I realized today which election the present one most resembles. Not the ones the candidates (and media) would like. Obama, of course, aspires to be Kennedy: young, hip, demographically historic, and unimaginably popular. McCain protrays himself as Reagan - old only in an experienced, reliable way, and a sunny Conservative you can feel good about. But these are superficial comparisons that miss the importance of the relationship between opposed candidates.
I think there is a more revealing analogy between the 2008 election and the 1952 election. The country is/was wobbling, about a decade after suffering a major attack at home, now trapped in a grinding distant foreign war apparently unrelated to the original fight, tired of the policies and practices of the long-dominant outgoing administration.
Barack Obama is Adlai Stevenson. Professorial, worldly, just slightly effete. A liberal internationalist concerned to wrap American power in diplomatic respectability. Incredibly intelligent, probably a bit naive. Perceived as stronger on domestic affairs than in confronting international threats. Deeply rooted in urban Chicago politics.
John McCain is Dwight Eisenhower. Famous for his military service and perceived as most prepared to confront hostile foreign threats. Older, more folksy, with a reputation for plain dealing. Smart, but by no means an intellectual. A bit removed from changing social mores, but uncomfortable with the reactionary wing of his party.
These observations extend, I think, to a further point. Like Stevenson and Eisenhower, both McCain and Obama are fundamentally decent, competent people. Unlike a range of 1950s and 2000s politicians (Johnson, Nixon, Mitt Romney, John Edwards) none of these seem to be hyper-mercenary narcissists bent irrevocably on the acquisition of power. My overall point, I suppose, is that 2008, like 1952 - and unlike 2000 or 1968 - is ultimately a safe election. Neither of the candidates is likely to be a disastrous president.
One thing's for certain. The results of 1952 do not map predictively onto 2008. Stevenson was decisively and absolutely crushed by Eisenhower, winning only 18% of Electoral College votes. He carried only the southern states, in those days before Johnson's singular bravery and Nixon's repulsive calculation turned the white-dominated south into unchallenged Republican territory. Stevenson ran against Eisenhower again in 1956, losing by an even broader margin. He wanted to try a third time in 1960 (now facing Eisenhower's veep Nixon), but was blocked by a conspiracy of panicked Party elders, his declining health, and the mischief of the Kennedy clan.
The factors behind Stevenson's aysmal performance were plainly unique to those years. The public had simply grown bored with 20 years of Roosevelt/Truman Democratic dominance. And for all the genuine strength of character shown in McCain's years of POW captivity, that is plainly not the same thing as being Supreme Allied Commander Europe, the slayer of Hitler. If McCain does win this election, it will be by a very narrow margin.
Still, the Stevenson/Obama parallel remains helpful. I can see in Obama some of the same traits that make Stevenson one of my personal political heroes: the lively intelligence, the urgent desire to lead America to a more modest and viable position in the international system. And I also see some of the same traits that made Stevenson unpalatable to most Americans: the unmistakable whiff of elitism, the sense that underneath the global celebrity lurks a peevish egghead. Those Stevensonian traits may yet bring Obama defeat.