For all the talk of change, the candidates and campaigns of this election are similar to elections throughout the years, said Peter Kastor, Ph.D., history and American culture studies professor.
“These are unprecedented candidates in an unusual election year, but what’s striking is how these candidates are positioning themselves and describing themselves in ways very similar to previous presidential candidates, and in ways that are very typical of their parties,” Kastor said.
“Barack Obama is trying to be what the Democrats have been seeking for the last half century; essentially Adlai Stevenson with charisma. In some ways, McCain is speaking in the same way Eisenhower did,” he said.
Kastor said the 2008 election is a lot like the 1952 election. “Not so much in the issues facing the country day in and day out, but rather in the way these two candidates have described themselves and in the way they tell their stories,” he said.
Kastor likewise said that even the office of the vice president is likely to revert back to the institutional role it played in the 1970s and ’80s. The vice presidency may shift away from the “chief operating officer”-style role that Al Gore and Dick Cheney have exemplified.
“Going into this election, both of the vice presidential nominees are assuming roles that are very traditional,” Kastor said. “This is particularly important because right now people are focusing on how different the candidates seem.
“It’s difficult to imagine either of the two current vice-presidential nominees taking on the office as shaped by Gore and Cheney. I’m not saying that it may not be within their personalities or that it may exceed their talents, but rather that the institution of the vice presidency is unlikely to have as much power in the new administration as it does now, no matter who gets elected,” he said.
Political and institutional factors account for this change, Kastor said. Gore and Cheney brought unprecedented power to the office of vice president but the criticism heaped on Cheney’s expansive vision of the office could make it impossible for his successor to wield the same power.
So, too, does the issue of experience, which has played such an important role in this election. Joe Biden cannot become too prominent in the policymaking process, Kastor said, for fear that it could validate claims that Barack Obama is unprepared to be president. Meanwhile, Sarah Palin’s limited experience in federal governance makes it unlikely that others would accept any effort to become an active vice president.
Americans also fear that a charismatic president might be more style than substance.
“Americans still remain ambivalent about the charismatic power of a president,” Kastor said. “These fears are as old as the Republic. People worried about it with George Washington. Now, most obviously, we see this in the criticism of Barack Obama. The Republicans are playing off this, claiming not only that Obama is charismatic and that his charisma shouldn’t matter to Americans, but rather claiming the very fact that he is charismatic is a danger.”
Kastor emphasizes that the criticism of charisma crosses party lines.
“Obama’s nomination is a real reversal for the Democrats,” he said. “For years the party has nominated a series of relatively uncharismatic candidates; people who really struggled to get Americans motivated.”
Like Republicans in this election, Kastor said that Democrats also have claimed that a president who is too charismatic could easily mislead the American public.
Geography is playing its traditional role in this election as well.
“This is a very unusual election in a lot of ways but also it’s a very familiar election because it is pitting East against West, Rust Belt against Sun Belt,” Kastor said.
“The fact that we have a Democratic nominee from Chicago and a Republican nominee from Arizona is very telling. As in previous elections, the Democrats are placing their future in what people talk about in the Rust Belt, in the East and in the old industrial cities in old industrial states. Likewise, the Republicans are hinging their future on the West and on the Southwest.”
Still, there is one big difference in this election: experience — or lack of it.
“The one way in which this election seems most unlike recent presidential elections is that there is no experienced governor or vice president who is vying for office,” Kastor said. He said this important change has been overshadowed by the profound and more obvious ways this election has defied the normal rules of race and gender.
“In a lot of previous elections, leading candidates have often been governors who have come into the election cycle early on and have emphasized their deep experience with the daily realities of running large state governments,” Kastor said. “Even though Sarah Palin is a governor, she is a governor of a geographically large state with a small population, and she’s been governor for a very brief period of time.
“Think about this in contrast to candidates like Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, all of whom said they had run large complex state governments.
“None of the 2008 nominees can claim that experience, and all of the candidates are trying to point the finger at their adversaries to say, ‘That person is even less experienced,'” Kastor said.