All of those factors remain true in 2008, but funny things are happening on the way to the big dance -- the 21-state Super Tuesday primaries on February 5 -- as a series of political earthquakes shake things up:
* Although I have problems with aspects of all of the Democratic contenders, especially Hillary Clinton's well-practiced talent as a chameleon, they bristle with worthy ideas. The Republican contenders include an outsized number of lightweights whose ideas are not worth taking seriously, but voters are happily confronted with multiple choices on both sides.
This is an especially welcome change for Republican voters whose options have been considerably more limited than Democrats because their party has been considerably more interested in early coronations than serious competition.
* The unusually large number of candidates who can be considered frontrunners because those front-loaded Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries were open to voters regardless of whether they were Democrats, Republicans or independents.
There have been four different winners -- Clinton and Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee and John McCain -- in the four contests in those two states for only the second time since the modern primary system was established in 1976.
* Although people can vote for yet another white guy and many will do so as the primaries play out, there also is a woman with a real chance to win all the marbles and an African-American whose chances aren't too bad either to choose from.
Both are historic firsts that make the election to choose the successor to one of the most unpopular presidents in history even more exciting -- and significant.
* * * * *So the system seems to be working in spite itself, but why?
The ignoble George Bush is the biggest reason. Although you wouldn't know it listening to most of the Republican candidates, Bush has screwed up virtually everything he has touched over the last seven years, most recently the economy, and it is likely that he will be leaving office not only without a positive legacy but with the U.S. in recession.
While the lights haven't exactly gone out across this great land, there has been a dramatic downturn in the national mood that is a product of a onetime GOP wunderkind who has talked about leading but consistently failed to do so as he has stumbled from one crisis to another, many of his own making.
As I wrote here on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, a substantial majority of Americans believe that the U.S. is on the wrong track and for the first time tell pollsters that their children will not be better off than they are.
As Jonathan Freedland of The Guardian puts it, the two parties are engaged in a kind of double blind-date at this point:
"Democrats and Republicans are picking a candidate with no idea who that person will face come November. In 2004 Democrats knew they needed someone to take on George Bush and that fact led, in part, to their selection of John Kerry. Now both sides are squaring up against a question mark."
* * * * *Although both Democrats and Republicans are well represented in that national baseline of discontent, the prevalent feeling emerging from the early contests is that Democrats and independents are thirsting for change while Republicans, many of whom also are disenchanted with Bush, are less interested in change than keeping the hands of those liberal Democrats out of their cookie jar.
As it is, only one GOP candidate, Ron Paul, comes close to representing change in any significant sense of the word while accomplishing the feat of being both a libertarian and sleazy at the same time. (No, I don't include the Righteous Reverend Huckabee because his vision of change is to move the country further to the right. Or is it the left? I dunno.)
I have been critical of Obama for being slow to put meat on the bones of the buzzwords of change that are integral to his message, but the Washington Post's Charles Krauthhammer misses a crucial point in writing that:
"The Democratic primary campaign has been breathtakingly empty. What passes for substance is an absurd contest of hopeful change (Obama) vs. experienced change (Clinton) vs. angry change (John Edwards playing Hugo Chávez in English)."Voters are concerned about relief for the beleaguered middle class as the economy tanks, about affordable health care and about ending the Iraq war, among other concerns. All will require change, which Krauthammer fails to grasp was the underlying message in the robust turnouts for Democratic candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire compared to the tepid response to Republicans.
At this point the November election is the Democrats to lose because:
* The Republican Party is extraordinarily fractured.
The social conservatives who have almost singlehandedly torn down the GOP big tent are busy gnawing away at the carcass of what is left of what was once a coalition party. It looks increasingly like the Republican Party will have to be destroyed to be saved. A Democratic landslide in the November election might be just the recipe for Republicans not in the thrall of right-wing Christianists to finally begin putting the party's house back in order.
* Beyond McCain (who of course isn't nearly crazy enough for the people who have hijacked the GOP) and perhaps Fred Thompson (if he can generate some momentum in South Carolina and then stay awake), the four other Republican candidates don't stand a snowball's chance in hell against Clinton or Obama if they were somehow to win the nomination.
These are lightweights Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, a horse's backside by the name of Rudy Giuliani and the quixotic Paul, all of whom are still in the running for the Republican roses while Democratic candidates with solid resumes like Joe Biden and Bill Richardson are already out of it and an eminently okay guy like John Edwards is failing to get traction because of the strength of his party's frontrunners.
But as Frank Rich notes in The New York Times, the only big losers in New Hampshire were the pollsters and the press. Like I said, the system works.