No one expected the vote to be so close. After Sarah Palin’s acceptance speech in St. Paul, the Republicans were certain they had found a rock star to compete with Barack Obama. They could ride the crest of Palinmania all the way to the Oval Office. All they had to do was keep the hockey mom out of the public eye—or, rather, the public ear. Her impromptu remarks on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—“They’ve gotten too big and cost the taxpayers too much”—the day before the federal government nationalized the private mortgage insurers had been embarrassing. John McCain could do the talking; Sarah Palin would do the looking—from a distance, hand cupped over her ear.
The Democrats took the Palin nomination seriously. They knew the value of a symbolic gesture; a first-term senator from Illinois would not have received their party’s nomination otherwise. While Republicans were crowing over post-convention polls that showed a 20-point shift in the support of white women from Obama-Biden to McCain-Palin, the Democrats were working hard to turn back the tide.
Their first attempt—running ads in such battleground states as Ohio and Wisconsin, claiming that John McCain would make abortion illegal—fell flat. They had not fully grasped the change in demographics. White women—the group most likely to vote—may not want to overturn Roe v. Wade, but they are less likely today to make their decisions about a candidate based entirely on that candidate’s support for abortion rights.
The radical feminism of Betty Friedan is dead, except in the upper echelons of the Democratic Party. Today, all the feminists have pretty faces, and some, like Sarah Palin, are even Feminists for Life.
Barack Obama caught on quickly, and the abortion ads disappeared. Taking a cue from his running mate, he backtracked on his answer (“It’s above my pay grade”) to the question asked by megachurch pastor Rick Warren (“When is a baby entitled to human rights?”) Obama reframed his support for abortion rights in terms of “humility.” As Joe Biden had done on Meet the Press—during the primary and more recently—Obama claimed that the possibility that he might be wrong about when human life begins meant that he could not impose his view on others.
It was a classic case of “personally opposed, but”—except that there was no evidence that Obama was personally opposed, even in the slightest, even to the postpartum murder of children who managed to survive an abortion. Still, the rhetorical shift paid off, as some white women began to find their way back to the Democratic camp—a move made more easy when they caught their husbands googling “Sarah Palin bikini rifle.”
When John McCain finally agreed to show up for a presidential debate, voters tuned in eagerly, assuming that the sparring match would be better than those of 2004. McCain, however, proved that he could look just as much like a deer in the headlights as George W. Bush could, and the campaign took a drop in the polls after a McCain staffer suggested that the senator’s poor performance was caused by overly bright stage lights, which triggered a bout of post-traumatic stress disorder. Voters might have laughed it off, if McCain had not responded to the first question with only his name, rank, and serial number.
Still, most commentators scored it a tie and suggested that Barack Obama had made a mistake in bringing on John Kerry as a debate coach. The cameramen had some trouble getting a good angle on Obama, as the tip of his nose (already a hot topic of discussion on The O’Reilly Factor) had risen to be about even with his eyebrows. And most voters were skeptical of Obama’s claim to have served as an altar boy while attending a Muslim school in Indonesia. The bloggers at Daily Kos were the only ones who took him at his word, but the mere mention of the Catholic Church convinced them to dump Obama in favor of Socialist candidate Cynthia McKinney, whom no one had ever accused of flirting with traditional morality.
The vice presidential debates promised more drama. Would Sarah Palin unleash her inner Coulter? Or would she play the doting wife and mother, in the hope that Joe Biden’s handlers would suggest that he try to drive her from the stage like a Serb fleeing Pristina? In the end, the bout was anticlimactic. Senator Biden, smiling like the Cheshire Cat, droned on endlessly, and Governor Palin kept looking nervously to the sidelines for a signal from her own handlers to interrupt. The signal never came, and one statistician later determined that Joe Biden had uttered nearly five times as many words as Sarah Palin.
In the final two weeks, the race tightened, as U.S. troops in Iraq came under renewed attack, which called into question the effectiveness of the Surge. Voters were not reassured when McCain’s chief spokesman tried to claim that the senator’s exasperated outburst—“Maybe we should get the Enola Gay out of mothballs, and just start again from scratch”—was, like his earlier parody of “Barbara Ann,” merely an example of his wry humor.
The Rust Belt, which had been leaning more and more toward McCain as blue-collar workers began to worry about an Obama administration taxing away the last little bits of their disposable income, came back into play when the Ford Motor Company unexpectedly announced that the last of its cash reserves had vanished in the Wall Street meltdown. While McCain attempted to back off of his initial reaction to the request for a Chrysler-style bailout—“Your jobs are going, and they’re not coming back”—by proposing a comprehensive package of funding for retraining Ford employees to empty bedpans and take orders for milkshakes and fries, Obama cleverly endorsed the plan to save the auto industry that Mitt Romney had proposed during the primaries.
