By KEVIN SACK
Published: January 24, 2008
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Whatever their ideological differences this election year, Americans seem able to agree on one thing: the political landscape being crisscrossed by the 2008 candidates is barely recognizable as the one traveled by George W. Bush
and Al Gore
a mere eight years ago.
Obviously, Sept. 11 and its aftermath have changed the country in countless and irretrievable ways. But even beyond the emergence of war and national security as pre-eminent concerns, there has been a profound reordering of domestic priorities, a darkening of the country’s mood and, in the eyes of many, a fraying of America’s very sense of itself.
While not universal, that tone pervaded dozens of interviews conducted over the last week with Americans of all political stripes in 8 of the 24 states that hold primaries or caucuses on Feb. 5, as well as with historians, elected officials, political strategists and poll takers. As the candidates fan out to New York and California and here to the heartland, they are confronting an electorate that is deeply unsettled about the United States’ place in the world and its ability to control its own destiny.
Since World War II, the assumption of American hegemony has never been much in doubt. That it now is, at least for some people, has given this campaign a sense of urgency that was not always felt in 2000, despite the dramatic outcome of that race.
Several writers and historians remarked on the psychological impact of such a jarring end to the Pax Americana, just as it seemed that victory in the cold war might usher in prolonged prosperity and relative peace (save the occasional mop-up operation). Its confluence with an era of unparalleled technological innovation had only heightened the nation’s sense of post-millennial possibility.
Now, Americans feel a loss of autonomy, in their own lives and in the nation. Their politics are driven by the powerlessness they feel to control their financial well-being, their safety, their environment, their health and the country’s borders. They question whether each generation will continue to ascend the economic ladder. That the political system seems so impotent only deepens their frustration and their insistence on results.
As she considers this campaign, Susan C. Powell, a 47-year-old training consultant who lives in a Kansas City suburb, said that what she feels is not so much hopelessness as doom.
“I know plenty of people who are doing worse than they were,” Ms. Powell said, “and nobody’s helping them out. People’s incomes are not keeping pace with inflation. People can’t afford their homes. People in their 30s and 40s, middle-income, and they don’t have jobs they can count on or access to health care. How can we say that we’re the greatest country on earth and essentially have the walking wounded?”Carter Eskew
, a top strategist for Mr. Gore in 2000, recalled the factors that drove public opinion then — like a modest increase in fuel prices and the bursting of the technology stock bubble — as “naïvely quaint by today’s standards.” His Republican counterpart, Mark McKinnon, who advised Mr. Bush in 2000 and now works for Senator John McCain
, said the electorate saw this campaign as far more consequential. “It feels like we’re collectively more mature, or collectively more evolved,” Mr. McKinnon said.
The change in tone came through in interviews in coffee bars, barbecue joints and shopping malls as people vented about unaffordable health premiums, porous international borders, freakish weather, government eavesdropping, Chinese imports and customer service calls that are answered in India.
Like many of those interviewed, Robert W. Jennings, a 45-year-old Kansas City landlord who considers himself politically independent, said he thought the stakes were higher than in 2000, when the country last chose new leadership after an eight-year incumbency. Two years ago, after the adjustable-rate mortgage on his apartment building kicked in, Mr. Jennings had to take an hourly job for the first time in a decade, at the Home Depot. It also provided him with his only health insurance since college.
“I used to be master of my universe,” he said from a bar stool at McCoy’s Public House. “Now I work for this soul-less corporation. I used to make the rules. Now I have to follow them.”
Mr. Jennings also does not like the war in Iraq, or its impact on the country’s international standing. “Most of the times I go overseas I say I’m Canadian,” he said. “I just get a better response.”
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