This campaign has been painful for some, depressing for others. For those who have enjoyed it most, the excitement has become nerve-wracking. We're ready to count the votes. But I'm not going to join the chorus bemoaning the length of the campaign. We've needed all this time to get to know these guys.
Yes, we are ready for it to be over.
This campaign has been painful for some, depressing for others. For those who have enjoyed it most, the excitement has become nerve-wracking. We're ready to count the votes.
But I'm not going to join the chorus bemoaning the length of the campaign. We've needed all this time to get to know these guys.
A year ago, the wiseguys were all certain we'd be watching Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani sprint to the finish line. Strong candidates emerged in both parties, with Al Gore the only significant contender to stay out.
Over several months, the candidates were tested. Giuliani's pitch - well described by Joe Biden, who said Rudy's sentences have three parts: a noun, a verb and 9/11 - fell flat. Fred Thompson turned out to be a bore. The Christian right embraced Mike Huckabee and shunned Mitt Romney, so they both came up short.
John McCain persevered. The Republican base didn't trust him - still doesn't, really - but enough voters thought he had the best shot at waging a post-Bush campaign that he outlasted his opponents.
The Democrats had their own sorting process. Chris Dodd, Bill Richardson and Biden failed to gain any traction. John Edwards convinced a few - before his infidelity caught up with him - but not nearly enough.
Then there were two: The early favorite America had lived with for 16 years, and the new guy many found intriguing, if unknown.
So they slogged through every state caucus and primary, plus Guam and Puerto Rico for good measure. Along the way, Clinton survived staff shakeups, message makeovers and a couple of near-death experiences, but gained the admiration of millions of voters. Along the way, rookie Barack Obama became a better candidate, a more effective debater, an acquaintance millions of people learned to like.
Unlike his opponents, Obama didn't bounce from theme to theme. Hope and change were his touchstones, with policy specifics fleshing them out. There were no staff shakeups, no back-stabbing and no leaks. He managed the largest, richest, most ambitious and disciplined campaign Democrats have ever waged.
And when race inevitably caught the campaign spotlight in the form of short clips from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's sermons, Obama delivered what many considered the most important speech on race in a generation. It didn't solve his immediate political problem. Some voters will never accept that Wright's brand of black militancy is, as Obama explained, part of the black experience that cannot simply be wished away. But it showed a candidate capable of talking to Americans as adults about difficult subjects.
Four years ago, the Democratic wiseguys wanted to settle on a nominee early so he could concentrate on fund-raising and attacking Republicans. They dreaded the damage a long campaign could do. They were wrong.
The long campaign brought Clinton and Obama to red-state outposts like Wyoming and Mississippi. They amassed long lists of donors and volunteers. The long run made the eventual nominee a stronger candidate. Obama took some punches over his acquaintances, his inexperience and his unusual biography, and was still standing when the last delegates were awarded. Because those issues were aired in the spring, they packed less punch in the fall.
There were more hurdles Obama had to clear. He had to make up with the Clintons and unify the party. He had to get Rev. Wright to stay hidden for the duration. He had to pick a runningmate who brought credentials and unity to the campaign, but one he could work with in the White House.
Obama had to show he could look presidential on the world stage. In retrospect, the massive rally in Berlin hurt him a little. It set up the Republicans' Obama-as-celebrity attack, which made his convention speech at Mile High Stadium less powerful.
But the Berlin speech also underlined something important: Obama can revive America's battered standing in the world just by showing up.
A contest of senators
America has never had a presidential campaign waged by two sitting senators, which added to the drama when both Obama and McCain were called back to Washington to deal with the meltdown on Wall Street. Voters got to see the candidates at work, shaping legislation and reaching across the aisle. McCain looked frenetic and couldn't deliver House Republicans. Obama seemed cool, and got the Democrats in Congress and the Bush Administration on the same page.
Before that came the conventions. Both candidates did what they set out to do. In St. Paul, McCain introduced his vice-presidential pick, and Sarah Palin finally gave the Republican base something to get excited about. In Denver, Obama unified his party and began staking a claim to the mountain West.
But while Palin fired up the base, she hasn't worn as well with the rest of the electorate. A New York Times/CBS poll released Friday found that 59 percent of voters say she's not prepared for the job, and a third of voters said the vice-presidential selection factored into their judgment of the presidential nominees.
Nor has the Republicans' "enthusiasm gap" been closed over the course of the campaign. At this point, the conservatives I read and speak with are far more interested in beating up Obama than talking up McCain.
Instead, there's a "negativity gap" of immense proportions. McCain's long career is littered with unfortunate incidents and questionable associations, but nobody wants to talk about them. Obama's critics have inflated every possible blemish into a dark character indictment.
The bloggers and the anonymous e-mailers have been spreading lies for nearly two years. Obama was a secret Muslim, they said. He'd been trained in a madrassa in Indonesia. He took the oath of office on a Quran. He refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, or hold his hand over his heart when the National Anthem was played.
They questioned his wife's patriotism, turning one ill-considered sentence into a club with which they beat her for months. They dug up a paper she wrote in college where she confessed to feeling the sting of racism and they used it to paint her as a black militant. They took a poorly-worded remark Obama made at a San Francisco fundraiser, amplified and distorted to make him look like an egghead elitist.
Not just an elitist, the conservatives hissed as the clock ticked on their desperate campaign, but a socialist. Maybe even a communist. A threat to America's freedoms and its way of life.
They made a big deal out of the middle name handed down from his Kenyan grandfather, Hussein, as if that made Obama a Muslim terrorist. In the last week, McCain and Palin tried to tie Obama to a Palestinian activist, Rashid Khalidi, only to be embarrassed when it was reported that a foundation McCain chairs had given $488,000 to Khalidi's organization.
Since the last presidential election, Democrats have been promising they won't be swift-boated again. But they didn't respond in kind. They didn't go after Cindy McCain with the venom the right-wingers spewed on Michelle Obama. They didn't question McCain's war hero narrative the way Republicans had belittled John Kerry's Purple Hearts. They didn't talk about McCain's multiple infidelities, his penchant for casino gambling or his volcanic temper.
Obama stuck to the high road. In his Philadelphia speech on race, he acknowledged that wedge issues and personal attacks had swayed elections in the past, but he challenged Americans to aim higher.
"At this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, 'Not this time."'
The politics of personal destruction has taken casualties in elections past, but not this time.
The flag-pin politics of small symbols has trumped substance in other years, but not this time.
Culture wars, guilt by association, class warfare, and cheap shots that turn candidates into caricatures who are "not like us" have turned the tide before, but not this time.
Race-baiting, red-baiting and the politics of fear have stained the electoral process before, but not this time.
Much has been said these last many months about the impact of prejudice on America's vote - prejudice against the African-American at the top of one ticket, or against the white-haired elder or the woman on the other. But nothing disarms prejudice like familiarity. The better we know the person, the more we see past the demographic category.
After all the time they have spent in our living rooms, we know these candidates as individuals. It should be the wish of every American that when voters go to the polls, they will judge the candidates for who they are and what they stand for, that they will come to the polling places as grownups, armed with knowledge, not blinded by prejudice and fear.
While we're at it, let's hope every vote is counted and no party's victory is tainted by voter suppression, voter fraud or official incompetence. Not this time.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (http://blogs.townonline.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.