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Richard Albert Headshot

The rhetoric of redemption in presidential elections

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In the eight presidential elections over the course of the past thirty years, the presidential challenger has defeated the incumbent party candidate on only four occasions--in 1980, 1992, 2000, and 2008.

The formula for victory was no secret then, nor is it now. The challenger triumphed by successfully portraying himself as an apostle for deliverance from some form of evil, whether imminent or lived, while also defining his opponent as the bearer of a bad vision for tomorrow.

But there is a deeper lesson to draw from those four elections: the presidential challenger soared to victory on the rhetoric of redemption.

At their best, modern presidential elections have sharpened the differences among aspirants to the White House, bringing clarity to the muddy waters of media saturation and concretizing for voters the stakes hanging in the balance of the momentous choice before them.

In 1980, for instance, Republican nominee Ronald Reagan framed the election as a battle to redeem the greatness of America, whose economy had slowed to a troubling pace under the command of President Jimmy Carter and whose citizens had come to lose confidence in their government's ability both to manage domestic affairs and to protect them from foreign threats.

In 1992, Democratic nominee Bill Clinton saw the presidential election as an occasion to redeem the great virtues of middle America, not only in the prudent fiscal management of the state but also in the use of American diplomacy and military might abroad.

For the 2000 Republican nominee, George W. Bush, the election was a mission to redeem the honor and dignity of the White House, which the previous administration had, in his view, undermined by engaging in questionable business dealings and soiling the Oval Office with inappropriate personal conduct.

Eight years later, the rhetoric of redemption once again featured prominently in the presidential election.

Nominally, the 2008 election set in opposition Republican Senator John McCain versus Democratic Senator Barack Obama. But the real battle for the presidency pit the Democratic candidate against the man who was in office at the time, President Bush.

Case in point, when then-candidate Obama sought to contrast his policy prescriptions with the Republican vision on taxation, job creation, Iraq or terrorism, he invoked President Bush as his foil just as often as, if not more often than, Senator McCain. This was a carefully calibrated strategy to suggest to Americans that a vote for the Republican nominee was a vote to continue the approach of the Bush Administration, and that the next four years under the leadership of Senator McCain would be indistinguishable from the previous eight years under President Bush.

This was masterful political jiu-jitsu. It was executed better and more effectively than any other campaign in recent memory. It allowed then-candidate Obama to win the battle of words and ideas on the economy, national security and health care--the top three policy issues of concern to voters in 2008.

Yet beneath the specificity of the policy disagreements separating the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates on these issues, there lay a larger and more ominous subtext.

That undertone, which then-candidate Obama deployed to his advantage time and again, was that a Democratic victory would redeem the rule of law in the United States. No longer would Americans be led astray by a lawless leader and no longer would Americans be poorly regarded in the global community of nations, argued then-candidate Obama. Quite the contrary, argued the Democratic campaign, Barack Obama's election to the presidency would restore America's rightful leadership role in the world and it would signal America's return to righteousness.

It is not difficult to recite the litany of charges that were then, and are still today, leveled against President Bush. Then-candidate Obama and his team accused the Bush Administration of a bevy of horrors, namely committing human rights violations at Guantanamo Bay, depriving terrorists of due process by prosecuting them in military tribunals instead of civil courts, invoking the State Secrets Doctrine to block the disclosure of White House records, expanding executive power at the expense of the legislature, and undermining the separation of powers.

These allegations blended quite nicely into the backdrop of the larger portrait that then-candidate Obama wanted to paint in the general election: that the Bush Administration did not respect the rule of law, and that a Democratic victory in 2008 would augur for America the redemption of the rule of law.

Today, in 2010, it bears wondering whether then-candidate Obama's rhetoric of redemption was anchored in conviction or whether it was deployed somewhat disingenuously. Because it is worth noting that two years into President Obama's first term in the White House, the very same charges that were leveled against President Bush may just as compellingly be leveled against President Obama.

Under the Obama Administration, Guantanamo Bay remains open, terrorists continue to be prosecuted in military tribunals, and the White House has shielded its records from public disclosure under the State Secrets Doctrine--all the very same conditions that existed under the Bush Administration.

Not to mention that the Obama Administration continues to expand the powers of the presidency and to pinch down on congressional powers, most notably through the use of presidential "czars" who wield considerable influence in the executive branch without first having undergone Senate confirmation, all of which works a severe harm upon the separation of powers. Here again, the arrogation of authority into the hands of the executive is a motif that recurred not only throughout the Bush Administration but also persists in the current Administration.

True, it may be too soon to tell whether then-candidate Obama's rhetoric of redemption was anything more than political expediency or anything less than rooted in principle. Too little time may have elapsed for anyone to know for certain whether, judging from the actions of the current Administration, the 2008 campaign rhetoric of redemption was spoken with sincerity.

But too soon or not, I will leave to others the task of judging the authenticity of the rhetoric of redemption in the 2008 presidential campaign.