Some thoughts on the campaign in advance of the last day of voting tomorrow...
Timing matters and, as any sports coach will tell you, it can't be taught. You have it or, alas, you don't. The same might be said for good fortune. That's to say, success in political campaigns rarely has a monocausal explanation. Hindsight permits one to assemble the jigsaw and see how it all made sense, but that's a far cry from presuming that it was inevitable that this kind of puzzle could only be put together this way.
Nonetheless, the genius of the Obama campaign - and, I assume, the candidate himself - was recognising that a confluence of events over which he had no control himself had created conditions for a presidential run that were unlikely to reoccur in such favourable circumstances as in 2008.
Political campaigns happen in particular places at particular times. That is, the factors that helped Obama win in 2008 did not exist in 2000 (even if he had been a Senator at the time) and may not do so in 2012 or 2016. This was his moment. Who was he running to succeed and who was he running to beat? Both matter.
The impact of George W Bush's problematic Presidency - war, natural disaster, financial crisis - was felt in both parties. On the GOP side of the aisle it poisoned the Republican party's brand; on the Democratic side of affairs, it persuaded liberals that desperate times required desperate measures. The case for "change" rested in large part upon the previous administration's inadequacies. But the scale of those setbacks also permitted voters to ask what "change" really meant and, having done that, consider which candidate seemed most likely to deliver a fresh start for the United States.
In one sense that was Hillary Clinton. A female Commander-in-Chief would clearly represent something new and fresh in American political history. And putting a Clinton back in the White House would be one way of wiping the Bush years from the country's collective memory, making them appear an awkward and unwelcome inter-ruption to a dozen - and maybe 16! - years of Clintonian prosperity. Let the good times roll again.
Except they weren't all good times. And Hillary's surname would, in the end, be a problem not the solution. Could a Clinton really offer real change? Only possibly. And wouldn't electing Hillary reopen wounds best left to mend in peace? In the end and in a sense, wouldn't choosing Hillary be a backward looking notion for a country that likes to think its natural gaze looks to the horizon?
Of course, this theory depended upon there being an alternative to Hillary who could trump the card she used to win the "change" trick. John Edwards? A failed retread and, in any case a white man likely to be defeated by Hillary's army of women marching-towards-history. Edwards could not but be vulnerable to the gender-card. Not his fault; nor Hillary's for playing it. That's the nature of these elections.
And then Obama entered the race. Suddenly, the calculations were rather different. Electing a white woman might normally be considered quite daring. But it seemed, well, rather vanilla when compared to the excitement suggested by the idea of an African-American president. Hillary no longer had control of the Change narrative. Her glass-ceiling was good, but not quite high or tough enough.
Freshness helped too. Obama's not been around long enough for everyone to have become bored by him. Or, to put it another way, a culture that craves new sensations - and new stars - in almost every other sphere is also unlikely to suppose that decades of experience in public life constitute the best preparation for the Presidency. For some voters anyway, Obama's novelty has been a bonus, not a blemish. At least, neither Clinton nor McCain has made hay with his lack of years in the national spotlight. But even if they had, it would have been a simple matter for Obama to remind the electorate that this election concerned the future, not the past.
So Hillary retreated to the bunker marked Policy. Ordinarily this too might have been a sensible move and perhaps it was, this time, also necessary. But of course this time, the most important policy issue for Democratic primary voters was the War in Iraq. And by late 2006, Hillary found herself on the wrong side of that argument. More crucially, Obama was in synch with the mood of the electorate. As far as primary voters were concerned (in the beginning and, of course in the end too), Hillary's greater experience (itself a slippery proposition) was counterfeited by her misjudging the greatest policy issue of the day.
Consequently the argument shifted to "Who can beat the Republicans?" Here again, Obama benefited from the Bushian shambles. Had the stars been less obviously aligned in the Democrats' favour, some voters might have been less prepared to take a chance on the young, black guy. The pot odds made the gamble worthwhile.
As did the match-up. It is far from clear that the GOP has any grounds for regretting their eventual, if reluctant, decision to select John McCain. It is possible, perhaps, that Mitt Romney might have handled the financial crisis more effectively, but finding a Romney path to victory remains a tricky business even if he might just have managed to be the policy reformer the GOP needed. Someone to play Sarkozy to Bush's Chirac or Major to Thatcher.
The problem with McCain, however, was that his story, like Hillary's, was trumped by the possibilities suggested by Obama's. Again, novelty matters. The political class had walked the McCain course before. However unfairly, there was a reluctance on the part of the media to treat his 2008 campaign as though it were 2000 all over again. And of course for the media, McCain was a more compelling character as a scrappy, running-against-his-party outsider in 2000 than he was in what was perceived to be his 2008 hug-the-base incarnation. Now, however, he was yesterday's news.
And, alas, McCain was running on his character and biography as much as his opponent. The McCain campaign never managed to settle on its core message. Were Americans voting for a war hero, a wise and experienced leader, a reformer with a record or an unpredictable maverick? It was never quite clear. Or rather, at different moments any one of these might be the message of the day and never mind that they were not necessarily complementary messages.
