread fear about the economic crisis as well as high marks from the public for his transition work, Obama has unusual opportunities to lengthen his honeymoon and achieve at least some of his major goals. The additional 21 Democratic seats in the House of Representatives and 7 or 8 Democratic seats in the Senate (depending on the outcome of the Minnesota recount) give Obama substantial latitude.

Blind partisanship can spoil this rosy picture, however. Obama has tried to do his part, carrying over Bush's Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and installing retired General James Jones, a McCain supporter in the campaign, as his White House national security adviser. In an unusual move, Obama has personally telephoned many members of the Republican minority in Congress, soliciting their advice and asking for their help. Naturally, Republicans have an obligation to serve as the loyal opposition in the legislative branch, but cooperation in some areas, especially international, ought to be possible. Will Republicans respond, or quickly descend into overweening partisanship? Will congressional Democrats, more liberal than Obama and eager to push their full agenda, listen to the GOP minority and offer respect and consultation, or just bulldoze their way to legislative victories?

Many Capitol Hill observers fear that any chance for a period of bipartisanship could be upended by the highly partisan struggle for the as-yet undecided Minnesota U.S. Senate seat. Minnesota is a pleasant state with lovely people, but its politics are as polarized as any in the nation. The acrimony is already at a dangerous level there, and supporters of incumbent Senator Norm Coleman (R) and Democratic challenger Al Franken appear to have adopted a scorched-earth policy in order to install their preferred candidate. While Coleman leads by 192 votes out of 2.9 million cast, there are thousands of disputed ballots and uncounted absentees. The election could be reasonably argued either way and it is as close to a tie as it can be. Neither candidate has the high ground, despite their pretensions. Because a none-of-the-above independent, Dean Barkley, received about 15 percent of the vote on November 4th, Coleman and Franken each garnered a pitiful 42 percent of the total.

In order to prevent lengthy, rancorous court appeals and/or predictably nasty Senate hearings, doesn't it make sense at this point to go to a special run-off election early in the new year? Only Coleman and Franken should appear on the ballot, so that one of them will finally win an absolute majority and be able to take office clearly supported by Minnesotans. It is far from obvious which one would win the run-off, and so this would be a fair match-up--the statesmanlike way to resolve an increasingly bitter situation that has the potential to spoil an era of good feelings in Washington. A useful precedent for a special election to break a Senate tie occurred in New Hampshire in 1974, as we discussed two weeks ago. That special election broke a disputed "tie" in the Granite State, to most voters' satisfaction--ending months of ill will and hostility in the Senate caused by this festering sore. Now that Democrats have no chance of reaching the sixty-vote "cloture" total, such a compromise ought to be easier. Will the parties simply go to the mat, whatever the cost, for the short-term gain of one Senate seat, or can they choose a high-minded way out? We fear we know the answer, but this compromise is worth proposing.

Minnesota aside, the new year holds much promise for a country that is frequently able to reinvent and renew itself. Here at the Crystal Ball, we'll be back in mid-January to begin our analysis of the new administration and all the intriguing political contests of 2009 and 2010. We are also pleased to announce that a new book, "Yes, We Can!" How Barack Obama Won the White House will be published in the spring, under our auspices and that of Pearson/Longman of New York. Some of the best analysts and academics in America will give their takes on the election of our lifetime.

For now, all of us here at the Crystal Ball send our best to you and yours for some wonderful, restful holidays, and a new year filled with politics.

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

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