|The Political Post
||[Nov. 5th, 2008|03:02 am]
Yeah, I know. Everyone's doing one. I'm such a sheep.
I've heard a lot over the last few hours about what an historic day this is, which is true. It's not exactly news, but it's true. We've known the day would be historic for months now. We'd either have an African-American president, or we'd have the oldest first-term president and first woman vice president in our history. I think we can move past that now.
I still think we should be talking about this as "a new day," though. It marks what I hope is a turn in the way we practice politics here in America. I wasn't around for Watergate, but I've certainly seen the underlying nastiness of which Watergate was a symptom. In the thirty-odd years since Nixon's resignation, that nastiness has become a celebrated feature of our politics. In the twelve years since Clinton (not Hillary) was elected to his second term, Washington has been trapped in a partisan stalemate, stagnating our government and destroying any public goodwill for our officials. The Republicans had Clinton impeached. When Bush (W, that is) was elected (by methods fair or foul), Democrats looked for any excuse they could to impeach him in return. If the Democratic Senate stated that the sky was blue, the Republicans appointees to any federal court would insist it was actually green. Our campaign rhetoric has been almost exclusively "I'm not [the other guy], and boy are we all glad of that." I'm hopeful, though, that this year's campaign has begun to change that.
When the networks called the election for Obama at something like five seconds after the polls closed on the west coast, McCain was immediately on the phone to his opponent. Minutes later, he was addressing his supporters in Phoenix, graciously conceding the contest.
Remember four years ago? An hour after the call came in for Bush, Sen. Kerry was still closeted up with his attorneys, considering the viability of a lawsuit to overturn the election. Even after Kerry went ahead and conceded, Sen. Edwards was up half the night protesting that it wasn't done yet, that they would continue to fight. Remember four years before that, when Vice President Gore allowed the election to turn into a month-long courtroom drama?
We could be cynical and say that McCain didn't do any of this simply because the numbers were too clearly against him. I think, though, that McCain genuinely believes in the validity of the electoral system and that, whether or not he has the respect and admiration for Obama that he claims, he values and honors the fundamental principle of American government more than his ambitions for the White House. The nature of McCain's concession speech put me in mind of an anecdote following the 1860 election (Lincoln's first election, for those who don't follow American history closely). Stephen A. Douglas, who had defeated Lincoln two years previously for a Senate seat, lost the presidential election. The two men were longtime rivals, and their political careers featured quite a bit of passionate rhetoric directed against each other. When Lincoln was inaugurated as president, though, Douglas sat on the platform on Lincoln's right-hand side and held the new president's hat.
That's the sort of civility that's been missing in politics for my entire life, and I feel like McCain has done some work this year to attempt to restore it. When his supporters in Phoenix tried to boo their new president tonight, he actually looked disgusted. He only held up his hands for quiet and said, "Please," but that one word held entire worlds of implication. "You're citizens of the United States of America. You know the laws. You know how it works. Now grow up and accept that we just elected the man," was sort of the sense I got from him. And then he said the coolest thing (this being a direct quote): "His success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance. But that he managed to do so by inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans... is something I deeply admire and commend him for achieving." We can question the sincerity of that line all we like, but I don't think there's any argument about the generous nature of the words themselves.
While I'm going, let me say a few words about our president-elect. Tonight was the first time I got to view an Obama speech in its entirety, and I was amazed. This man has charisma like the day is long. The message I took from his victory speech was exactly what Sen. McCain had alluded to earlier: hope. Hope is kind of a rare commodity in the country right now, but Obama seems to want to hand it out in buckets. I'm good with that. When he got to the "Yes we can" portion of the speech, I got chills. Really. And here's what he had to say about his defeated opponent: "Sen. McCain fought long and hard in this campaign. And he's fought even longer and harder for the country that he loves. He has endured sacrifices for America that most of us cannot begin to imagine. We are better off for the service rendered by this brave and selfless leader."
I've got this crazy idea that neither of these men believed yesterday that, were the other elected, the country would go straight to hell in a handbasket. I've certainly heard that argument from various supporters of both camps, but never from the candidates themselves. I really hope the rest of our public servants have been paying close attention to this election. I think it may have been the mostly civil tone of the campaigns that brought out the vote in the crazy numbers that we saw, just as much as the historic nature of the election, or (heaven help us!) the issues. For once, we had an election where we didn't hate both candidates by mid-October.
Kentucky politicians in particular could learn a lot from this.