Rewriting the Rulebook
By Peter Baker
Starting tonight, the Rulebook of American Politics gets thrown out, or at least seriously rewritten. As voters in Iowa head to caucuses to cast the first ballots in the 2008 presidential campaign, the one thing we know for sure is they're kicking off a process that will defy at least some of the conventions that have governed national elections for generations.
After all, when it comes to the White House, the Rulebook says voters won't elect a woman. Or an African American. Or a Mormon. Or a candidate who will be 80 at the end of his second term. The Rulebook says a populist running to end poverty can't win. Nor can a social liberal in a conservative party. Nor for that matter can a candidate who does not meet the minimum fire-in-the-belly requirement. And while the Rulebook may make no mention of it, the odds are certainly astronomical that a new president would come from the same tiny town as the most recent former president, a town with the politically symbolic name of Hope.
Up until now, it has been far easier to explain why this candidate or that candidate simply cannot win, and yet if nothing else, by process of elimination, someone actually will win the Democratic and Republican caucuses tonight and eventually someone -- not necessarily the same someones -- will win the two party nominations, probably by a month from Saturday when more than 20 states hold primaries. So the voting that gets underway tonight begins a test of politics in America these days and where it might be headed.
The environment in which the voting starts tonight could not be more different than the last time America picked a new president. On the eve of the Iowa caucuses in 2000, the discussion was about how dull they were shaping up to be. America was at peace and enjoying prosperity, content with its place as the world's last superpower and blissfully unaware of the threats that loomed. The main debate at the time seemed to be whether to use its newfound economic wealth to cut taxes or expand health care. Osama bin Laden was a household name in virtually no household and "the Iraq war" referred to a distant, fuzzy memory of a short, four-day ground war to liberate Kuwait nearly a decade earlier. "Iowa Show Nears, But Drama Missing," read the headline of a story that year by our Takemaster Dan Balz. "Caucuses Inspire Little Passion, Pro or Con." The same could not be written this year.
Heading into that vote eight years ago, the most important issue to Republican voters was "moral values," cited by 35 percent of those surveyed as they entered caucuses, followed by taxes at 25 percent, abortion at 11 percent and Social Security and Medicare at 8 percent. An umbrella "world affairs" category seemed most important to just 6 percent of Republicans that year. On the Democratic side, 26 percent cited Social Security and Medicare as their top issue, followed by 22 percent who said education, 16 percent who said health care, 11 percent who said the economy and 6 percent who named campaign finances. Just 4 percent listed world affairs as the top issue.
By comparison, the last Washington Post-ABC News poll of Iowa caucusgoers before tonight's contests found immigration the top issue among Republicans, cited by 17 percent, followed by terrorism, the Iraq war and abortion, all named by 9 percent. Moral or family values was cited by just 7 percent, one fifth of the proportion in 2000, tying the economy and ethics in government. The Democrats put health care at the top, named by 28 percent, followed closely by Iraq at 23 percent. About 12 percent named the economy, six percent education and four percent ethics in government.
It seems to matter who wins tonight and over the next month in a way it did not eight years ago. The next president will be left with some profound choices to make for the country -- what to do about Iraq, what to do about Iran, what to do about Pakistan, what to do about immigration, what to do about health care. The next president, the first new post-9/11 leader, will be charged with defending a country with a giant bulls eye on it and will have to determine the right balance in the precarious competition between security and liberty -- how far should the government go in eavesdropping without warrants, what should be done with the suspected terrorists at Guantanamo? And more broadly, what role should America play in the world?
So perhaps in that sort of terrain, it makes sense that the old Rulebook looks obsolete. Whether Hillary Rodham Clinton becomes the first female president or Barack Obama the first black president or Mitt Romney the first Mormon president may ultimately be important but secondary. They are all being judged less on who they are than what they would do. And old assumptions seem to fall by the wayside.
Still, history has lessons that are ignored at one's peril. According to history, the Republicans face an uphill battle this year. Only once since World War II has a party won the White House three straight terms (in 1988 when George H.W. Bush succeeded Ronald Reagan), so Republicans already would have confronted long odds even if the country were not in an unpopular war led by an unpopular incumbent.
But history also suggests that if Democrats do win this fall, the winner may only be a one-term president. Only once in the 220-year history of the American presidency have three presidents in a row served two full terms, and that was Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe.
And so everybody has some incentive starting tonight to make a little new history and rewrite the Rulebook.
Washington Post editors
January 3, 2008; 10:08 AM ET
Categories: B_Blog , Morning Cheat Sheet
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