Tonight, the curtain falls on a year that left the most hardened political observers breathless. I did not get the nominee I wanted. Heaven knows I did not get the president-elect I wanted. But as an American, particularly one blessed with a radio show and a newspaper column, I cannot help but feel grateful for the ride.
One year ago tonight, my family and I stood bathed in the eye-popping brilliance of Disney World fireworks. Flying home the following day, I unpacked cargo shorts and Tommy Bahama shirts, making room for garb befitting the frozen drama of the Iowa caucuses 48 hours later.
My rental car thermometer read 5 degrees at the Des Moines airport, but plenty of warm rooms awaited. Barack Obama electrified a packed crowd at the Iowa Events Center. John Mellencamp’s solo acoustic set energized 3,000 John Edwards fans who trudged through snow to fill the Val Air Ballroom. Mitt Romney’s crowd was smaller but still appreciative at a corporate conference center in West Des Moines.
But as the results trickled in, I joined a toasty shoulder-to-shoulder crowd at the downtown Embassy Suites, where Mike Huckabee basked in the glow of outdueling Mr. Romney and John McCain to get an early jump on the Republican nomination.
Landing in New Hampshire the next day, ridiculous temperatures in the 50s melted deep crusts of accumulated snow. The primary results the night of Jan. 8 similarly melted the Iowa story lines. Hillary Clinton voters stuffed a 12-point Obama poll lead, while Mr. McCain’s tireless town halls vaulted him to a win that would discombobulate his rivals and their fans.
Republicans who wanted a more conservative candidate – and that was a majority – could not congeal behind a single choice, scattering support behind Mr. Huckabee, Mr. Romney, Rudy Giuliani, Ron Paul and, for a few days, Fred Thompson. Mr. McCain rode that math to a commanding delegate lead within a month.
Meanwhile, a battle brewed that our grandkids will ask us about. Democrats made clear that their party would yield the nation’s first serious White House aspirant who was not a white male.
But which barrier would fall? As May drew to a close, so did Mrs. Clinton’s chances, but her climb still established a new altitude record on the way to an eventual woman president.
While Hillary took half a year to ascend to within one step of the nomination, Sarah Palin was dropped into our lives on the morning of Aug. 29, when Mr. McCain hoisted her to within one step of the vice presidency.
The Rocky Mountain air still crackled with the electricity of the Denver anointing of Barack Obama when Mr. McCain ensured that his St. Paul convention the following week would pack some drama as well.
History may record Ms. Palin’s coming-out speech of Sept. 3 as the first step toward her own presidency. Or, she may fade into the pack as another crowded GOP field mobilizes for 2012. But that night, America saw the kind of upbeat, unapologetic conservatism that would well serve any Republican candidate looking to succeed where Mr. McCain failed.
But fail he did, after I’d spent most of the year calling Barack Obama unelectable, unless some earth-shattering development changed the landscape of the campaign.
It would be easy to say the economy’s collapse was just such an event, but as the year closes, I’d say the Obama victory was powered by such vigor – and the McCain campaign neutered by such reticence – that we might still be planning an Obama inauguration, even if the economy had not tanked.
We’ll never know. But by next New Year’s Eve, we’ll have a sense of what the decisions of 2008 have reaped.
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