- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 10, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Constantly recalibrated candidate identity is as significant as candidate message in 2008. Twisting conventional discourse on its head for a moment, this is sparked by an identity crisis within the two dominant political parties. It will become much clearer as both Democrats and Republicans battle for the center in November.

Presently, few will consider the prospect of losing as much as they do the “inevitability” of winning — at least that’s what they want to hear from handlers and consultants. We eye the battlefield, scanning a larger battle for identity. The candidates are desperate for identity, their parties uncertain of what they will look like the day after. Voters want different rather than dynastic — perhaps.

Sen. Hillary Clinton, her armor temporarily pierced by Midwestern working-class grit (with sudden redemption by middle-class Northeastern posh), is like Tracy Flick in the dark comedy classic “Election” re-emerged. Uber-Movement man Sen. Barack Obama transcends candidate status; he is now an eclectic and flawed American story running for president — who just happens to be black, rather than a black man running for president. Former Sen. John Edwards’ Southern golden-boy charm is lost on cats feeling for a little more keep it real in 2008. Gov. Bill Richardson is on the edge, praying for a Latino vote breakout, panhandling for a cabinet position.

Not messing with his hair, we’ll see if Mitt Romney — once rising Manchurian — misjudged appearance as substitute for substance. Whereas Mike Huckabee finds strength in affability, his religion on the sleeve troubles some, and his test on foreign affairs is still undone. Though John McCain may correctly read maverick writings on the wall of a jaded American electorate, the Straight Talk Express may have issues if it can’t stretch resources past New Hampshire. Ron Paul noisily sits on the fringe, a mosquito buzzing in the ear, using newfound celebrity and fund-raising prowess to possibly catapult him into a libertarian revolt.

A consistent theme between candidates on both sides of the aisle is a scramble for identity; identity dissolves agenda, platform, message and policy. The first signs of an uprising… more an electoral bellyache with no remedy other than a total overhaul. It’s fair to assume that many of us underestimated the underbelly of the disillusioned and dispossessed. The confluence of candidate makeovers, prompted by the need to cater to many different demographics, may be rooted in panic rising within the party. Some of this angst is seen in the dubious effort to foment a “Unity ‘08” alternative with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. As new school trumps old school, the donkeys and elephants may face a testing of their relevancy, much the same way we’ve witnessed new generation of African American politicians defy the old guard through racial jujitsu in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Massachusetts and Newark. Communities change. Allegiances shift. Assumptions of authenticity are removed to make way for impressions of competence. Stars align. A prime, first presidential cycle test of this will be witnessed in South Carolina in a battle for black primary votes. One candidate’s “first black president” legacy presumption is matched against the rapid viral growth of the other candidate’s next-level “yes, we can” momentum in the post-civil rights era.

This represents a marked shift from old school to new school. That streak of independent thought defines this race, fuels the movement for “change” and prides itself on an anti-establishment vibe — a “stick it to the man” rage that is resonating quite strongly in both parties. This is why we are witnessing the dominance of maverick candidates as opposed to the locks of “status quo” candidates. Given that, we should examine where each of the dominant parties will be should they lose in 2008.

Should Democrats lose, an implosion the magnitude of an underground nuclear weapon test will take place, the unison of its many bases no more. Cynical liberals will plan a coordinated, net-rooted “we told you so” and blame may fall on Mr. Obama for his “post-partisan” message of conciliation and aisle-crossing. This could cause a battle royale within the Democratic-dominated black political establishment, a final locking of the horns between competing notions of 21st-century political power, a battle likely triggering the beginning of the end of what we always knew.

Should Republicans lose in 2008, there will be a firebombing scourge through the corridors of the Grand Old Party, a reshuffling of leadership, priorities and agenda. Perhaps it may just begin to look very different in 2009. That’s following the death match between its moderates (once lost and now feeling vindicated) and its conservatives, with many considering the establishment of their own party.

Peter C. Groff, president of the Colorado Senate, is founding executive director of the University of Denver’s Center for African American Policy and founding publisher of Blackpolicy.org. Charles D. Ellison is senior fellow at the center and chief editor of Blackpolicy.org. They host the radio show “Blackpolicy.org.”

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