National Commentary

David Brooks: Hunting For An American Clement Attlee

The 2008 presidential election has fundamentally shifted, but it hasn't been because of events in Iowa and New Hampshire. It's because of events everywhere else.

In Washington, the National Intelligence Estimate was released, suggesting the next president will not face an imminent nuclear showdown with Iran. In Iraq, the surge and tribal revolts produce increasing stability. In Pakistan, the streets have not exploded. In the Middle East, the Arabs and Palestinians stumble toward some sort of peace process. In Venezuela, a referendum set President Hugo Chavez back on his heels.

The world still has its problems, but it no longer seems to be building toward some larger crisis. The atmosphere of fear and conflict has at least temporarily abated. With the change in conditions, the election of 2008 is beginning to feel like a postwar election. American voters are coming out of the shells constructed after Sept. 11 and are looking for a new normalcy. They're looking for something entirely different.

The shift in public sentiment has been evident in the polls. Before the 2004 election, half of all voters listed terrorism as their top concern. But, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, roughly a third do today. As Peter Beinart, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has noted, the number of New Hampshirites who cite Iraq as their top concern has dropped 14 points among Republicans and 16 points among Democrats.

The shift has also been evident in the candidates' town meetings. The number of audience questions about Iraq has dropped precipitously. Republicans don't want to talk about Iraq because they're humiliated by the conduct of the war, and Democrats don't want to talk about it because they were wrong about the surge. Instead, other issues have leapt to the front of public consciousness: Mormonism, mortgages and the cosmic importance of Oprah Winfrey.

The effects of the atmospheric shift are only beginning to be felt. If voters in next year's election are like those in the last election cycles, then 20 percent of them will likely make up their minds during the final three days of the campaign and another 20 percent or 30 percent will make their decision during the last couple of weeks.

All that you've been reading about the race over the past year is trivial compared to this question: Which candidacy best matches the zeitgeist of the closing days?

The first obvious feature of a postwar election is that domestic issues matter more. The two candidates who have been surging, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mike Huckabee, have almost no foreign policy experience between them.

But the more comprehensive difference between a wartime election and a postwar election is that there is a shift in values. In wartime, leadership traits like courage, steadfastness and ruthlessness are prized. Voters are willing to vote for candidates they distrust so long as they seem tough and effective (Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani).

In a postwar election things are different. When Wall Street Journal/NBC pollsters asked voters what qualities they were looking for in the next leader, their top three choices were: the ability to work well with leaders of other countries; having strong moral and family values; bringing unity to the country. Those are cooperative qualities, not combative ones. They require good listening skills, openness and the ability to compromise.

It's clear that voters are not only exhausted by the war, they are exhausted by the war over the war. On the Democratic side, Obama captured the mood exactly with his Jefferson-Jackson Day speech of a few weeks ago. In that speech, he asked voters to reject fear, partisanship and textbook politics. He asked them to vote instead on the basis of their aspirations for a new era of national unity. As a result, Obama has pulled ahead in Iowa and approached parity in New Hampshire.

The tragedy of the Republican race is that Mitt Romney and Giuliani, who could have offered a new kind of Republicanism, opted to run as conventional Bush-era Republicans. Now Huckabee has emerged as the fresh alternative. Huckabee is socially conservative, but not a partisan culture warrior. He's a pragmatic gubernatorial Republican, not a rigid creature of the beltway interest groups.

My guess is that this race has a few more twists and turns. Something terrible could happen in the world, in which case the wartime mentality would be back in spades. Obama and Huckabee could beat Clinton and Romney, respectively, in the early states, only to fall victim to their own weaknesses later on. You laugh, but this thing could still spin into the lap of Fred Thompson or John McCain, Chris Dodd or Joe Biden.

The main point is this: money and organization matter less right now than getting in tune with the zeitgeist shift. In 1945, Prime Minister Winston Churchill had formidable advantages over Clement Attlee. But when a public turns from a war mentality to a peace mentality, it turns with a vengeance — even though in this case no armistice has been declared.  

c.2007 New York Times News Service