[Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. ]
So far, the Democratic contest is feeling very twentieth century and the Republican contest is feeling very nineteenth century. As the Democratic contest becomes a battle of two titans, it is becoming a nationwide fight between two political stars with national constituencies. This was characteristic of some of the great nomination battles of the last half-century, be it Richard Nixon versus Nelson Rockefeller in 1960 or Walter Mondale versus Gary Hart in 1988. But the more wide-open Republican contest evokes comparisons with the fragmented nomination contests of yesteryear – only in those days the constituencies were often state or at best regional and today they are less geographically-based.
While much of the focus recently has been on race and gender in the Hillary versus Obama contest, the simple fact that the two have that iconic, Cher-like, famous-enough-to-be-known-by-one-name status, suggests that we are also talking about the politics of celebrity. Let’s face it. Despite Hillary Clinton’s claim to be the candidate of “experience” both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have pretty thin resumes. Obama is famous for being a newcomer. Neither has any real executive experience. Hillary Clinton is pretending that in the 1990s she was the co-president she hoped to be rather than the frustrated first lady that she was.
Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have resumes more similar to George W. Bush than to his far more experienced father, former Ambassador to China, former CIA director, former Republican National Committee Chairman, and former Vice President George H.W. Bush. Hillary Clinton became senator from a state in which she had never lived, because in the modern world, celebrity is transferable. In 2000, she showed she could apply her considerable name recognition and iconic status from the 1990s and parlay it into a New York Senate seat. Barack Obama had a more conventional march to the U.S. Senate from the State Senate, but without his rock-star-like rocketing to great fame as a result of his 2004 convention speech and his brilliant book marketing, he would be yet another workaday senator, accumulating seniority before making his big presidential play. Of course, the embarrassingly futile, failed candidacies of Senator Joe Biden and Senator Chris Dodd show just how much the modern American voter (and reporter) values Senatorial seniority – along with the resulting experience and wisdom.
So far, the three Republican victors most resemble the various regional warlords who would show up to quadrennial party conventions in the 1800s, hoping either to be the critical kingmaker or, better yet, actually be crowned the party’s temporary king. With Mike Huckabee having won the Iowa caucus, John McCain having won New Hampshire, and Mitt Romney having won Michigan, we are even hearing some analysts speculate that this year’s convention may actually be relevant for the nomination of the party’s standard bearer, rather than simply celebrating a democratic coronation. Each of the three winners represent a different dimension of the legendary, multi-dimensional Reagan coalition that has dominated the GOP – and shaped American politics – for more than a quarter century. Huckabee represents the evangelicals, McCain represents the national security types and possibly the neocons, and Romney represents the business and technocratic types. Or, to think about it in a slightly different way, if the three were auditioning for parts in a play about Ronald Reagan’s famous first-term advising triumvirate, Huckabee would play the true believer, Ed Meese; McCain would play the savvy PR guy Michael Deaver, and Romney would play the emissary to the corporate and Wall Street types, James A. Baker III. Analysts looking at the Republican side are also wondering if this wideopen field will make room for Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani as well.
Regardless of how it plays out, it seems clear that the George W. Bush years have strained the Reagan coalition. The challenge for the next nominee is either to revive that broad-based coalition or transform it, finding a new political formula that works. The Democrats have the easier and yet harder time. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are mainstream Democrats. Neither nomination would threaten Democratic business as usual. Then again, as a party that has only fielded two winning candidates since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 – Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton – maybe it is time for a more dramatic change on that side of the aisle too.