Determining when the 2008 presidential race actually began is an inexact science, but a strong case can be made for the early summer of 2004. John Kerry and George W. Bush were locked in a tight battle in that year’s election, but several developments back then set in place some of the fundamental dynamics that have defined the campaign that now, nearly four and a half years later, is finally coming to an end.
The first was Kerry’s effort to entice John McCain to run with him on the Democratic ticket. Today, it seems ludicrous that Kerry would have considered this, that McCain might have been interested, and that the Democratic Party would have gone along with it. But not in June 2004, when McCain was still every Democrat’s favorite Republican – the fearless reformer who’d courageously battled Bush and the religious right in the 2000 G.O.P. primaries – and when he and Kerry, fellow Vietnam veterans who’d vouched for one another through the years, were still personally and professionally close.
Kerry’s effort was made in good faith. McCain had been a thorn in Bush’s side throughout his first term, voting against the president’s tax cut package, making common cause with Democrats on environmental issues, and criticizing the administration’s prosecution of the Iraq war. He had also flirted with abandoning the G.O.P. in the Senate in Bush’s first year. Nearing his 68th birthday, McCain had a choice: Swear off his G.O.P. ties for good and take a shot at claiming the vice-presidency on Kerry’s ticket, or reaffirm his partisan loyalties in an effort to position himself for one more run at the presidency – as a Republican in 2008.
After the letting the V.P. chatter linger for a few weeks, he opted for the latter course, forcefully – and abruptly – distancing himself from Kerry and proclaiming himself a devout supporter of Bush’s re-election. And with that, the McCain of 2000 ceased to exist. In his place emerged the 2008 McCain, the man who threw himself into Bush’s reelection campaign, firing up the Republican convention with a red meat address, hitting the stump with the president, and only in the faintest terms condemning the Swift Boat attacks that questioned Kerry’s honor. Once Bush had won, McCain moved to make peace with the very forces that had undermined him in 2000. Old Bush hands were signed up. Jerry Falwell’s ring was kissed. The teaching of intelligent design was endorsed.
Just after his pursuit of McCain had failed, Kerry and his convention planners made another fateful decision in the summer of 2004: to offer the keynote speaking slot to their party’s U.S. Senate nominee in Illinois, a promising state senator who’d lucked his way into the nomination after the campaign of Blair Hull, a self-funding multimillionaire, imploded in scandal. Barack Obama jumped at the opportunity, and his speech on Tuesday, July 27, which wasn’t even covered by the major broadcast networks, was treated as a revelation by the media and general public alike: Here was a charismatic and optimistic young leader with a biracial background and a unifying, post-partisan message.
In 1984, the keynote vehicle had served as Mario Cuomo’s springboard to national fame. On the strength of that mesmerizing address alone, he emerged as the front-runner for the Democratic nominations in both 1988 and 1992 – but he never chose to enter either race. After Obama’s speech in 2004, it seemed a foregone conclusion that a similar opportunity would one day await him – just not, everyone assumed, in 2008. That would be too soon.
There were other developments in the summer of ’04 that set the stage for ’08.
John Edwards, the second-place finisher to Kerry in the Democratic primaries, had months earlier set his sights on the No. 2 slot on the ticket. After Kerry had emerged from Iowa and New Hampshire as the near-certain nominee, Edwards had pointedly refrained from attacks, not wanting to burn any bridges. The logic seemed obvious: Win or lose, a stint on the national ticket in ’04 would strengthen Edwards’ positioning for 2008 or 2012.
Edwards, of course, got his wish, but the experience wasn’t what he’d been banking on. He and Kerry lacked chemistry, his performance in his debate with Dick Cheney was widely criticized for being too deferential, and he emerged from the losing effort angry with the way the campaign had tried to package him – and with himself for going along with it. Edwards’ interest in running for president hadn’t waned, but the frustration of his V.P. candidacy produced a new candidate: In ’08, he’d run as a fire-breathing populist.
