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American Politics


A missed opportunity?

Ideas and the U.S. presidential election of 2008

An introduction by Henry Milner

As I write in mid-October, an Obama victory is expected but still uncertain; you, dear reader, know the result. By focusing on the U.S. presidential election, we risk looking silly, but we could not ignore it. I have to think back to 1968 for an American election that has generated such interest at home and abroad.

Taken together, the articles in this issue provide insights from a distinctly Canadian perspective into the reality framing the U.S. election campaign. Garth Stevenson provides an overview of what constitutes a Canadian perspective on the United States. Bob Chodos and Gregory Baum tackle the religious dimension, and Gareth Morley (in his book review) the judicial. Claude Couture exposes foibles in the way Americans conduct elections, while Frances Boylston writes about how Americans outside the United States get in on them. Columnists Reg Whitaker offer comparisons between the U.S. campaign and the near-simultaneous election taking place in Canada. Contributors to the Inroads listserv dissect the charge of elitism that kept surfacing in the campaign.

From my perspective in Sweden, where I am spending the fall teaching North American politics to European students, I very much looked forward to this election. I expected that, in contrast to four years ago, the campaign would afford some real insight into the policy differences and the ideas underlying them that distinguish American conservatives from liberals. John McCain’s nomination gave out the hope that this time the Republicans would run rather than block a campaign of ideas. New York Times columnist David Brooks, who has followed McCain over the last decade, recounted (August 19):

On Tuesdays, Senate Republicans hold a weekly policy lunch. The party leaders often hand out a Message of the Week that the senators are supposed to repeat at every opportunity … John McCain generally … ridicules the whole proceeding … This sort of behavior has been part of McCain’s long-running rebellion against the stupidity of modern partisanship. In a thousand ways, he has tried to preserve some sense of self-respect in a sea of pandering pomposity.

It was a hopeful sign indeed that a senator who negotiated an immigration bill with Ted Kennedy, an election finance law with Russ Feingold and a compromise over judicial nominations, who sought to rein in Guantánamo and exposed corrupt Pentagon contracts, was able to win the Republican nomination. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton would have made a formidable opponent in a campaign of ideas.

I was initially unsure of Barack Obama. He looked and sounded too good to be true; his resounding call for change seemed too facile. But then came his March 18 Philadelphia speech on race, which – as it did for Jimmy Carter (interviewed on PBS during the Democratic Convention) – brought tears to my eyes. And reading it made me realize that this man had an extraordinary capacity to unswervingly confront the most divisive issues.

I am disinclined to read books written by politicians, but when Obama secured the nomination I picked up The Audacity of Hope. Written when he was emerging on the national political stage, it displays a solid understanding of the major policy areas combined with unusual insight into both the institutional and the human side of American politics. And it is written in remarkably clean and polished prose.

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About the Author

Henry Milner
Henry Milner is co-publisher of Inroads and a political scientist at the Université de Montréal.


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