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2008 Presidential Election

Okay, so now what?

It’s time to find out what change really looks like

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Well, here we are. Twenty-one months later, we’ve crossed the finish line of the longest and most expensive presidential election in American history—and certainly one of the most important. An election to end all elections, at least until 2012. If 2000 felt vaguely hopeful—pre-9/11, budget surplus—and 2004 at least had the housing boom to take our minds off the unsettling feeling that Iraq might not go as easily as we’d hoped, the aftermath of 2008 is just chockablock with trouble.

The next president is Barack Obama, who delivered a stirring victory speech to a massive crowd of more than 200,000 in Chicago’s Grant Park, beneath the lights of the city’s skyline. Change was his overriding theme—changing the partisan culture of Washington, changing the arrogant foreign policy of the Bush years, fixing a crumbling financial system and inspiring people to believe in politics again. And change, to a degree, is built into the system. This is why some local observers weren’t surprised at the outcome. UNLV political-science professor Ted Jelen says much of the race followed course, only with Obama running the race “I expected Hillary to run.” Beyond that, he notes, we have: “an unpopular incumbent, a bad economy, and it’s hard for any party to win three in a row. In some ways this is fairly typical.” His colleague, political-science professor Ken Fernandez, says that two of the most prescient political forecasting models are public approval ratings of a sitting president and the economy. “Regardless of personality, those are two of the best predictors.”

But this word, change, which we’ve fussed about and assumed to know its meaning, is still enigmatic. What kind of change are we talking about? What form will it take? Will it last? How receptive is our politics to change? Of course, we are already in the midst of change—an intervention in the economic system not seen since the Depression; the election of the first black president, not seen ever.

Pundits are arguing whether Obama’s win means the beginning of a new era of more progressive politics—fueled by younger, more liberal voters—or merely a Clinton-esque pause, maybe four years, maybe eight, in between a perpetual right consensus that has dominated American politics since Ronald Reagan. Will Obama run as a centrist in a nation that most seem to agree has been center-right for a generation? Or will he pull the country toward a more center-left orientation that is more inherently optimistic about the power of government to make positive change in people’s lives?

But it’s a system, Fernandez notes, that is based on protecting the status quo. Even with a Democratically controlled Congress and a commanding (though not landslide) win in the popular vote, Obama will have his hands full. Fernandez notes that Bill Clinton, even with a Democratic Congress, had trouble pushing his agenda in his first few years of office, and Jimmy Carter was similarly ineffectual. The incentive for Congressional members is to service their district, he notes, rather than their party or president.

But what kind of change are we coming to here? Nevada is often described as libertarian, a system that, roughly, combines both parties’ penchant for freedom—cultural freedom on the left, freedom from government on the right. It’s open spaces and ranchers. It’s self-reliance. We are quick to applaud the growth of our community, as refugees from super-expensive California and the cold-as-hell Midwest continue to fly in. We assume, though, that our leave-us-alone attitude will change the transplants, when the opposite is more likely true—they will change us.

Nevada went in large numbers for Obama. With the defeats of Republican state senators Bob Beers and Joe Heck, Democrats now control the state Senate along with the Assembly. Steven Horsford will become the state’s first black Senate majority leader.

With more budget cuts predicted for a state government that’s already taken its hits, it seems we cannot simply rely on gaming taxes to fund state services. More people are coming from “high-service states” and will demand something more progressive from their government. But how to pay for it, when we have, says Fernandez, “a nonprofessional part-time Legislature” resistant to change?

It may be the 2010 gubernatorial election that sets the stage for a more significant change in the culture locally. Democrats, says UNLV political scientist Dave Damore, are “all onboard with broad-based business tax,” and a Democratic governor or even a Republican more moderate on fiscal policy than Gov. Jim Gibbons may be the final element to effect significant changes in the state.

If Obama’s election has taught us anything, it’s that to the well-organized go the spoils. Democratic registration saw huge increases in the Silver State, but Damore notes that the Republicans may be reenergized from an unlikely source. “You have two groups of individuals on the right and the left that have good organizational skills.” On the left, of course, is the Obama camp, which Damore notes has smoothly moved from outside the Democratic apparatus into its mainstream. But the right is not energized here by John McCain, he says, but by Ron Paul. His organization “more or less decided that they’re not going to have any effect on the presidential election,” but Damore expects Paul’s people will work to change the Republican party from within, much the way, he notes, grassroots conservatives did in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.

Locally, we seem also to be coming around to a moment of change. There is a moment of calm now. The Palazzo is not doing well. CityCenter is rising, expensive, grand, but it carries with it no feeling of the new. In my lonely corner of Las Vegas, on the fringes of the Valley, some new homes are going up, but there is in the air a feeling of sedateness. Traffic is not too bad. The lines at the stores aren’t any longer now than they were a year ago. Bank-owned signs go up, and as people stroll by with their dogs or their kids, you wonder how they’re doing, whether they’ll be here in a year, whether you’ll be.

There are, essentially, two responses to this condition. One is to hunker down and wait for things to get better. It’s the voice that makes you grateful when you see that gas is now below $3. Anything that reminds you of better times. The other is to look forward to change, to be gripped by the possibility that change is more than just political expedience, that change is inevitable and, right now, necessary.

Certainly, demographically, Nevada is changing, along with the rest of the country—that is part of the opportunity and challenge of being in a region with the potential to be the new Midwest. While the crowds at McCain’s classy concession speech looked to be all white, the crowd in Chicago looked like America, the America of today and, especially, the America to come.

But change is fickle. Windows of opportunity are narrow. Voters are impatient. When they want change, they want it now. In uncertain times, things change, and then change again.

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