Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Obama a Major First, In More Ways Than One

I had a thought about Obama while teaching my first-period class today. We're starting the 1960's, and were talking about all the many changes that took place during that tumultuous period. One of the things I mentioned is that the 1960's see the birth of the "modern" Democrat party, in the same way that the 1980's represent the birth of the "modern" GOP. By that I mean that the party of Reagan was very different from the party of Eisenhower (the addition of the social conservatives), which itself was very different than the isolationist GOP pre-Ike. Likewise, the Democrats didn't become the anti-war party until the Vietnam era. Although they didn't nominate their anti-war candidate in 1968 (McCarthy), his wing of the party more or less won out, giving us McGovern and his successors from that point on.

In a sense, Obama is the first modern Democrat to actually win election. LBJ was liberal, but a cold warrior (after all, he's the guy who pulled the trigger on Vietnam). The only two Dems to win in my lifetime were Carter and Clinton, both of whom ran as centrists, explicitly distancing themselves from the liberalism which was unpopular during their times. There have been folks who combined liberalism and the anti-war plank... McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis, Kerry. All lost. But Obama was, at least on paper, a genuine liberal and a dove, and he won convincingly.

You could do a lot of analysis on this--did Obama "run to the center" and in that way win like Carter or Clinton? Does his election mean America is shifting from a center-right to a center-left nation? Does Obama's election hinge on circumstance, whether the economic crisis or the success of the surge (in the same way that the end of the Cold War made it "safe" to elect Clinton over Bush 41)?

I'll save the analysis for another day. But I will say that I'm absolutely fascinated with watching how it all turns out. Certainly, we all want what's best for the country. But I'm really interested in what my history lessons on this election and its consequences are going to look like many years from now. It'll be a fun ride!

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