On the Republican side, Mitt Romney also found himself at a crossroads in the summer of ’04. He’d claimed the governorship of Massachusetts in 2002 by running (as he had in his failed 1994 Senate bid) as a pragmatic leader with liberal social values, the kind of thoughtful watch-dog that the commonwealth’s voters liked to send to Beacon Hill to keep an eye on the legislature’s overwhelming Democratic majorities. Romney had endorsed gay rights and abortion rights in his campaigns and had distanced himself, time and again, from the conservative wing of the national G.O.P.
This was a terrific formula for Massachusetts, but not for securing the Republican presidential nomination. In his first year as governor, Romney had created a bipartisan administration and pursued a reform agenda. But when his state’s Supreme Court unexpectedly legalized gay marriage in March ’04, it was choosing time for Romney: Assume a moderate voice on the issue and position himself for re-election in 2006, or rebel against the verdict to curry favor with the ’08 national Republican electorate?
The call seemed easy. Romney blasted the decision and embarked on a nationwide speaking tour on behalf of Bush’s re-election. At stop after stop, he entertained the conservative crowds by catering to their image of Massachusetts as a haven for reckless hedonism. When the election was over, Romney had made inroads with the right – while his popularity plummeted at home. A full-scale shift to the right, highlighted by a conversion on abortion, was undertaken. There would be no re-election campaign in Massachusetts; Romney was running for president, and he’d be doing it from the right.
Of course, there wouldn’t have been a Democratic race in 2008 had Kerry not fallen short against Bush. But once he conceded defeat on the morning of November 3, the more formal campaign for the ’08 nomination began.
The early and overwhelming favorite, of course, was Hillary Clinton, who’d begun positioning herself for a national campaign after winning her Senate seat in 2000. The question was which Democrat would emerge as her main rival, and in the first 18 months after the ’04 election, a pecking order seemed to emerge.
Edwards, by reinventing himself as a populist truth-teller, found a devoted following among the party’s activist base, the voters who were repelled by Clinton’s support of the Iraq war, the caution that marked her policy pronouncements, and the big-money world in which she and her husband existed. Edwards publicly recanted his vote for the war as a senator and, having left the Senate at the end of ’04, began loudly decrying the (supposed) unwillingness of Democrats in Congress to forcefully confront President Bush. In 2005 and the first half of 2006, Edwards began to inherit the Howard Dean wing of the party, and his numbers – particularly in the lead-off caucus state of Iowa – began to rise.
Then there was Mark Warner, whose single term as Virginia’s governor expired at the end of 2005. A wealthy businessman and authentic moderate, Warner had won election by appealing to his state’s Republican-leaning rural voters. His inclusive and cooperative governing style had been a hit; even after raising taxes, his approval rating stood near 80 percent. With few elections on the docket, national Democrats took notice in the fall of 2005 when Warner’s popularity propelled his lieutenant governor, Tim Kaine, to victory in the race to succeed him. Warner immediately moved to position himself for ’08, launching a P.A.C. and hitting the national speaking circuit.
By the summer of 2006, he had become a top-tier prospect. His P.A.C. was raking in big money, the national media was heavily promoting him, and there seemed to be a clear opening: With Edwards chipping away at Clinton from the left, Warner would run as the Southern moderate that Bill Clinton had been in 1992.
As summer turned to falls, those were the three Democratic front-runners. And the new primary calendar unveiled by the Democratic National Committee that summer actually seemed to favor Edwards. Iowa, his strongest state (and probably Clinton’s weakest) would go first; then would come New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Of those latter three states, only New Hampshire seemed fertile ground for Clinton. What would happen, some wondered, if Edwards beat the “inevitable” Clinton in three of the first four contests?
The wild card in all of this, to the extent there was one, was Al Gore. His entry, it was assumed, would almost instantly eviscerate Edwards, who would lose much of the activist base he had been relying on.
