I think the choice becomes two things. The choice becomes, are we ready to turn the mantle, like John F. Kennedy, over to a new generation of leaders? And that's going to basically be composed for the next 10, 15, 20 years. … Or do we want sort of a placeholder that we know, somebody seasoned, will hold the office, but we're not ready to sort of move to full fundamental change in our politics? …
The other thing is, do people perceive John McCain as any real change from President Bush? Or is this just another Republican in the line of President Bush?
Barack Obama they're going to see as change. But is he the right vessel of change? Can they accept a young, African American with limited political experience to be that change candidate? …
There are a couple things happening at the end of the 20th century that lead us into this campaign and they're quite profound. They're not the kind of things that are always happening in American politics.
One is this incredible sense that politics isn't working -- that traditional, binary, two-party politics, led by baby boomer-era politicians, having this same fight they've been having for decades over the same issues and the same language with the same non-result, is not getting the country where it needs to go; that we are facing … transformative challenges that are different than we've had in the decades before; that our economic and our foreign policy challenge is different. People feel the change in their lives … and they understand that Washington isn't coming to terms with it as quickly as we need to.
And so there is this desire to change the template of politics. It's a transitional moment. And both of these guys emerge … McCain and Obama. You can say that McCain went back and made himself palatable to the Republicans, and that's true. You can say that Obama is, in his voting record, a traditional liberal, and that's true.
But both of them in what they convey to voters -- one in a long career, spanning decades; the other in a lightning-flash of a career, spanning what seems like minutes -- both of them convey to voters a sense of breaking with the status quo, a sense of change, a sense that things need to be done differently than they've [been] done before.
And the question I think a lot of voters will have to ask themselves is who's actually going to deliver? It may be, for a lot of voters, less about one ideology versus the other than it is about who actually changes -- the guy who stood in Washington for decades, fought some high-profile battles, is known for having no patience with the status quo, but who's embraced it in a lot of significant ways? Or a guy who has no experience inside that system, who may not know how to game it, but who is legitimately an outsider who has not had a part in any of those decisions? …
Some elections are not about the actual challenges of the country. Some elections are not about the substantive changes, governmental responses. Some are about personality, right? Some are what they call squishy elections. Some are about the proverbial, "Who are you going to have a beer with?"
This is not one of those elections. This has always been an ideas election. This is about a moment in America where people are absolutely terrified, and also very hopeful and very confused. They want someone who can explain to them what's going on in the country and who can begin to adapt government to the challenges that they themselves are facing, but moreover, that they fear, very acutely, for their children.
And I think the choice between these two guys is, to a large extent, a choice between who can make sense of the world and who can deliver a change. I don't think it's a binary ideological choice. It's a choice about who represents actual progress.
I think we never fully know what someone is going to be like as president based on what they have done before. George W. Bush was a uniter, by and large, in Texas. He worked with Democrats. In Washington, he proved to be as polarizing as any president we have had, certainly in decades, if not since the 19th century. …
But I think with John McCain, by and large, we have someone who applies to politics, in his mind, the rules of honor that he learned as the son and grandson of admirals. He is someone who says almost in a George Marshall-esque World War II way, "I will never put party above country." When he says that phrase, he's not of the greatest generation, but it has a resonance of the greatest generation. And he is someone who I think has demonstrated that he is willing to take a lot of incoming from his own side when he sees it either in the national interest or perhaps even in his political interest to do so.
He has a proven record of doing what I think is essential for a president to make progress on our big problems, which is taking the risk of confronting your own coalition and asking for sacrifice from your own coalition as the price of obtaining the leverage to ask for sacrifice from the other coalition. …
The big question I think with McCain is whether that John McCain is the John McCain you will get as president. There is no doubt that in the run-up to this election he has tried to make himself more acceptable to the Republican base and the Republican mainstream, and that has limited, I think, to some extent, his options as president in ways that were not there in 2000. … I do think you would see more effort to reach out beyond the party base, by far, than we've seen under Bush. I think that is part of his DNA. …
I do think we have someone in Obama who has enormous confidence in his ability to reframe issues and his ability to mobilize the country and in many ways that would have an outside-in strategy as president.
McCain is much more reasonable [about] people getting together and reaching a reasonable compromise, which is certainly something you're going to have to do at the end of the day. … But there isn't that element of kind of transforming the way the public sees the issue or mobilizing the public in some mass way.
Whereas with Obama, his vision of leadership, I think, is different. It's much more interactive and involves much more kind of working with the public to change the dynamic in Washington. And I think all of that is intriguing, but at the end of the day, if you're not going to have an intensely divided country, ultimately you have to make some concessions to the other side in ways that your own side may not like. And we don't know yet, I think, how much Obama is willing to do that.
It is easy to get swept up in the tide of yearning for change, for hope, for the gauzy abstractions that Barack has largely been selling. Most people feel in their hearts some of these same elemental desires that he's appealing to. …
Particularly having seen it from the inside, I know that the decisions about who to appoint in your administration, and what policy priorities to advance domestically and abroad have enormous consequences for the country. And so I try as best I can, notwithstanding my personal association and I like to think friendship with Barack, to keep this in my mind as a choice between two sets of policies and two sets of governing tribes that will approach the country's problems very differently.
