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Columnist Puts Historical Spin On '08 Race

This story was written by Sarah Mervosh, The Observer

Dr. Matthew Dallek, a former speechwriter and a columnist at, gave a lecture Monday at Notre Dames' DeBartolo building about the 2008 presidential election's position in history.

Dallek, who received his Ph.D. in history from Columbia University, focused on three main issues that he said have been influential in shaping this election: identity politics, experience and Ronald Reagan's legacy.

Dallek began with political identity in the primaries, saying, "We witnessed something quite remarkable - the first woman with a serious shot at the nomination running against the first African American with a serious shot at the nomination."

Dallek cited the women's movement and the civil rights movement as being key factors that influenced Clinton and Obama, respectively.

"I think the women's movement on some level drove some of [Clinton's] supporters to send money, which is crucial, to write op-eds, and also urging her to stay in the race even when her path had narrowed," said Dallek.

Dallek also talked about how a historical memory of gender inequality fueled her candidacy, citing an example of a man holding up a sign that said 'Iron my shirt' at a rally, which riled her supporters.

Likewise, Dallek said that memories of the civil rights movement and racial inequalities propelled Obama's candidacy.

Not only do some African Americans support Obama because of their memory of the civil rights movement, Dallek said that Obama also has the support of some upper income white liberals who view his candidacy as a sort of "racial healing."

Dallek spoke of Bill Clinton, comparing Obama to Jesse Jackson, a candidate for President in the 1980's.

"The implication was that Obama was just like Jackson, that he was popular among African Americans but that's pretty much it," said Dallek. "A lot of support, not just black support, hardened behind Obama."

Dallek went on to discuss the role of identity politics in the general election, focusing mainly on the idea that both parties are competing to identify with the people.

"I think it is very hard to win unless people see you as connecting to them, the issues they care about, their kitchen table concerns," said Dallek.

Dallek also spoke of political experience, saying that people who have won the presidency in recent decades have all been Washington outsiders.

"Since 1976, only one vice president has won the presidency, and everybody else, have all been governors. Most importantly, they all campaigned on the theme of change," said Dallek, who, for these reasons, believes that Obama's lack of experience is actually an asset to him.

Sophomore Erin McNeil said after the talk, "I think he did a very good job of explaining why Obama's lack of experience actually helped him, instead of hurting him as his opponents have been trying to do."

Finally, Dallek spoke of how Reagan has influenced both Obama and John McCain.

Dallek compared Obama to Reagan, citing that both President George W. Bush and President Jimmy Carter's rating were both low, and that Obama, like Reagan, is an outsider to Washington, and is criticized as being inexperienced and an extremist. At the same time, both were strong communicators.

Dallek also said that McCain is similar to Reagan in that he runs on a country first campaign, focusing on his service to, and love of, the United States.

"I thought that he took the Obama/Reagan analogy a little too far," senior Greg Barr said. "There are so many differences in the kinds of campaigns they've been running. Why isn't he closer to Jimmy Carter or Kennedy, people wose careers were more disappointing?" But Barr said that overall, he enjoyed the lecture.

"It was an interesting to try to connect history with current events and I hope people do that more in the future," he said. "I think a lot of voters don't have a sense of history and can't always make these important analogies and connections."

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