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Political History Takes New Course in ’08 Election

November 4, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: No matter the specific results, history is being made today. And Margaret Warner is on our history beat tonight.

MARGARET WARNER: And with me for that, our historians team: presidential historians Michael Beschloss and Richard Norton Smith, scholar in residence at George Mason University; and Peniel Joseph, professor of history and African-American studies at Brandeis University.

Well, as Jim just said, as we heard one of the women in Kwame’s Video Your Vote piece say, she said, “We are seeing history.” This is an historic election, is it not, Richard, on many levels?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: Oh, sure. There’s the history you make for the first time and there’s the history that you revisit.

Clearly, in terms of what is unprecedented, the headline about this is, come January, we will have our first African-American president or our first female vice president. That’s the headline. And it’s a pretty impressive headline.

Beyond that headline, however, when you begin to ask what is motivating people, in terms of voting, I think you can look at a number of elections in the past which are basically about the economy. And I think, for the last six weeks, that’s certainly been what has been driving this more than anything else.

It feels a lot like 1980, when there was clearly a desire on the part of most people for something other than the status quo, but the challenger, Ronald Reagan, had to convince a majority of the country that he represented a safe alternative to the status quo.

Economy, race both factors

MARGARET WARNER: So, Peniel, both the fact that we will have a non-white male in the -- heading the executive branch or as number-two and the economic crisis that we're in, both of history-making proportions.

PENIEL JOSEPH, Brandeis University: Certainly. The idea that the United States, 43 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, could actually have a major party nominee be an African-American is extraordinary and unprecedented.

After signing the Voting Rights Act, August 6, 1965, Lyndon Johnson famously said that he was giving away the South, basically, for a generation. And except for a blip in 1976, when Carter won every southern state except for Virginia, that's basically held true in two-person presidential elections.

So the idea that an African-American, as all polls suggest, may become the next president is certainly historic and unprecedented.

MARGARET WARNER: And for women, as well, Michael, we're talking about nearly more than 80 years after women got the right to vote, it took for a woman to be in line -- well, not to discount Geraldine Ferraro in '84.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Once, yes, but it hasn't been enough. You know, I mean, first of all, it shouldn't have taken until 1920 nor should it have taken until the end of the Civil War for African-Americans to get the vote.

Our founders were terrific, but this is a good night to remember, as wonderful as we think they are and admire them for all sorts of reasons, these were people who did not consider African-Americans fully human, considered them mainly slaves, and also never conceived of the idea that women would be an important part of our political culture.

This night is a triumph in those terms, too.

Parallels to the '30s

MARGARET WARNER: Let's go back to the economic parallel. Now, people keep saying that our economic crisis is the worst since the Great Depression. How apt a parallel is the election of 1932, when Franklin Roosevelt was first elected?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, the difference, of course, is that you had this slow-motion train wreck. I mean, you'd had three years in which the American people had been marinated in despair. And, basically, millions of them had given up hopes.

They had lost their homes; they'd lost their jobs. And they were un-American, in the sense that they had lost that most American sense of optimism, that the future is our friend.

So Franklin Roosevelt, who, by the way, as you know, was written off by a lot of journalists and would-be pundits in the '32 campaign as an amiable lightweight, nevertheless won simply because he wasn't Herbert Hoover.

And the fact that he promised an experimental, innovative kind of government to a people who were tired of a government that appeared frozen in indifference, the difference, of course, is now -- to be sure, people all year long have been saying the economy is the number-one issue, but it's only in the last six weeks that there's a sense of panic about the future.

MARGARET WARNER: How apt do you think the 1932 analogy is? Or do you think 1936 is more so?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think '32 will do, because, you know, '32 was, as Richard is saying, as we've suggested, a huge economic problem. But the thing about this year is we're not just at a fork in the road on our economic system. We're at a fork in the road also on national security. That rarely happens.

'32 was a big economic election; 1940, Franklin Roosevelt was running against Wendell Willkie, who was saying, "Don't help the British. Let's stay out of what would become World War II." Now you've got a time when both of these issues are combined in one year.

You know, all of us, I think, as historians tend to think that you can only see something as historic in retrospect, but anyone tonight who's going to say that the next president is not going to have an enormous effect over how this country changes on both of those fronts I think is kidding themselves.

Change is election's theme

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree that this, in terms of looking at it historically, has to be a change election?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, certainly. I see the comparisons with 1932, but I also think 1992, when Bill Clinton was running for president, the famous tag line was, "It's the economy, stupid."

And even though Clinton only polled 43 percent of the electorate, he actually was considered sort of young, untested and unproven, especially in terms of foreign policy. He was governor of Arkansas. He had virtually no foreign policy experience.

This election is unique to the extent that it's a two-person race and it's going to be, if a Democrat wins this election, the first time in really 44 years that the Democrats have had this kind of robust popular vote and the electoral forecast, as well.

MARGARET WARNER: But back to the point you made -- and very briefly -- 1980 is the one time you did also have both tracks going, in other words, when Reagan beat Jimmy Carter.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yes, what happened in 1980 was people -- Americans always believe the future is going to be better than the present. In 1980, there was a disconnect. People questioned that. And that was made-to-order for Ronald Reagan.

MARGARET WARNER: And we also had the hostage crisis at home, which the U.S. looked challenged abroad, as well as at home.

All right. Well, we'll be with you all evening.

Back to you, Jim.