In July 1864, as President Abraham Lincoln prepared to run for a second term against General George B. McClellan, The New York Times editorialized: “We have had many important elections, but never one so important as that now approaching….The republic is approaching what is to be one of the most important elections in its history.” The Civil War had been raging for three years and seemed to be at a stalemate. Lincoln was for fighting on until victory, regardless of the cost. McClellan supported compromise and negotiation to end the bloodiest conflict in American history. As everybody knows, Lincoln won the election, the Union soon won the war, and McClellan’s reputation never recovered.
The expression “the most important election in history,” however, achieved immortality. “Every even-numbered year,” Senator John McCain told an interviewer in 2006, “politicians go around and say ‘This is the most important election in history.’” As the republic’s history lengthened, the phrase often mutated into “the most important election in my lifetime” or “in a century.” Still, in all its forms it proved remarkably resistant to irony or derision. In 1988, when George H. W. Bush ran against Michael Dukakis, the already venerable Senator Robert C. Byrd declared: “It may be the most important election of this century.” In 1992, when Bush ran for re-election against Bill Clinton, Clinton declared it “the most important election in a generation,” generation being a word that sounds weighty and biblical but is often deployed without any precise meaning.
By 1996, when Clinton himself was running for a second term against Senator Robert Dole, Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, declared it “the most important election of our lifetime,” while John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, pushed the envelope by describing it as “the most critical election in the long history of the American labor movement.” In November 2000 Ebony magazine tried to re-establish a sense of proportion by asserting, “The first national election of the 21st century is the most important election (so far) of the 21st century,” though strictly speaking it was still the 20th. By 2004 everyone was getting in on the act, from the rock band Pearl Jam (“the most important [election] of our lifetime”) to Bruce Springsteen and Democratic nominee John Kerry (“the most important election of our lifetime”) to the Christian Coalition again (“the most important election in our nation’s history”).
Early in the 2008 campaign three presidential candidates, Senators Joseph Biden, Christopher Dodd, and Barack Obama, separately avowed in more or less identical words that whatever anyone might have thought four or eight or 16 years earlier, this was the big one, “the most important election in my lifetime.” (Only Obama had the vanity or wit to add “not just because I’m running.”) Meanwhile, surrogates for two other candidates, McCain and Senator Hillary Clinton, upped the ante to “a century or more” and “in our nation’s history” respectively. Like “ready from day one” and “commander-in-chief test,” the phrase had become one of the ritual incantations of presidential campaigns.
Has there ever been an election that some people didn’t narcissistically proclaim the most important in their lifetimes? Perhaps, but such episodes are evidently so rare that they never get recorded. Consider, if you will, the 1924 contest between President Calvin Coolidge (Republican) and challenger John W. Davis (Democrat). Would the Jazz Age have turned out much differently if Davis had won instead of Coolidge? Few historians have lost sleep over the question. Yet Joseph Levenson, a New York Republican leader, announced that year, “I look upon the coming election as the most important in the history of this country since the Civil War.”
Remembering deservedly forgotten campaigns is an invitation to calm down and take the long view. It could easily be argued that the most important election in American history was the first, the selection of George Washington as president in 1789, even though he had no opponent. Why? Because it established the precedent of quadrennial elections as laid down by the Constitution—never since broken—and led to the creation of the entire federal government. The 1800 presidential election was also momentous in that despite having been bitterly contested by John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, it brought about the first transition of power from one political party to its adversaries. In 1860, the choice of Abraham Lincoln precipitated the Civil War. The election of 1932 brought Franklin D. Roosevelt to power and transformed the scope and reach of the federal government in ways that none of his 11 successors (six of them Republicans) has fundamentally changed.
Once the 2008 campaign got under way, Democrats and many media pundits started talking incessantly of a “change election” that would be—surprise!—one of the most important in history. What they meant, deep down, was that they hoped it would obliterate what they considered the voters’ disastrous mistake four years earlier in re-electing George W. Bush. Yet in the longer view, is 2008 likely to prove a historic election, apart from the possibility of the first African-American president? We won’t know for a while, but to rank with 1860 or 1932, it would have to deliver durable changes greater than any currently visible on the horizon, unless Ralph Nader should happen to get lucky this time.
Whether or not it suits candidates and the press to say so, most elections are fortunately a lot more like 1924 than 1932, let alone 1860. Probably the most candid and sensible comment on the whole subject was delivered by the notoriously inarticulate President Bush when Larry King asked him in 2004 whether that year’s election was the most important ever. “For me it is,” he answered.
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