Change is obviously the buzzword of the 2008 presidential race, at least where the Democratic nomination is concerned. But let's face it, change is the buzzword of every election (with the exception, perhaps, of the incumbent). It is the catch-all container for the American voter's outrage and frustration, the magic box in which each candidate swears they can turn that disappointment into gold.
So let's set aside the buzzword for a second and think about what's really on people's minds when they go into the voting booth. It's not policy. It's not past experience. It's not even values. For better or worse, it's personality.
In a Democratic primary where there are certainly platform nuances but few make-or-break differences in the candidates' politics, it is their leadership style and public persona that differentiate them. Plus, much of what the next president will be working on is completely rebuilding our nation's reputation; if the global community were high school, the '08 winner is like the unlucky, younger sibling of the jerky captain of the football team. This election will be won or lost based on how each candidate makes the American voter feel.
We try to pretend like our involvement in the electoral process is so lofty, the apex of patriotic life, when really it often amounts to high school redux. (Or at least the pop-culture version of high school.) Everyone fits a stereotype...
Captain of the Basketball Team
Barack Obama is super cool. He's proven that he has enough charisma and originality to light up ten rooms. He's utterly inspiring, witty, and even fun. He doesn't have to wear ties. He can use slang like "give it up for…" without anyone batting an eyelash. The way he dances is even, almost, though not quite, cool. There's no doubt that he could charm world leaders.
His biracial identity is just the icing on the cake, one more reason to believe that he can convince us, and cynics around the world, to see America differently. With him at the helm, we might suddenly be capable of something more than hot air and hypocrisy again. No, look, even our president is complex now; no more of that cowboy bravado and empty headed smiling for us. Look, we're not racist; we even elected a (half) black guy. He went to Harvard and he watches the Redskins game while the Republican debates are on!
But like the hippest guy in high school, he's also too good to be true. You can't help but wonder if he can live up to all the hype, if he can deliver on his fantastical orations, if he might miss the winning shot -- not because he's not a great guy -- but because he's human. And hasn't been playing that long. And might underestimate the distance.
Hillary Clinton is the girl everyone agrees is brilliant. Some people like that about her, and some just think she's stuck up (they've never really talked to her, but they can sense these things). She works damn hard, doing whatever it takes to get the job done and get it done right.
She's not that concerned with appearances -- the kind of girl whose friends are always trying to talk into a makeover or a manicure. Hillary just finds it all a little frivolous. She'd like to be more fun, but it just doesn't come easily. She has to remind herself to watch television every once in awhile and never knows the latest hip band.
She feels more comfortable staying serious and tackling the hard stuff. That's why anyone who cares about the dwindling economy or needs help on their English essay seems to lean her way, as do people who think experience trumps likability. (Unlike high school, Hillary's experience is never misconstrued as slutty).
Hillary is the kind of girl who has lots of guy friends asking her for advice because they know she'll give it to 'em straight -- and a cool boyfriend by her side because he can't help but fall in love with such a firecracker. Neither, however, protects her from getting mocked in the hallways by the meatheads of mass media (Bill, Rush and Sean) and their blonde mean girl sidekick, Ann C.
There's no question about her capacity. You just wonder if she'll make the insecure hotheads of the debate team (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong-Il, etc.) even more insecure in her presence, if she'll be able to finesse when that's what's called for, inspire when people are down. She also doesn't seem like the best delegator. She's secretly convinced that she's better than most people at almost everything, that it would take more work explaining how to do it than to just do it herself.
The Overlooked Boy-Next-Door
He's cute. He's smart. He's kind. What is his name again?
John Edwards is overshadowed by classmates with more salacious gossip and controversial biographies. He looks too much like ten other guys in the high school class. He's got good ideas, but sometimes he can get a little annoying telling that same ol' "son of a millworker" story.
If it wasn't the high school prom, and you didn't have just one chance to make the perfect impression, you might go with him, but as it is, you only have one shot and you want to blow people's minds. He would only talk their ears off at the punch bowl.
You're aware that you might kick yourself later for this, that your mom is right about him being the kind of guy who really does well for himself, but you just aren't in the mood to be that mature about it. You want fireworks. You want romance. You want history making.
(Credits roll. Directed by John Hughes.)
Here's the point. People are irrational and busy creatures. The vast majority of us don't have the time or inclination to read policy papers, and even if we did, we probably wouldn't be moved by them (unless we are wonks or pundits or political science majors). We are conditioned to make decisions based on emotional rationale, peer pressure, that abstract stuff of gut feelings.
We're also largely self-interested. Average Americans don't walk into the voting booth and think, "How does this candidate make other people feel? Is her health care plan really that much better than his?" We walk in -- between dropping our kid off at school and heading to a messy desk and a mountain of deadlines or some other couple's house to take care of their children or a job at Starbucks (health insurance!) -- and reach for a lever that makes us feel like our best selves. We want someone who seems interesting and capable, a candidate that doesn't patronize or underestimate us, maybe even someone who makes us feel young again (even the young these days are aching to feel young again).
In this way, we're not much more evolved than our 16-year-old selves, facing the blank piece of paper with a Bic and a dream, writing down the name of the next homecoming queen. We're hoping we can get a dance, but mostly we just want the chance to feel like we were cool enough to be a part of it all. John Hughes understood that, and presidential hopefuls should, too.