The 2008 election is conventionally believed to be a change election. So far, there is some evidence to suggest that it will be — although we won’t, in fact, know until election night next November — and perhaps not for many years thereafter.
It is worth considering what a genuine change election is, and what that may mean for the current candidates. It is not a change election just because an incumbent or his party is defeated. A genuine change election not only involves dissatisfaction with a historic national issue or two, but often occurs in the context of shifting cultural values and produces a winning presidential candidate with different skill sets and a different style of communicating.
One could argue that FDR in 1932 and Ronald Reagan in 1980 were the only two genuine change elections in modern times. Maggie Thatcher’s 1979 election was also such a change election in Britain. It is noteworthy that in each of those cases, the next time the other party won an election after such a change (Eisenhower, Clinton, Blair), the winner did not contest the shifting principle of the change election — but merely suggested he might improve on it. Eisenhower did not reject the New Deal programs. Clinton supported Reagan’s market economic orientation and more conservative cultural values (Clinton campaigned as a welfare reforming, churchgoing, choir-singing Baptist). Blair followed Thatcher’s lead on market economics and discarding old union and leftist support.
The Nixon elections of 1968 and 1972 were not change elections, I would argue, because Nixon continued the FDR-Truman-Kennedy policies of a muscular foreign policy, mixed economics and cultural conservatism. It was the Democrats, particularly under McGovern, who represented genuine change to isolation, more leftist economics and cultural change — and he was defeated in a landslide.
So is 2008 likely to be a change election? Certainly, the mere fact that the public may be passionately anti-Iraq war (an event that is fairly likely, remains to be seen a year and a half from now) will not make it a change election. Nineteen fifty-two and 1968 were anti-war elections, but not change elections. Nor will it be a change election merely because a majority of the public has grown to be repulsed (approval ratings under 30 percent) by the incumbent. That was the case in 1952 (Truman) and 1976 (Nixon).
But there are elements that support the change election theory. By about 75-25 percent the public has steadily believed the country is going in the wrong direction. (While some of that is cultural anger at Hollywood, dirty record lyrics, trial lawyer abuses, abortion, etc., those conservative concerns — which have existed for many years — are not enough to explain this record high displeasure with the national path.)
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the public has consistently been dissatisfied with the state of the economy — even though by traditional measures of economic health (GDP, unemployment, inflation, interest rates) we are in the fifth year of a healthy economy. That suggests that different unmet economic concerns are coming to be the measure of public economic satisfaction — probably related to globalization, lowering wage rates driven by global price of wages, outsourcing, reduced manufacturing jobs, the rise of China, lack of pensions, fear of nursing home costs and health care costs and environmentally caused economic fears.
That is to say that long-term anxieties now seem more important than (or at least as important as) current economic performance.
The other change factor I notice as I travel and speak around the country — even amongst conservatives — is the sense of sheer governmental incompetence. From Katrina, to air traffic control, to — of course the Iraq war — there seems to be some growing doubt about America’s continuing ability to be a "can-do" country with a "can-do" government.
It is hard to know whether this is merely an overly harsh judgment on the Bush administration — or whether it has broader implications. But certainly on the war, with President Bush surrounded by such experienced men as Cheney, Rumsfeld and Powell, however unfair it might be to these men, there may be some punch to Sen. Obama’s argument that if the current mess was created by people who have the traditionally valued Washington experience — maybe it’s time to try something completely different.
It is noteworthy that Obama — with no traditionally valued experience — continues to run fairly strongly. And in the GOP, Giuliani, the current front runner, is merely a former mayor. There is no modern precedent — yet — for the jump directly from mayor to president. Nor is there a precedent since the emergence of the social issues with Reagan for a GOP front runner to be "wrong" on all the social issues.
So we Washington insiders should be careful not to jump to the conclusion, for instance, that Obama’s seemingly shaky foreign policy performance last week will necessarily hurt him. A change electorate might be willing to give a bright, well-intentioned young man some leeway as he searches for new answers.
And GOP candidates (and Hillary) would also be wise to heed Newt Gingrich’s warning that if they don’t propose real change, they may get left behind by a change-driven electorate.
If there are 10-20 percent of the public that are looking for real change in this election, we could have that change election.
(That is a sufficient deviation from usual partisan voting patterns to cause a change election. Obviously most Democrats always want to really change a Republican in office — and vice versa. A genuine change electorate is not merely following its partisan instincts. Status quo candidates should take little comfort from the fact that 80 percent of the electorate seems not to be in a genuine change mood. Just like tax rate cuts, revolutions occur on the dynamic margins.)