We’ve had some dark days in this democracy over the past seven years and today the sun is out. It is shining brightly.

Missouri Senator

Claire McCaskill

Record low turnouts, historic high cynicism and deep despair about the future: that was the conventional wisdom about American democracy little more than a year ago. At the nadir of the Bush presidency it seemed impossible to predict a sunny future built on that stark legacy of failed war and diplomacy, corruption and recession.

Yet with that confounding resilience American voters demonstrate at least once a generation, a coalition of voters in each party shook off that gloom, and demanded more. They rejected conventional choices and backed transformational candidates. Just as the voters in 1932, 1960 and 1980 chose « big candidates » to lead them out of a bleak status quo, so their tough-minded grandchildren have placed three highly heterodox candidates on the verge of power. There are lessons for Canadian democracy in this renaissance of hope.

Whether it is a black man, a woman or the most unconventional American Republican since their last war hero—Dwight Eisenhower—who takes the oath of office on January 20, 2009, now depends on the closing chapters in the most exciting election in half a century. Whether you think the astonishing roller coaster that is this election cycle is the most important election since 1932 or 1968 depends on your partisanship, your generation and your preference for happy or sad endings. But there is no doubt that the United States, its allies and its enemies are going to be challenged by a very different White House with a very different agenda in less than nine months.

For the majority of centre-left Canadians the real transformation can come only from a Democratic president. They will see a McCain presidency as a continuation of the Bush war machine. They could not be more wrong.

This is a Republican with profound skepticism about the « military-industrial complex, » deep commitment to environmental change and genuine rage at the corruption that has oozed into too many parts of American public life. He is no liberal social reformer, but he will not be a patsy for the pharmaceutical, defence and aerospace, automotive and health industries. George W. Bush liked to compare himself to Teddy Roosevelt, but McCain is closer to his true heir: anti-establishment, bloody-minded and seized of righteous indignation at the abuse of power—economic or military. An enemy of the fundamentalist Christian hold on the party, a realist on immigration reform and a fiscal conservative who attacked both the profligate spending and the tax cuts for the rich of the Bush administration, McCain is determined to recapture the Republican party from its hard-liners and their destructive excesses.

Even on the war, some critics have failed to understand how different his approach will be from that of the Bush administration. As a seasoned war veteran and former prisoner, he has little sympathy for political spin about failed military strategy. While he would not wind down the war as quickly as either Democrat would, neither would he continue to support a failed military strategy. He would push the Iraqis to decisions more aggressively and attempt to rebuild international support more sincerely. A McCain-led Iraq exit would probably be bloodier in the short term but more competently managed than anything seen in the humiliating past five years.

He is a conservative, yes; conventional, no way.

Those seized of the Obama revolution will increasingly diss the Billary choice as « same old, same old, » pointing to the bare-knuckle triangulating style of the Clinton machine. But they will also be wrong. A John Edwards presidency would have been a conventional Democratic administration—as would a Kerry or a Gore White House—populist in rhetoric, incapable of coalition-building and a failure at delivering change in the party or the country. As it was almost 20 years ago that Bill Clinton began his transformation of the Democratic Party, it is easy to forget what a revolution that was.

He and his small cadre of often young Southern « New Democrats » broke the party’s addiction to stroking every political niche, no matter how small, irrelevant or extreme. Military reform, welfare reform, tax reform, bold trade agreements and pioneering efforts at introducing performance measurement in the public sector were all legacies of this different approach to centrist government. Many of the policy and political sects within the party—protectionists, public sector trade unionists, tiermondistes—all saw their power reduced and they remain Clinton enemies today.

The Clinton generation of leadership holds many of the key control levers of the party at the state level to this day. With control of both houses of Congress, those regional allies will be a formidable alliance for change. Clinton would move aggressively on health care, infrastructure, education and tax reform, and rebuilding international relations.

