With less than two months until Election Day, nationwide polls are suddenly indicating very close competition between the two great American parties.
And along with the rest of the country, Emory faculty members are scrutinizing the factors shaping the upcoming election and forming their opinions on each party’s tickets, the most important issues facing American citizens today and the role of the media.
Associate Professor of History Joseph Crespino said the state of the economy, the War in Iraq and America’s role in the world are important issues the candidates should address.
“There’s been so little discussion of issues as of late,” he said. “I think the economy is the big issue and hopefully the candidates will get back to that more in the closing weeks of the campaign.”
Goodrich C. White Professor of Political Science Michael Giles said there is a double effect going on in American lives today.
“The current pressure in people’s lives is the economy, but just behind and ever present is the war in Iraq, and the two are related through American taxes,” he said.
Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Politics and History Harvey Klehr said a big issue is national security and foreign policy and deciding “who is the candidate best able to protect the United States’ national interests and deal with the threats we face both from terrorism and hostile regimes abroad.”
With these issues in mind, Klehr said Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin make a great ticket, especially because of McCain’s national security experience.
“I think both he and Palin are reformers who have demonstrated their willingness to take on their own political party and I think they will have the ability to help navigate the country during the next four years,” he said.
Crespino said although he thinks McCain is an American hero and an honorable man, it will still be a challenge for him to distance himself from the Bush administration.
He also said that it was surprising McCain was able to secure the Republican nomination, considering he had a long history of being alienated from the religious base of his party.
In terms of the Democratic nomination, Crespino said Obama has been a remarkable candidate.
“Just the fact that he could win the nomination from Hillary Clinton is just a remarkable achievement given all the Clintons have meant to the Democratic Party for the past 15 years,” he said.
Goodrich C. White Professor of History Patrick Allitt said there has been a lot of fanatical enthusiasm for Obama during the primaries, when his main job was to make himself look as different as possible from his predecessors.
“A lot of people I know completely lost their minds over Obama and they acted as though he was at least the equal of the second coming of Jesus,” he said. “But now, of course, he’s got to appeal to at least 51 percent of the electorate, so he’s trying to make himself look as unremarkable as possible.”
Allitt said Obama is now trying to depict himself as an ordinary politician.
“So for people who are Democratic enthusiasts, it must be bitterly disappointing to hear him saying all these deeply monotonous and conventional things,” he said.
Klehr said he thinks relatively less of the Democratic ticket and that Obama does not have the executive experience to be the president.
“He spent all his time in Congress running for president,” Klehr said.
As far as the vice presidential contenders are concerned, Giles said Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) is very informed on foreign affairs and speaks to the base of the Democratic Party by maintaining strong relationships with blue-collar voters. He also said Biden is probably a safer choice than Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.).
“Should he have picked Hillary? We all forget Hillary had the highest negative ratings,” he said.
Allitt said he was surprised to see the Democratic Party choose Biden because he allegedly plagiarized lines from a speech by British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock.
“When he was a candidate a few elections ago, he sort of lifted an English politician’s speech and it was incredibly obvious that he had done so,” Allitt said. “On the other hand, I’ve heard since then that [Biden has] got a fairly big constituency of people who still like and admire him. So he’s again kind of a really predictable candidate, as far as I’m concerned, not a glimmer of excitement there.”
Giles called Palin an interesting, strategic, risky kind of choice and said the real question is about whether or not she is prepared to assume the role of president, should McCain be unable to fulfill his term in office.
“I think that this is one of the things where he had a series of possible of choices available to him and some that he may have preferred, like [Sen. Joe] Lieberman, really weren’t available because they simply weren’t going to fly with the Republican Party,” he said.
Allitt said the choice of Palin was interesting because it suggests that the Republican party “felt as though they had to do something fairly drastic if they were going to stand a chance in the election.”
Crespino said Palin has given McCain a huge boost and has re-energized his supporters.
“Palin has totally thrown this race for a loop”, Crespino said. “Clearly she’s energized supporters, but how many new supporters she’s brought, I think, is still unclear.”
Crespino said Biden was a very smart choice as Obama’s running mate because they make a compelling twosome that balances the other’s weaknesses. Given Palin’s impact, Crespino said, the vice presidential debate is going to arguably be even more closely watched than the main candidates’ debates.
Allitt said he is not an American citizen and is watching the election with more detachment than most people he knows. He said he finds the media’s constant election coverage “almost unendurable.”
“I virtually never watch or listen to the news because all that you get is election talk — it’s not news, because nothing is happening, nothing’s happened for months,” he said.
James M. Cox Jr. Professor of Journalism Isabel Wilkerson, who is teaching a class this semester titled “The Press and the Presidential Campaign,” compared the situation to a three-legged stool composed of the press, the campaigns and the public. She said there is a difficult balance the media has to maintain and that the audience and readers have a role in what the media does.
For instance, Wilkerson said there was a time when people wanted to see what Bristol Palin’s boyfriend looked like.
“What does that have to do with the qualifications of someone who could be vice president?” Wilkerson said. “The media has the responsibility to cover anything and everything that might be related as they see fit. If those Bristol Palin reports get hot viewership, do you think they’re going to start talking about global warming?”
Wilkerson said it is important to understand the interrelatedness of all three components and the economics behind newspapers and cable news networks.
“Everything is a reflection of what America is. The media is putting a mirror back at the country, at the voters and the people,” Wilkerson said. “I think it’s interesting that people are so quick to criticize the media and not look at what they’re doing with their remote to the very media they are critical of.”
Allitt said the rest of the world would prefer Obama to win because they regard him as much more sympathetic to the interests of the global community and diplomatic commitments.
He said there is a lot of resentment toward President Bush’s “high-handedness” and “the damage he’s done to [America’s] international credibility, which has been made worse by things like Guantánamo and prisoner abuse.”
“So I do think the outgoing Bush administration has got a dreadful reputation abroad and that therefore, symbolically, it would probably be a good thing for the Democrats to win to restore American prestige and credibility,” Allitt said.
Allitt predicted Obama will win because there is an equilibrium cycle in American politics, and that over a long-term period, what tends to happen is that one party dominates until the pendulum swings back and the other party gets its turn.
Crespino, on the other hand, is less sure.
“I am just a very fascinated observer and as I’m telling all my friends, it’s hard to get a lot of work done because I’m always watching election coverage and keeping up,” he said.