Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of
The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and
Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama . His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is giltroy.com. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.
The Ghosts of the 60s and 80s Haunted and Inspired this Campaign
It has been quite the ride. Political scientists who doubt the impact campaigns can have on votes will need to take this roller-coaster of a campaign into account. Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain coasted to their respective party’s nomination and the lead in the general campaign switched at least three times. Judging by most polls, Obama led for much of the summer, McCain surged just before and during the Republican National Convention. Then Obama pulled into the lead thanks to the financial meltdown and Obama’s steadier debate performances.
Tomorrow, American voters will find themselves shaped by the 1960s’ revolution as they judge – but also partially try to replicate -- the 1980s revolution. Both nominees represent the tremendous progress the country has made since the 1960s. As one of America’s most famous Vietnam veterans, John McCain represents the seachange in attitudes towards Vietnam vets, partially due to his own efforts. Although the claim that soldiers returning from Vietnam were spat at has never been proven, in the 1970s, many felt neglected and rejected by the country they had served. McCain’s iconic role in American culture as a symbol of patriotism, selflessness, and sacrifice illustrates that many of the national wounds from that war have healed.
Obama, who has spent much of the campaign remarking about how young he was during the 1960s, is in so many ways a child of that decade. The civil rights movement made his candidacy possible. Standing on the shoulders of the movement’s giants, Obama has gone farther and faster than any of them dared to hope. Martin Luther King, Jr’s audacity was in dreaming his children would be treated as the equal of whites, not that they would be in a position to lead.
As the sixties casts its shadow on this choice, the decade of the eighties looms large as well. When John McCain is not paying homage to Theodore Roosevelt, McCain speaks of Ronald Reagan. Both Roosevelt and Reagan offer the kind of muscular, nationalist, leadership McCain admires. Obama admires that style of leadership too, even if he dislikes Reagan’s policies. In a January interview in Nevada, Obama said Reagan had “changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” In defending these remarks against the inevitable Democratic – and Clintonesque – onslaught – Obama explained that he was not embracing Reagan’s positions, just admiring Reagan as a “transformative leader.” Again and again, at his most powerful campaigning moments, Obama has demonstrated a similar potential.
Of course, the financial meltdown put the legacy of the 1980s into contention more directly. In the summer, the Soviet invasion of Georgia and the continuing worries about Iran and Iraq made 2008 look like it was going to be a foreign policy-oriented election. That assumption helps explain Obama’s selection of Joe Biden as a running mate. This choice – like so many other assumptions – seemed unnecessary once the stock market started plummeting.
Alas, despite the leadership opportunity the financial crisis provided for the candidates, neither rose to the occasion. Both remained cautious, simplistic demagogic. Of course, that was par for the campaigning course. But the campaign hoopla is almost over. Tomorrow, the president-elect has to start planning how to help the country – a task that will make the challenges of even this campaign seem downright trivial.