Thus, on Election Day, Obama squeaked out a win in Ohio, but it was not enough. Alaska’s three electoral votes, targeted by the Democrats before McCain’s surprise pick of the Alaska governor, carried the day for the Republicans.
And so, on January 20, with Sarah Palin at his right and Joe Lieberman guarding his rear, John Sidney McCain took the oath of office as the 44th President of the United States.
The acrimony of the campaign had led some pundits to speculate that President McCain would cast aside his maverick image and govern as a partisan. The Democrats, however, still controlled the Senate and the House. With that in mind, McCain devoted his Inaugural Address to “putting the country first by coming together in hope for change”—an awkward phrase, but one which commentators saw as an embrace of the best parts of Barack Obama’s agenda.
What no one expected was the extent to which Obama took control of the legislative agenda during President McCain’s first hundred days. Barack Obama’s narrow loss had made him a natural choice for Senate Majority Leader; on the other hand, he had shown little indication in his first four years in the Senate that he had the temperament to be a legislative leader. President McCain’s complete lack of any game plan for his first hundred days, however, gave the Democrats an opening, and Obama put his court skills to work, driving to the hoop.
It helped that the Democrats did not go for the jugular. Rather than introducing a bill to restore federal funding for abortion, they resurrected the proposal to expand funding for embryonic stem-cell research, including the creation of new lines, that Senators Obama, Biden, and McCain had all voted for in 2007. It passed by a wide margin—64-33—but pro-lifers were convinced that President McCain, like his predecessor, would exercise the veto. When he signed it into law, they cried that they had been betrayed, but the President’s press secretary pointed out that McCain had never renounced his support for ESCR; he had only promised to make other forms of stem-cell research a priority.
Longing to take the wind of out Hillary Clinton’s sails well in advance of the 2012 primaries, Senator Obama proposed a hybrid federal-state healthcare plan, based on the FamilyCare that Gov. Rod Blagojevich had implemented in Illinois. States would be required to offer low-cost healthcare to all residents making less than $75,000 (which covered the vast majority of families with children), but, beyond that, they were free to shape the program in any way they wished. The federal government would fund 80 percent of the cost of each state program by reviving the Nixon-era revenue sharing killed by Ronald Reagan.
Lacking his own plan, President McCain tried to recast the Obama initiative in the best possible light. States could use the funds to finance individual health-savings accounts, which would bring “personal responsibility” back into healthcare. The plan, he argued, had a certain “federalist” appeal; each state could come up with its own implementation, and, in this “laboratory of democracy,” the best one would undoubtedly win out in the end.
When Ted Kennedy delivered his final speech in the Senate in support of the plan, the vote was a forgone conclusion, and President McCain signed the bill into law on the day of Senator Kennedy’s funeral.
By March, the President was holding regular meetings at the White House with Senator Obama, and Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews, restored to their anchor positions on MSNBC, were talking about “the new spirit of bipartisanship.” The rumor that Obama had agreed not to oppose McCain on any foreign-policy decisions, as long as the President considered the merits of the Democrats’ domestic policies, was all but confirmed when Congress approved the bombing of Iran after Secretary of State Joe Lieberman, in a presentation to the United Nations, demonstrated conclusively that Saddam’s missing WMDs were housed in Iranian nuclear facilities.
Then tragedy struck on March 15, 2009. Having accompanied Sarah Palin on her first trip to Alaska since being sworn in, President McCain, feeling out of place, decided to charter a flight out of the Ketchican International Airport after Air Force One was not cleared for takeoff because of high winds and low visibility. He boarded the Piper Cub after winning a coin toss with country singer John Rich, who had provided the musical backdrop for the trip.
Witnesses said that the flight’s fate was sealed when the plane swerved on the runway to avoid hitting an Indy Mogul. Neither the snow machine nor its driver was ever located. The ferry from the mainland, bringing rescue workers, could not navigate the rough waters, and it would be days before the Whiskey & Rye was fished out of the waters of Ketchican Bay.
Sworn in on the steps of the statehouse in Juneau, Sarah Palin vowed that her first act as President would be to build the Bridge to Nowhere, “so that tragedies like this can be avoided.” She promised as well to continue “President McCain’s commitment to changing the political climate by furthering his spirit of bipartisanship.”
Later that day, back in Washington, D.C., Secretary of State Lieberman called a press conference to announce that he had accepted President Palin’s offer of the vice presidency.