04/09/2008 08:56 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Political Legacy and the 2008 Election

It is often acknowledged that we cannot truly know what the lasting legacy of political figures will be until substantial time has passed. Harry Truman, for example, is regarded as one of the twentieth century's fine presidents despite having left office with approval ratings in the low 20s. History has been similarly kind to George H.W. Bush, whose presidency seems so measured and competent, his foreign policy so realistic, especially when compared to that of his son.

As the 2008 election proceeds, it is leaving in its path the first articulation of the broader context of recent history.

If Barack Obama becomes the forty-fourth president, President Bush will find, to his dismay, that the closest historical analogies to his presidency are that of Jimmy Carter and Herbert Hoover. Herbert Hoover presided over the beginning of the Great Depression, proving his leadership -- and his party -- incapable of rising to the challenge that had befallen the nation. The resulting political and economic atmosphere allowed Franklin Roosevelt to defeat Hoover and lay the course for dramatic and lasting change in American politics. Like Hoover's, Carter's administration was ineffectual and non-adaptive, unable to meet the economic and international challenges with which it was faced. In the wake of Carter, a new revolution took place again, this time with Reagan as its champion.

Now, as November nears, it appears that like Hoover and Carter, George W. Bush will have unintentionally laid the groundwork from which a paradigm-shifting candidate can take the country in an entirely new direction, once again.

But President Bush will not be the only one to see his legacy at least partially solidified by the results of November's election. Bill Clinton, too, will see his legacy take further shape; like Bush, he will be particularly disappointed.

That same New Deal that guided Franklin Roosevelt to be elected four consecutive times also created a new coalition of Democratic voters. It was this coalition that helped reelect Truman, and helped make John Kennedy the youngest president in our history. But as Lyndon Johnson worked to further articulate FDR's New Deal agenda with his Great Society, steps toward racial equality would change that coalition forever. Southern Democrats left the party en masse in the wake of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. With a Democratic coalition in shambles, the party seemed destined for presidential exclusion. The only success was Carter's 1976 victory, far more the result of the weakness of his opponent than of his strength as a candidate.

It was in the Democratic defeats of the 1980s that the Democratic Leadership Council, and with it Bill Clinton, was born on the national stage. Their third way philosophy was that Democrats could not win with the same coalition or governing philosophy; they chose instead to co-opt Republican policies and remake them with minor modification. Such a philosophy would be a cornerstone of the Clinton candidacy and later of his presidency.

But if Barack Obama wins the presidency in 2008, it will serve not as a validation, but rather a repudiation of the Clinton "New Democrat" philosophy. Where Bill Clinton was unable to push a progressive agenda, Barack Obama has campaigned on one. And where Clinton believed Democrats could not steer, Obama has been progressive, honest, and persuasive. Clinton's political philosophy -- and perhaps the political climate in which he found himself -- restrained him from following the model of Roosevelt and Reagan. For Obama, it is exactly those models that his presidency is likely to replicate. In the broader context of history, Clinton's presidency will be acknowledged for the economic prosperity it produced; but ultimately, it will be a much smaller blip on the radar. What Nixon's presidency was to Reagan's so will Clinton's be to Obama's.

The 2008 election may also magnify the importance of someone who could have taken an otherwise minor role in our history. Howard Dean was, admittedly, a deeply flawed candidate. He has, to this point, been at best, a mediocre party chairman. But the philosophy on which he based both his campaign and his chairmanship is being proven enormously important in the wake of Obama's success.

In 2003, when then presidential candidate Howard Dean proclaimed that he was "from the Democratic Wing of the Democratic party," he was the first to stand up to the party leadership, proclaiming the Clinton way of governing to be weak, spineless, and ineffective. It is that call that has found itself at the core of this Democratic race, one in which all candidates appeared at Yearly Kos while none attended the DLC Convention. His innovation with internet organizing gave birth to the blogosphere, and has been the cornerstone of Obama's campaign. With over 1,000,000 contributors and an average donation of $109, Obama has been able to credibly argue for a new kind of politics by dramatically decreasing the power of special interests and major donors. Had Dean not introduced the party to the power of online organizing and fundraising, one wonders if Obama's candidacy would have ever gotten off the ground.

Ultimately though, it is Dean's 50-state strategy that has truly been validated by this election. When he first became chairman, he received steady criticism for what many saw as the naïve notion that Democrats could (and should) compete everywhere in the country. Dean's philosophy was simple enough: party organizations can be built anywhere, and can be expanded everywhere so that investments in red states today can turn them blue sometime tomorrow. As Clinton and Obama continue to build excitement and momentum in each of the fifty states, their success at amassing unprecedented turnout has proven Dean right. States like Virginia, Colorado and Kansas are winnable states for Barack Obama. Even Texas finds itself leaning Republican, but no longer safely red.

For Bush, an Obama victory is confirmation of a failed presidency. For Clinton, it is a marginalizing event. And for Dean, it is undoubtedly a moment of vindication. Whatever the outcome, the legacies of all three men have taken much of their shape from the long campaign of the 2008 election.