Obama has changed everything, however. It is hard to find historic comparisons to the disruptive impact his insurgent candidacy has had on the contours and traditional verities of the American political landscape. Part Teddy Roosevelt, part Henry Wallace, part Robert Kennedy, part Jesse Jackson, it is hard to pigeonhole the crusade that his campaign has become for a strange coalition of affluent educated young white Americans, blacks and independents.

Although his fundraising success was an early sign that his candidacy was not another Gene McCarthyesque/Ross-Perot style sideshow, it was the crowds that horrified his competitors and stunned even jaded observers. That, combined with an adroit use of the Internet and other new media, and a rock star charisma have turned this campaign upside down.

From the thousands who came out on a sub-zero Springfield, Illinois, morning for his campaign launch last winter, to the more than 100,000 voters who surged into his events in the six days before the Super Tuesday primaries a year later, Obama’s supporters’ numbers and raw emotion are more reminiscent of a Billy Graham crusade or an early Rolling Stones tour than a political campaign.

No amount of organization or money can draw 13,000 people to an event in Boise, Idaho, on one night and 30,000 to Minneapolis the next. After a slow start, his campaign is beginning to develop organizational chops that have bested the vaunted Clinton machine.

How did this happen? How did this depressed and depressing political scene turn into some kind of Hollywood miracle of resurrection and soaring expectation?

First, as Canadians, we might acknowledge how much more open the US presidential system is than our own lockstep manner of choosing who gets to be prime minister. Candidates who believe in a return to the gold standard (Ron Paul), in the existence of flying saucers (Dennis Kucinich), in replacing income tax with a 23 percent national GST and that God created man 8,000 years ago (Mike Huckabee) all got massive airtime, donations and media coverage for many months. Elizabeth May will be lucky if she is invited to a single debate and gets more than passing mention from Peter Mansbridge in our system.

This openness inevitably draws more enthusiasts from a much wider community into politics, however peculiar some of their motivations may appear to the mainstream media and voters. Instead of two and a half leaders battling for five weeks for attention, the US system generated a dozen candidates on each side struggling for political oxygen for more than two years. With arguably an excessive number of fringe candidates, and a ridiculously long campaign period, the campaign did energize American voters dramatically. Primary turnouts on both sides of the aisle doubled and trebled from 2004.

Secondly, the gush of money that supercharges American presidential politics surely pollutes the process, forcing candidates to seek cash in some unsavoury quarters, making the campaign process hostage to the insatiable fundraising circus. The sums are almost inconceivable: $400 million spent before the end of January by the presidential candidates, with an expectation that they will spend more than a billion by November, with the other congressional and local races adding another $2 billion.

By contrast, Canadian politicians spend less than $100 million at all levels across all parties, albeit a much shorter time frame. Applying the usual 10-to-1 rule in Canada/US comparisons, American politicians lavished more than three times as much per voter. While a huge percentage of the expenditure is of dubious value—up to $100,000 per month for some first-tier consultants, for example—some of it does flow into events, Internet presence and direct mailings that do stimulate debate.

This year a large percentage of the « mother’s milk of politics » was delivered by the Internet, rather than by lobbyists’ bundled cheques. By the end of January, Obama had assembled nearly 250,000 online contributors—this before the addition of the Kennedy, Oprah and Kerry mailing lists. Hillary Clinton, previously dependent on the conventional cock- tail-and-dinner-event driven form of fundraising, realized following her embarrassment on Super Tuesday the need to change direction.

To see the incredible virtuous circle that leading-edge use of these new media tools has created, visit the Obama website. From video clips of his speeches and interviews, some less than an hour old, to precisely focused pitches for volunteer support and money, to flashy endorsement videos, to news coverage and campaign calendar announcements, Obama’s Net presence is a stunning example of how powerful these tools have become for the best US campaign. Clinton’s and McCain’s efforts are rather pale by comparison. The New York Times quoted a Maine political scientist, Amy Fried, saying that after she registered at both sites, « I got very little from the Clinton campaign. But I got a lot from Obama, urging me to come in and work and telling about events, just giving me a lot more. »

This points to the second surprising achievement of the Obama campaign. It used electronic media to build traditional street-level organization, creating ground campaigns out of thin air. By mid-February, the Clinton campaign had fired its top two officials, as it became clear that Obama was outorganizing them even with the older, poorer, female voters who were supposed to have been the Clinton campaign bulwark. As this Obama army grows from state to state, and uses its electronic connections to further spread its tentacles nationwide, it is hard to see how the Clinton campaign can catch up.

