There was a disquieting moment, however. The moderator asked the audience to identify themselves by a show of hands as Democrats, Republicans or something else. The party allegiances were roughly equal. Then, the host asked for supporters of Barack Obama to raise their hands. They did so with enthusiasm. Finally, he asked for supporters of John McCain to raise their hands. Almost as many did so, but they were jeered loudly by some of the Obama supporters. Several sitting close to me said they couldn’t believe anyone disagreed with Obama.
I don’t relate the story to impugn anyone’s motives or preferences. Rather, I fear that many political partisans — and not just those youth who lack life experience — are letting their expectations get away from them. I know some Democrats who, like the young people I met Tuesday, will be bewildered and crushed if Obama is not elected the next president of the United States this fall.
It’s great to believe passionately in a political cause or candidate. It’s not healthy, however, to discount or misunderstand one’s opposition and to draw unrealistic conclusions about the capacity of any one political leader to engineer radical change, for good or ill.
With regard to the Obama-McCain contest itself, partisans ought to be cautious about assuming victory. There’s no question that the odds favor the Democrat, given President Bush’s low approval rating and general public angst. But it is entirely possible that McCain will end up winning a close November vote. A fair-minded observer would have to grant that Obama has little experience in Washington, in foreign and defense policy, or in running any large organization. His record is also one of the most left-leaning in the U.S. Senate. Swing voters could conceivably conclude that while they like the man, and would welcome the prospect of electing a non-white president, they should give McCain the edge based on experience or relative moderation.
Similarly, while some conservatives and Republican partisans might believe that the 2006 Democratic surge was a fleeting response to bad luck and Bush administration incompetence, it would be foolish not to recognize what the available data and historical experience reveal. Political parties shouldn’t count on winning three back-to-back presidential elections in any event. Add in concern about gas prices, the economy, international tensions and other factors, and you can explain the current odds in Obama’s favor pointed, inherently. But each side ought at least to prepare itself against the possibility of shock.
Although both men differ from Bush in important ways, neither will be capable of waving a magic wand to dispel economic turmoil or reduce energy prices. They may possess more knowledge or diplomatic skill, but neither is capable of dispelling most of today’s international tensions (Obama is personally popular abroad, for example, but some of his stated policies, particularly on free trade and Pakistan, will not be).
The American constitutional system is dissimilar from parliamentary government in fundamental ways. Presidents aren’t guaranteed to have their legislation pass Congress intact, even when it is controlled by the same party. Elections are frequent and can be unpredictable, as the 1992-94 and 2004-06 periods demonstrate.
It should be possible to care about politics without allowing political disagreements to become personal, or political expectations to soar so far into the stratosphere that they can only be brought back down to Earth with a devastating crash.