As I write these words, it is the first day of the Republican National Convention. The Texas delegates are easy to spot on the floor of the Xcel Energy Center, in St. Paul. They are decked out in blue work shirts that say “Governor Perry” above the pocket, accompanied by Perry’s ranch-brand-style campaign logo: a capital R topped by an arc. The governor has handed out white Stetsons too, and when Laura Bush walks onstage to introduce film clips of Perry and other Gulf Coast governors whose states are grappling with a diminished Hurricane Gustav, hundreds of hats wave in the air. One of the first people I run into is Roger Williams, the former secretary of state who is the chairman of Victory 2008, the Republican campaign effort in Texas. For most of the year he has been pretty glum about prospects in Texas—not whether John McCain would win the state, because that has never been in doubt, but whether the Republican ticket would motivate the party faithful to volunteer, contribute money, and, of course, vote. Today he is euphoric, and the reason is vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin. “The energy level has been turned way up,” he tells me. “This is going to help our judges, our legislators. If we get our vote out, we win.”
McCain’s choice of Palin is the latest unexpected turn in this most unpredictable of presidential races. Or maybe it’s not so unpredictable after all. Two years ago, I attended a lecture at the University of Texas at Austin by conservative commentator William Kristol in which he noted that the 2008 election would be the first since 1952 (when Dwight Eisenhower defeated Adlai Stevenson) that did not feature a sitting president or vice president on the ballot. The absence of an heir apparent, Kristol speculated, meant that the race for the White House would be wide open.
Most Americans know nothing of the similarity between 1952 and 2008, but they don’t need to see the omnipresent Obama placards advertising “Change” to sense the coming end of an era in which our politics has become static: half red, half blue, producing an electoral map that hardly varied through the 2000 and 2004 elections. For that, we have to blame, or thank, an unpopular president, an unpopular war, and the gradual disintegration of the coalition that has been dominant since the election of Ronald Reagan. The Republican constituencies today are the same ones that came together to elect Reagan—social conservatives, economic conservatives, and foreign-policy conservatives—but they have mutated into evangelicals, anti-government activists, and neocons. This has left many R’s feeling alienated from their party. Indeed, today’s St. Paul Pioneer Press features a special section on the convention with a front-page story headlined, “What’s a Republican? Minnesota’s Feuding Factions Each Have a Vision.” The Democrats’ evolution has been less dramatic, but they too have constituencies that are under stress. The rift between blacks and Hispanics that was so evident in the Texas primary runs deep, and so does the uneasiness of white working-class Democrats, especially in the Rust Belt, with the demographic changes that are sweeping through both the country and their party.
So it should not be surprising that the 2008 race to this point has been volatile, to say the least. A wide-open race can be particularly cruel to front-runners. Rudy Giuliani built his candidacy on name ID and 9/11. He was the original “third Bush term” candidate—not a winning position in an election in which Republicans as well as Democrats believe the nation is on the wrong track. Mitt Romney, despite all his money, couldn’t break through a fairly low ceiling in the polls. Who could have foreseen that the last two Republicans standing would be McCain, who had been given up for dead, and Mike Huckabee? The Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton, seemed unbeatable a year ago. The conventional wisdom was that if she won the Iowa caucuses, the nomination was hers. But she didn’t, and it wasn’t.
Now this has become a truly historic race: a black presidential nominee on one side of the ballot, a female vice-presidential nominee on the other. (I wonder, no matter what he says, whether Barack Obama is having second thoughts about passing over Clinton for vice president.) Palin is carrying a huge load. She, not McCain, is the candidate the Republican base cares about. Is there a precedent for a race in which the vice-presidential candidate overshadows the presidential candidate in the hearts and minds of a party’s core constituency? Lyndon Johnson was clearly the most important vice-presidential nominee in the last half-century; John F. Kennedy could not have won the 1960 election without him on the ticket. But it was Kennedy, of course, not LBJ, who stirred Democrats’ emotions. Ronald Reagan approached Gerald Ford about being his running mate in what would have amounted to a shared presidency. Fortunately, that did not come to pass. At least Johnson and Ford were seasoned politicians. Palin’s résumé is lighter than air. Everyone in America with a passing interest in politics understood instantly that the choice was born of desperation. Why? Because in selecting Palin, who has been governor of Alaska for less than two years, McCain forfeited his most persuasive argument about Obama: that he was too inexperienced to be president. Even though McCain had had a good summer, even though he had closed the gap in national polls, his strategists must have determined that the long-term trajectory of the campaign was trending down. In that sense, the selection of Palin is not literally a gamble; if it doesn’t work, well, he was probably going to lose anyway.
What has happened to McCain is all too familiar. He is the third Republican standard-bearer in recent years—preceded by Bushes 41 and 43—who began his quest for the presidency as a centrist politician, only to throw himself into the arms of the social conservatives in order to get elected. Bush 41 did it in his 1992 reelection campaign (it didn’t