In another upheaval of campaign clichĂ©s—the traditional struggle between « machine and momentum” in US primary campaigns—Obama seems to have found a way of using momentum to build his machine in realtime.

Stunned by the reaction to the news that she had had to lend $5 million to her own campaign, the Clinton campaign cranked up an Internet and phone solicitation that it claimed brought in another $10 million in less than a week. Ironically the emergency campaign cash injection had gone in part to pay for a boring TV town hall that the campaign had bought nationwide airtime for in advance of Super Tuesday. That show drew fewer than 250,000 viewers, in the same week that the Obama campaign’s Black-Eyed Peas amateur YouTube video drew millions a day. Cost to Obama: zero.

The flow of donor support has become such a barometer of future prospects in this campaign that the many Web sites tracking the daily fundraising totals have become as important as polling aggregators for political junkies testing small shifts in the political winds. Like polling numbers in days of old, cash flow has the power to become a campaign accelerator or killer: donors see a decline in daily totals and delay new contributions, or switch to another campaign, increasing the next day’s decline.

This massive spending, higher by far than in any other democracy, did raise the profile of the campaign for every American. Voters in Iowa were subjected to 8,000 spots by the Romney campaign in the final two weeks of the primary there. On the eight possible stations available, that amounts to 500 spots per station, per week, or a spot every 10 minutes from morning until night. A woman in Massachusetts, a Democratic Party activist, reported getting five pieces of mail from the Clinton campaign in one week.

The union, church and other special interest groups will spend tens of millions on ground organization separate from the campaigns. Those « get out the vote » (GOTV) drives are getting more sophisticated in every cycle, and therefore more effective in delivering votes. The phone banks and email centres used by the GOTV campaigns now use software that can cross-correlate as many as 21 variables per individual: from traditional demographic data such as age, gender and income level, to special interests, club membership, academic history, mortgage levels and driving record.

One might reasonably ask when solicitation turns into harassment at these levels, and given the shallow hectoring of much of American political campaign rhetoric, how much voter-education value these expenditures have, but they do make the campaign a centrepiece of community life in a way Canadian political activists can only drool at.

Then there is the volume of contests taking place at every level of the country. The presidency absorbs most of the media oxygen, but voters are also faced with Senate and congressional races, often House and Senate races at the state level, and even county and municipal contests, all demanding attention at the same time. Canadians have one contest between three to five candidates in their riding, surrogates for the national contest. Along with the highway sign clutter and voter confusion is a heightened awareness of the campaign season.

So why are American turnouts typically so low, with all this fuel for the political system pumping interest and attention? Until recently, the difficulty of registering and the weakness of the party systems locally in getting voters to register were a drag on participation. Telephone and even online preregistration systems are increasingly easing access to the system. « Rotten boroughs, » gerrymandered district boundaries and one-party dominance in many states made turning out seem pointless to many voters. In Chicago until recently, the only competitive races at the local level were on Democratic primary day; the general election was a foregone conclusion.

But a deeper reason for voter apathy was probably the sense that it didn’t matter who won in most contests. The war and the never-ending policy failures of the Bush administration, from Katrina to social security, have changed that. In a contest between a Walter Mondale or a Michael Dukakis against a Bob Dole or a George Bush the elder, one could forgive voters for thinking it didn’t matter much which one of the boring old white guys got the prize. Today their choices are more sharply drawn. As Rick Mercer acidly observed about the contrast between Canadian and American voters’ choices this year, Americans have a black guy, a woman, and a war hero; « We get to choose between a pudgy white guy a skinny white guy, and that other guy. »

The contrasts between our skinny and our pudgy candidates are real, and the contrasts between Hillary Clinton and Obama may be more about tone and priority than substance; nonetheless at the level of leadership style and political values, American voters have had a fascinatingly broad spectrum of choice in this election year.

