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Krieg Barrie/WORLD

Hurry up and wait

Campaign 2008 | That's the story of the presidential campaign: two frenetic months from Iowa in January to Texas, Ohio, and others in March. Now a long pause until the Pennsylvania primary April 22. What is campaign '08 revealing about American culture?

Issue: "The waiting game," March 22, 2008

In the eye of the electoral hurricane, Democrats are dividing into math vs. momentum determinists: "Barack Obama has a majority of elected delegates." "Hillary Clinton has momentum and will win the super delegates." "Wyoming and Mississippi results gave the momentum back to Obama." "Did not." "Did so."

Putative GOP nominee John McCain also has to wait, but he can seize the spring to improve relations with conservative evangelicals and movement pros before swinging to the center in a general campaign. Like the two Democratic front-runners, he so far has run a personality-driven campaign, with no concept such as 2000's "compassionate conservatism" coming to the fore.

That sloganeering vacuum means that GOP gurus now have the opportunity to stand back and ask some basic questions: What, if anything, is the 2008 campaign revealing about American culture? Great political movements always have cultural and philosophical roots that go deeper than month-to-month politics: What are the beliefs and ideals that move Americans in 2008?

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Let's try four Rs: restless, religious, reality-based, rambunctious. Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s classic Democracy in America wrote that Americans tend to be restless and religious, and in the 21st century that is still the case. Some Americans are chanting political mantras this year, but past elections suggest that most at some point will come to reality-based conclusions. Many journalists similarly fall into propaganda, but increased media diversity in recent years means that they can and will be shamed into rambunctious reporting.

Restless

De Tocqueville wrote, "In the United States, a man will carefully construct a home in which to spend his old age and sell it before the roof is on. . . . He will settle in one place only to go off elsewhere. . . . If his private business gives him some time for leisure he will immediately plunge into the whirlwind of politics."

Many presidential candidates have been rooted. We think of George Washington from Virginia and John Adams from Massachusetts. Even in 2004 the race was between New Englander John Kerry and George W. Bush, a proud Texan who talks like one and emphasizes his years in Midland public schools rather than his Ivy League higher education.

This year, though, restlessness has started at the top. John McCain is from everywhere and nowhere: Born in the Canal Zone, he moved frequently with his military family and during his own military career. As analyst Michael Barone notes, McCain when elected to Congress to represent Arizona had spent far more time in a Hanoi prison than in his new home state.

Obama and Clinton have Illinois in common, but Clinton headed east as soon as she could and had a marriage-required sojourn in Arkansas. Hawaii, California, and the state of Harvard all have claims to Obama's consciousness. But the unrootedness is far more than geographic, especially in Obama's case where such transcendence is a campaign centerpiece: He says "the choice in this election is not between regions or religions or genders. It's not about rich versus poor; young versus old; and it is not about black versus white. It's about the past versus the future."

This strikes a powerful chord in America, where many among the young want to be adults before they're ready to be, many among the old want to be young, and most of us don't know much about history. Obama transcends racial divisions, Clinton breaks the glass ceiling for women. McCain's restlessness frustrates traditional conservatives. All three of the biographies tap into what Christian witness brings out: "neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Apart from Christ we're not really changed, but we want to be: e pluribus unum.

And the restlessness is deeper than that. Obama is the leading crier for "change"-he used the word 33 times in a speech last month after winning the Wisconsin primary-but all three candidates have turned the six-letter word into an applause line. That's strange: Why, when America is the most affluent society in history, is "change" a plus-especially since one possible change in the next decade is a U.S. city destroyed by a terrorist's nuclear weapon?

Beatles and Christians can answer that question by noting that money can't buy you love. The "change" mantra taps into a sense of alienation, a recognition that we are wanderers. It suggests that politics, if we choose the right change agent, can do what only God can do.

Religious

All the candidates this year have spoken of their religious beliefs, yet as de Tocqueville described Americans in the 1830s, "It is often hard to know from listening to them whether the main intention of religion is to obtain everlasting joy in the next world or prosperity in this." Or votes.

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