One year from now, America will elect its next president, and its current one will leave behind an uncertain nation in uncertain times. The race to succeed George W. Bush started nearly a year ago, much earlier than the norm, as if the leading candidates sensed that it would take a long time for them to figure out what the country wants. This much is obvious: The country wants change. Almost everything else defies easy analysis. It is hard, for instance, to make a persuasive case that any of the Big Seven—Democrats Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama and Republicans Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Fred Thompson—should be the favorite to win.
This is partly because the 2008 election is fundamentally different from every one since Harry Truman left the White House. The reason is that it lacks an heir apparent. After Truman decided not to seek reelection in 1952, the nominees were World War II hero Dwight D. Eisenhower for the Republicans and Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson for the Democrats. This was the last time that the choice for president did not include either an incumbent president or vice president; subsequent races had Eisenhower in ’56; Richard Nixon, his vice president, in ’60; Lyndon Johnson in ’64; Hubert Humphrey, his vice president, in ’68; Nixon in ’72; Gerald Ford, his vice president and, after Watergate, the president, in ’76; Jimmy Carter in ’80; Ronald Reagan in ’84; George H. W. Bush, his vice president, in ’88; Bush in ’92; Bill Clinton in ’96; Al Gore, his vice president, in 2000; George W. Bush in 2004. The heir apparent didn’t always win, but the presence of a familiar figure gave American politics continuity—a place for starting the debate. From this perspective, history may view George W.