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Weird Times, Weirder Election By: Victor Davis Hanson
The Washington Times | Monday, February 11, 2008


In this weird presidential campaign, almost everything has turned out opposite from what pollsters and pundits predicted. Even Super Tuesday proved not-so-super; things are still not quite settled in either party race.

The election was supposed to be about a shaky Iraq. But after the successful surge and the recent U.S. economic downturn, candidates now talk more about mortgages and illegal immigration than chaos in Baghdad.

John McCain was said to be finished by July. Then he was back again as a contender by January and is a supposed sure thing in February.

Barack Obama was at first just to be a runner-up; front-runner Hillary Clinton once worried more about the fall Republican nominee. Then, after the unexpected Obama victory in Iowa, his surging poll numbers assured us Hillary was toast in New Hampshire. But she suddenly came back there, and also won in Michigan and Nevada — but that was all before Mr. Obama resurged in February.

Then there was the topsy-turvy history of Rudy Giuliani — a supposed insurmountable lead turned into an unexpected implosion. Not long ago Fred Thompson was also hyped — only to crash and burn. And who knows the status of Mike Huckabee?

Conservatives are irate at Mr. McCain — especially over his past stances on taxes and immigration and his sometime alliances with Democrats — and some promise to sit out the general election if he is the Republican nominee.

Meanwhile, some Democrats repulsed by the Clintons promise to vote for Mr. McCain if Mrs. Clinton gets her party's nomination. And a few angry voters of both parties claim they like nice-guy Mr. Obama better than either of the other likely nominees.

What causes these wild swings among jittery and fickle voters?

(1) We are in the middle of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and are still fighting against radical Islamic terrorists on other fronts. Trillions in U.S. dollars are held abroad by rivals and belligerents. The economy is slowing. Energy prices are sky-high.

But for most, the medicine is as scary as the disease: Should we send more troops to finish the job overseas, or are there too many abroad already? Should we prime the economy to prevent recession? Or are stimulus plans unrealistic now that we are running federal deficits and piling up debt?

(2) Without a single administration incumbent in the running, both the Republican and Democratic races are especially volatile. In contrast, in every other presidential race after 1952, either an incumbent president or the sitting vice president has run in the fall election. But now there is no status quo. Instead, a war has broken out within each party.

Bill Clinton is no longer a senior statesman, but has devolved into a rank partisan, more a liability than a help to his wife. President Bush hasn't endorsed any Republican. He has a low approval rating, and has had issues with both Mr. McCain and Mitt Romney, who quit the race Thursday.

The current leaders — John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — are all U.S. senators. But we haven't had a sitting senator win the presidency in nearly a half-century, not since John Kennedy in 1960.

The Democratic nominee for the first time in election history will either be a woman or an African-American. Sons have followed their fathers to the presidency, but never a wife after her husband. Former presidents have ended up in Congress or the Supreme Court, but we've never contemplated one back as First Gentleman in the White House.

Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama are not the only trailblazers. If Mr. McCain wins, he will be the oldest man to assume the presidency.

Now that Super Tuesday is over, here's what we are left with. A surviving Hillary Clinton can't muzzle Bill, whose name got her the lead and whose narcissism has nearly squandered it.

No one can cite anything specific that the still-surging Mr. Obama has done or will do. And conservatives are supposed to damn Mr. McCain for taking some liberal stances when he didn't have to in conservative Arizona.

In this crazy year, the election may finally come down to how many Democrats — scared they don't know enough about Mr. Obama, or know too much about the Clintons — will vote for a veteran pro like Mr. McCain. Or, on the flip side, how many "true" conservatives will stay home in November to ensure a liberal wins the White House just to prove their purity.


Victor Davis Hanson is a military historian at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and the author of "A War Like No Other" (Random House).


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