I have no doubt that Barack has a number of the personal characteristics that are most important to having a successful presidency -- some of those communication skills, some of that ability to recognize and reward talent in others, the ability to set priorities, the ability to listen to good advice, even when it differs from your own personal proclivities. Those are all extremely important to a successful presidency. I think Barack has them.
The big question mark, in my mind, is whether they will be harnessed to a substantive policy agenda for the country that will be healthy or deeply harmful. And that's where I'm far from convinced.
The moderation and pragmatism that I perceived at the time we were law students together have not been in evidence in substance in his career in public life. They're still very much in evidence rhetorically. But, whether that rhetorical moderation, that rhetorical bipartisanship actually translates into a real moderation and real bipartisanship from a policy perspective and how he governs, that's the big unknown in my mind.
And so for me I think the choice between McCain and Obama is primarily a choice between two sets of policy agendas, domestically and abroad. Two different approaches to the world. And we really can't allow ourselves to focus on anything other than what these two candidates say about what they believe, and what they want to do. That's got to be currently the best and most reliable guide to what they will do.
Everything I know as a historian and as a participant for 50 years … in this process of self-government, says to me that there are two large, fundamental movements in American life.
There's a movement that believes in more litigation, more regulation, higher taxes, distribution as a way of solving economic problems. And there's a movement which believes that freeing up entrepreneurs and freeing up innovation and freeing up and incentivizing the process of economic change, and holding bureaucratic institutions accountable for their incompetence, is the way to create more wealth and the way to create a better future.
These are fundamentally diametrically opposed systems. Because this is a center-right country by probably 70-to-25, the Democrats will do everything they can to avoid that being obvious, and because the Republicans have been technically fairly incompetent, it's fairly unlikely that they will make the case very well, which is why they can take a 70-to-25 split and manage to lose.
And it's important to remember that Reagan was an FDR Democrat -- voted four times for FDR. He voted for Harry Truman, campaigned for Harry Truman, campaigned for Hubert Humphrey. And Reagan brought a clear communication style and a moral confidence as the natural leader of the American people that the Republican Party really had not had since Theodore Roosevelt.
If McCain finds a way -- and I think he'd have to be more Harry Truman and not Ronald Reagan -- but if he finds a way to make vividly clear what the choice of the two systems is, and … if he can make clear how big the difference is, I suspect McCain will win a surprising election. If it does not become clear what the difference is, and this ends up being a personality election, I suspect that Obama will win.
Newton Minow Senior counsel, Sidley Austin LLP; Obama mentor
I think the system, which in many ways is a terrible system, the primary system, caucuses, managed somehow to produce the best candidates of both party.
And what is the choice?
I think the choice is whether we're going to get out of Iraq; whether we're going to reform our health care system so everybody has health care; whether we're going to change our tax system so that the small people get a break; whether we're going to adapt a real energy policy that will free us of our current sending billions and billions of dollars every week to the states of where people don't like us; or whether we're going to continue the same. That to me is what the choice is.
It's interesting because the sort of leavening influence on voters when they go into the voters' booth has always been: "My God, I'm picking somebody who's going to have to deal with the problem that could destroy everything. And I can't predict what that problem is going to be. So who do I choose?" We had one free choice, and that was really 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Empire there was this period when people figured, "What do I care? I mean, what can he do?"
But now, I think that American people are again convinced that we live in a dangerous world, maybe a different world, maybe a world that's dangerous in very different ways, but they're going to go in there and say: "This guy Obama, can he really deliver on that? Can he handle that?" That's the question he has to answer.
In many ways, this race is similar to 1980. … Although Reagan won it in a blowout, Carter was ahead most of the time. You had an electorate who desperately wanted to get rid of the Democrats, desperately wanted to get rid of Carter. Didn't know if they could turn it over to Reagan. They didn't know if they could vote for him. They liked what he said, but there were all these charges about him.
And then … I think the second week in October it was as if everybody looked at each other and said, "We can do that." And the race changed by 15 or 20 points within a week because Reagan had convinced them that they could do that.
Obama's challenge is to convince voters they can do it with him. And if he does that, he wins by more than a point or two. If he doesn't do that, he loses by a point or two, or, if people are convinced that he is not the guy they need in a dangerous world, it's possible that McCain wins by a significant margin.
While many of the pundits say, "This campaign is about Obama," and to a large extent it is, it is fundamentally a campaign that is a judgment about the Republican Party. This is about what has happened to the Republican Party over a period of two generations, leading up to and through the Bush presidency.
And the campaign takes place among the ruins of that party. These are the consequences that define the real conditions in which the politics occurs. Bush has radicalized the Republican Party. Over a long period of time since Richard Nixon became president, 40 years ago in 1968, the Republican Party has undergone a series of convulsive, radical moments, each more radical than the next. …
Bush is now the least popular president in recorded memory. His politics are widely rejected by the public. And the Republican Party now has the least identification among the public than it has had in more than a generation. These are the circumstances that are fundamental to this campaign.