This is the first time since 1928 there has been no incumbent president or vice president running in either party’s primaries. That has made for a fairly wide-open race, with no clear favorite — or at least with all the reputed favorites having to weather serious doubts and challenges. Several candidates took a flyer on the possibility that lightning could strike, and they made the early debates more interesting than they might have been, but most of those are gone or will be soon. The Iowa caucus results did not create a dominant front-runner yet in either party.
It could be all but over Feb. 5, when a slew of larger states hold primaries, which just might create an opening for an independent like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to take advantage of “buyer’s remorse” in both parties after choosing too quickly.
Or it could go on for long enough that voters just might get a sense of where candidates stand on issues, which has taken a back seat to resumes and biographies so far.
It is also a year when both major parties are struggling to redefine themselves and whatever meaning “liberal” and “conservative” have in voters’ minds is somewhat muddled.
The Democrats’ New Deal coalition fell apart in 1984, but Bill Clinton succeeded by triangulating and governing as a moderate; whether that model, a more ideological model or a vague promise of “change” will prevail is up for grabs.
The Republicans have seen the coalitions Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich put together dissipate in a wave of war-weariness and disgust over big spending.
This potentially useful flux within the major parties comes at a time when the country finds itself facing more uncertain times than many had expected.
The war in Iraq, while it has receded from the forefront of many Americans’ minds as U.S. casualties have declined, will confront the next president with difficult problems.
Of course the scale of the U.S. occupation must be reduced, but how quickly and in what manner? We’d like to hear a lot more specifics from all the candidates.
The Democrats have said they’re devoted to “change,” — not surprising after the presidency now ending — but have hardly been forthcoming about exactly what kind of change.
Would they seek to undo much of that the Bush administration has done — the Patriot Act, increased surveillance of Americans and the growth of virtually unfettered executive power — or would they quietly rejoice in all that power and seek to use it for their own ends?
Is the party as hostile to business as John Edwards seems to be? Will we see a major retreat from the free-trade policies that were a staple of Democratic administrations from Roosevelt through Clinton?
Although most of the Republican candidates take care to mention President Bush as little as possible, none but Ron Paul has significantly distanced himself from the president’s policies, especially his foreign policies. But although the stage may be set for a relatively soft landing, the Iraq war has deeply divided the country and made much of the rest of the world scornful of the United States.
Do Republicans believe that building up the military even further and using mostly military force is really the most effective response to jihadist terrorism, or do they have other options in mind? Paul has proven there is a significant and unusually enthusiastic constituency for more limited government and a significantly less interventionist foreign policy. When the dust clears after November, will he and those who agree with him have a seat at the table, or will the party establishment continue to pretend that dissenters simply don’t exist?
Few of these questions have yet been discussed in more than sound bites by any of the candidates.
That’s one reason we hope the race isn’t over too soon, without the wide-ranging discussion of alternatives voters deserve and haven’t yet gotten.