If all Obama had to offer was a nice story then logic demanded that McCain's own biography be considered equally irrelevant. If wisdom and judgment were the idea of the day, then a way had to be found of squaring McCain being "right" on the surge in Iraq with his having been, in most voters' minds, "wrong" in 2002 and 2003. And wasn't the "wisdom and experience" strategy undermined by the "maverick" line of argument? Mavericks, by definition, are unpredictable and hot-headed.
We should remember that McCain's choice of Sarah Palin, reckless and ill-vetted though it was, did not come out of thin air. It came because the campaign was failing. Palin was the long-shot gamble that might, with luck, change the game. For a few days it looked as though it would work. Alas, then the interviews began and McCain's judgement - the stuff his life of service was supposed to have given him - was fatally compromised.
The Palin pick was the result, however, of Obama's success. And again Obama's relatively skinny record helped him. He was, if not quite a blank canvass then a candidate onto whom voters of all colours and persuasions could project their own ideas. Throughout the campaign Obama's coolness, his steadyness, his calm created an air about the candidate that seemed to say to voters "Make of him what you will". In one sense, rather remarkably, Obama has been in the spotlight for two years and we still don't n ecessarily really know as much about him as we might expect to in these circumstances.
Hence, the feverish ravings of some on the right. They looked at Obama and saw a radical. A Chicago hustler who palled around with Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright. A Marxist even and, obviously, a terrorist-coddler.
But most people didn't see Obama this way. Some, for sure, have swooned thinking the candidate rather too super-impressive. But rather more people have seen Obama as, yes, a law professor from one of the finest schools in the country. He doesn't look like a radical. He doesn't, I think, walk like a radical. And he sure as hell doesn't talk like a radical.
Remember too that there was a time when folk wondered if Obama could really enthuse the black vote. Back then, Hillary Clinton was winning 30 to 40% of the African-American vote and the question was "Is Obama black enough?" That's to say, it was only when black people started voting for him that it became obvious he was a black nationalist. Fishy stuff.
Still, let's not pretend that Obama's ability to be all things to all men (a quality that is, if not vital, certainly extremely useful) is not helped by the particulars of his story. It isn't merely that he doesn't speak in anger or from grievance, or that he's not from the ghetto - though these factors certainly help him.
No, he's not a Jesse Jackson figure. Then again, this is also 2008 not 1988 and America is a very different place these days. In retrospect, the Jeremiah Wright episode - and the manner in which Obama dealt with the controversy - was a turning point. Sure, Obama attended his church but that hardly means he agrees with everything his pastor says: there must be millions of church-going Americans who find themselves at odds with their preacher from time to time. The significant element, however, was the contrast between two views of race in America: on the one hand you had Wright preaching the old time religion; on the other you had the candidate offering a different, mellower, more inclusive and respectful view.
Obviously, Obama's own life story played a large part in this, but, in retrospect, Wright did Obama a back-handed favour by demonstrating the differences between the two men and their views of America. How could Obama say "god damn America" when America had given his Kenyan father a chance? It didn't add up. And voters could see that. Obama's speech in Philadelphia - the most remarkable of the campaign - was a turning point. A turning point that reinforced the central message of his campaign: it is time to look to the future, time to recognise that politics must change to keep pace with a changing America.
No wonder the "decent" centre has been able to endorse Obama. It isn't merely that folk can feel good about themselves if they vote for Obama (though that's a part) it's that his presence as a candidate gives voters something they crave again: a reason to believe in the United States and that, whatever our policy differences, a bigger, better kind of politics lies ahead.
It's easy to forget that one of the things voters found attractive about George W Bush was the calm he was supposed to bring after the turmoil and hurly-burly of the Clinton years. That desire burns even more strongly after eight years of the Bush administration. Thoughtfulness and a measured approach are back in vogue. And what better way to draw a line beneath the past eight years than by endorsing a candidate who not only has these qualities but also, in physical, flesh-and-blood terms, offers a means by which to turn the page?
Still, I've been struck by how many people still presume that the United States won't vote for a black President. Everybody knows, as a friend put it to me recently, that America is an "irredeemably racist country." Well! I don't believe that, actually. Yes, it remains too difficult for minority candidates to win statewide offices, but change is afoot. It's 40 years since Martin Luther King was assassinated. That's 40 years of racists dying and an entire generation of schoolkids who learn that King was perhaps the greatest American of the 20th century. The Civil Rights movement is the idea in history classes across the country.
America is a much different place these days. And we'll discover tomorrow, I believe, just how much everything has changed. There'll be plenty time enough to disagree with the policies of an Obama administration, but it's worth taking a moment to reflect upon the import and symbolism of this election. Obama's shown that he has a natural sense of timing and, of course, the willingness to exploit every opportunity that comes his way. Now this is his moment. This is his time.