The political pundits I've been watching on TV lately have been trying out a new word (the way it usually works is that George Will does it first, then everybody else jumps on the verbal bandwagon): dispositive, as in, "Well, the results of the voting tonight were certainly interesting, but probably not dispositive." I think that's their way of acknowledging they've been talking through their hats in hopes that we won't notice that they're still going to be talking through their hats. The same people who, just a few weeks ago, were blithely talking about the Clinton-Giulianai matchup to come were, last week, boldly mapping out the path to an Obama-McCain race. I don't know which alignment they'll get behind next, only that it, too, will probably be wrong. This time around, the presidential race is uncertain enough to actually be interesting.
It's risky to predict anything this year, but the race does seem to be more settled on the Democratic side. It seems fairly safe to say that either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama is going to carry the party's banner this fall. If the mood of the electorate stays the same, that means it will quite likely be President Clinton or President Obama. Either one would be a historic first, so the question is, which first would do more for the country as a whole, having the first female president or the first black president?
The "first to do so and so" stories have become routine and not very interesting in recent years, but this one would be different, in magnitude if nothing else. There will be a sense that, having elected the first woman or black man as president, the country has reached an important milestone on its path to inclusiveness, full participation, living up to our ideals, etc. That milestone will be widely written about and much discussed. In fact, unless the new president does something astonishingly good or bad, it will be the biggest part of the presidential coverage for at least the first year.
Which milestone would make the most people say the country was where it needed to be? My hunch (don't take this as dispositive) is that most people have seen electing a woman as more likely than electing an African-American, that is, being the easier hurdle. So electing Obama would be skipping a hurdle -- some people might be thinking, "Not only can we change history, but even faster than we thought." One of the networks showed an exit interview with a New Hampshire voter last night who said she had been inclined toward Obama but realized at the last moment that she didn't want to look back in a few years and realize she didn't try to help put a woman in the White House.
I presume (or hope, rather) that after the new president has served a year or so, we will start judging him or her on the policies espoused and programs implemented. But that should be an interesting first year for the country, the politics and policies notwithstanding.