And that’s around the point that Obama, who’d intentionally settled for a lower profile in his first year in the Senate in 2005, decided to amuse himself by accepting a few of the many national speaking opportunities he’d been offered. It quickly became obvious that no one had forgotten his convention speech. Throngs of 5,000 and 10,000 showed up to watch him campaign for Democratic candidates in the fall of ’06 – dwarfing the much smaller crowds that turned out for the other ’08 prospects, Clinton included.
Initially, Obama had bought into the conventional wisdom that he’d make a good presidential candidate – in 2012 or 2016. But the energy he encountered changed his thinking. By October, it was clear he was preparing to run. Warner, sensing that the math of the race was about to change, abruptly quit. Gore, who certainly seemed interested in the idea of running, was checked – Obama would attract the enthusiasm void that he’d been banking on.
Only because he’d been given the keynote slot at the 2004 convention, Obama was in position to shake up the 2008 race. And once he decided to enter at the end of 2006, it became a two-person race between him and Clinton, with Edwards a distant third, struggling from that point forward to convince the press and the public that he was as viable as the two front-runners. The rest is history.
If there was a Republican favorite after the ’04 election, it was McCain, but with an asterisk. He had alienated his party’s base and the conservative interest group establishment for much of the previous decade; he needed to make peace. But it could be done. George H.W. Bush campaigned for the 1980 G.O.P. nomination as a pro-choice moderate opposed to Ronald Reagan’s “voodoo economics.” In 1988, Bush won the nomination as the pro-life heir to the Reagan legacy. The G.O.P. likes to nominate whoever is next in line, and 2008 was McCain’s turn.
For all of 2005 and most of 2006, his chief threat was supposed to be George Allen, the first-term Virginia senator who seemed poised to run a carbon copy of the Bush 2000 primary campaign. Relying on his charm, southern accent, and an anti-intellectual attitude, Allen would tell the party’s base that he was one of them – and remind them of all of McCain’s apostasies. It was a logical blueprint and Allen seemed the logical candidate to execute it.
And then he stuck his foot in his mouth and found himself swimming against a national Democratic tide and lost his 2006 re-election bid to Jim Webb. The Allen ’08 boomlet had ended two years early.
But the opening that Allen had spotted still existed. McCain had worked hard to win over the right, and had scored some early successes. Trent Lott, an ardent McCain foe in ’00, for instance, became an early ’08 convert. But McCain still lacked an instinctive understanding of the modern conservative base of the Republican Party. Otherwise he would have known better than to pursue, with the help of Ted Kennedy, a comprehensive immigration reform effort aimed at legalizing the 12 million or so undocumented workers already in the country.
In 2005 and 2006, anger on the right toward this “amnesty” plan mounted, while McCain stood his ground. Allen may have been out of the race, but suddenly there was a clear opening to mobilize McCain’s old conservative tormenters against him all over again.
And into Allen’s place gleefully stepped Romney. By 2005, he’d essentially stopped trying to govern Massachusetts, staying away from the state for days at a time and issuing only a few symbolic vetoes and executive orders aimed at catching the eye of national conservatives. Romney had once embraced McCain (when McCain, then still popular with Democrats, helped him win the ’02 gubernatorial race) and even his immigration plan for that matter, but by the fall of 2006 he missed no opportunity to plant himself to the Arizonan’s right on any issue that popped up. To national Republicans getting a glimpse of him for the first time, Romney seemed heaven-sent: A youthful, passionate, telegenic articulator of everything they believed – and what a family he had, too!
The reality of Romney, though, was much different. Virtually every pronouncement he made on the national stage, it seemed, contradicted some pronouncement or action from his Massachusetts days. He railed against abortion to audiences in Iowa, for instance, even though he had once told Massachusetts voters about how a family member’s death from a back-alley abortion had convinced him that such a choice should never be made by any government.
And so the stage was set by the end of 2006 for the Republican race. McCain would try to ride out the immigration storm (and Iraq, too), hoping that the issue would subside and that Republicans would ultimately see through Romney, while Romney was betting that irritation with McCain would prompt Republicans to buy into his own magnetism – and to disregard his Massachusetts paper trail. As with the Democratic primary race, the rest is history.