Canadians should probably avoid too much sanctimony about how well our system represents the diversity of this country, versus the United States, based on the astonishing conclusion of this primary season. A woman has never been elected prime minister, and no woman has been elected to provincial power. Worse, the half-dozen women who have achieved opposition success at the provincial level and in the NDP federally have had short political lives, often shot down in a barrage of sexist snickering about their attempts to play a man’s game.

We have had one non-white premier, Ujjal Dosanjh, but he inherited the job and failed to win re-election. We have very few black or Asian parliamentarians at either level, and even fewer who have won election in ridings where their community was not among the largest by ethnicity.

It is hard to overstate the consequence of a serious « multiracial » candidacy by one of the two national parties in the United States. Even two years ago, such a prospect would have been pooh-poohed by most pundits. That Barack Obama has captured much of the traditional establishment of the Democratic Party—as personified by the Kennedy family—in an open contest with the Clintons is even more breathtaking.

As Maureen Dowd of the New York Times sadly observed, this election offers a chance to test whether misogyny or racism remains the strongest prejudice in America today.

Canadian politicians might also reflect on the impact that an inspirational candidacy can have on party standings and voter turnout. Our trio of « the pudgy white guy, the skinny white guy and the other guy » are not going to fill any football stadiums in Canada any time soon. A candidate from out of the mainstream, capable of seizing the imagination of young Canadians, could well do so, and overthrow the verities of our political culture as well. It is not hard to conceive of such an insurgency following a lacklustre Canadian election where Dion is an embarrassment, Harper a disappointment and Layton an irrelevance, in the same year as the American election cycle has galvanized the world.

And it surely has captured the attention of Palestinians, Saudis and Israelis in the Middle East, the Chinese man in the street and African heads of state, in a way no election has since Kennedy. Travelling in some of these countries this year, one is asked everywhere, first, « Is it really possible that Obama could win? » and then, before one can answer, « Do you think they understand how that would transform America’s reputation around the world? »

Another lesson for Canada is the value of a national candidate-vetting process. There is no doubt that the candidates who survive emerge better qualified to govern, with a far deeper understandings of the aspirations of their voters. It is hard to imagine, for example, the Liberal Party making the disastrous leadership choice it did in StĂ©phane Dion if he had been blooded in a national primary contest of some form. It is hard to conceive of how such a process could be grafted onto our parliamentary, indirect election of leaders. It would be worth some academic and political veterans’ reflection.

If one accepts that 2008 is closer to 1968 for Democrats than any other year, there are several sobering lessons ahead. The first is that the party leadership had better not be tempted to let the « superdelegates, » the modern party bosses, choose a candidate who has not won the majority of pledged delegates in primaries and caucuses. Hubert Humphrey had not won a single major primary when he was chosen by the party bosses at that convention. The impact of the resulting riots and the ignominious defeat resonates in the party still.

The party had also better understand the importance of unity, however forced and fragile it may be at the beginning. Again, stay-at-home voters in 1968 and Democratic Party activists gave Richard Nixon not one but two presidential victories, probably prolonging that generation’s unpopular war by several years.

The Democratic Party and the nation should pray that their exploding gun culture, and its appeal to the angry and the unbalanced, does not once again deprive America of the political hope of a generation. That bloody year deprived black and white Americans of two of the most important leaders in a generation and erased for a lifetime the political engagement of millions of Americans. Finally, Obama should be aware of the terrible power of voters whose expectations of real change have been dramatically pumped by his candidacy—if he disappoints. Canadians were seized by such a transformational candidate in that same summer of 1968, and came within hundreds of votes of ending that superstar’s political career only four frustrating years later.

Robin V. Sears
Robin V. Sears is a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group and was an NDP strategist for 20 years.

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