Historians have to navigate carefully when entering the strange, alluring world of media commentary. To maintain our integrity, we need boundaries. Presumably, those of us who comment believe that offering historical perspective even as history unfolds can elevate public debate, using current events as"teachable moments." But most of the time journalists want us – especially on television – to do things we should not do, namely predict the future or determine the historical meaning of fleeting events as they unfold. Even on the air, historians should dodge certain questions. We should never predict. And we should sidestep premature queries such as"Is George W. Bush the worst president ever," halfway through his term. Anyone who survived oral exams should be able to handle it. During last week's remarkable redemptive moment as Barack Obama won the presidency, it seemed that most of the media wanted to trot out historians to certify that this election was indeed"historic."
Of course, it does not take a Ph.D. in history to note that the first elevation of a black man to the White House in a country with America’s racist past was momentous. Moreover, every presidential election is historic given the attention we pay to voting and the job's significance. But this question of"was this election historic" was fishing in deeper waters. Reporters wanted historians to label 2008 as significant as 1980 when Ronald Reagan launched his revolution or 1960 when John Kennedy inspired a generation or 1932 when Franklin Roosevelt tackled the Great Depression. And historians can safely say that there never had been such a cataclysmic domestic event during a general election campaign as this Crash of 2008. But we all know that it is too early to know whether Barack Obama's presidency will be as transformative as he hopes. He could be the next Franklin D. Roosevelt – or Jimmy Carter redux.
As we wait to watch, and assess the historical impact of Barack Obama's administration, we should start debating just what caused his victory. Here we have a legitimate"teachable" moment – showing how historians start thinking about a problem, start solving an historical mystery. One debate I have started with my students is whether Barack Obama won this election, or John McCain and the Republican lost it?
In asking the question, we have to acknowledge its artificiality. The accurate answer is"yes," meaning it was a combination of factors. But the question gets students thinking about what were the most significant causes. My next step is suggesting that we construct a timeline of turning points, which helps answer the question and gets us to start weighing historical significance. I propose four turning points in this election:
-- The first is Obama's extraordinary 2004 Democratic National Convention speech. I believe historians will deem it more significant than William Jennings Bryan's 1896 speech because it launched Obama into the celebrity stratosphere and toward the presidency.
-- The second turning point is something that did not happen – or happened subsequently. Had Hillary Clinton run a war room as tough and efficient as her husband's, and had her campaign uncovered the Jeremiah Wright tapes in the winter of 2008 before the Iowa caucuses, I doubt Obama would have won Iowa. This is a mischievous turning point, which raises questions about how historians assess missed opportunities, and speculate about potential outcomes. It also helps raise the question that will emerge as we start debating George W. Bush's legacy – how do we assess something that did not happen, in his case, the fact that as of this writing there has been no catastrophic terrorist attack on American soil since 2001. How much credit can someone get for a bell that did not ring, a fear that was not realized. As for Hillary, how harshly do we judge a candidate or a campaign for overlooking what could have been a knockout blow?
-- The third turning point is the market implosion. Whatever momentum McCain enjoyed after the Russians invaded Georgia during the summer and his energized convention (thanks to Sarah Palin's debut) vanished. As the fourth major disaster under George W. Bush's watch, following 9/11, Iraq and Katrina, the financial crisis made it all but impossible for a Republican to win.
-- Finally, I point to Obama's performance during the debates, especially the third debate. That the young, inexperienced upstart Democrat appeared to be the mature candidate against his older, more experienced rival, made Obama look presidential and helped allay many Americans' anxieties about this relative unknown.
This list is intended to trigger debate. Others would mention Hillary Clinton’s Super Tuesday strategy that ignored the causcuses, Sarah Palin's nomination, McCain's decision to suspend his campaign, Obama's opposition to the Iraq war. It is important also to go beyond this event-driven list and talk about Obama's extraordinary strategy, his effective use of the internet, and his brilliant ground game, organizing thousands of workers across the nation. And while the four turning points offer two affirmative actions of Obama's and two events beyond his control, I ultimately conclude that Obama was lucky to be blessed with two flawed opponents.
For all the skills Obama demonstrated and the forces he marshaled, I argue that Hillary Clinton, John McCain, George W. Bush, and the Republicans lost this election as much as Obama won. Just as Ronald Reagan won an ABC election in 1980 – anybody but Carter – Obama won a GO George – Get Out George W. Bush --election this year. This conclusion does not diminish from the dare I say it, historic nature of Obama's victory. Rather, it is an early attempt to plunge into the debate assessing the outcome of the wild, rollicking, unpredictable, and potentially transformative 2008 campaign.