He ran against an authentic American hero who served his country with years of courage and distinction, some of them spent in a squalid Hanoi prison cell. But John McCain's heroic past was precisely that, the past. Young voters can summon scant appreciation for deeds performed before their time. Americans live in the present tense, and like a loser on a reality show, John McCain was told, "You're history."
Barack Obama was the man bathed in the warm sentimentality of the moment. Real-time experience with dealing with the real-life complexities of domestic policy and foreign affairs yields few rewards measured against celebrity. Better to have George W. Bush to kick around, even if only in the person of the old soldier.
Perceptions of race changed over the months of the campaign; perceptions of gender, not so much. Hillary Clinton's early "inevitability" was determined more by her last name than by her first. Fair or not, bringing her husband into her campaign, offering "buy one, get one free," recalled only earlier failure. She was hailed as heroine by the sisterhood, but her past played against her with everyone else.
The nomination of Sarah Palin as McCain's running mate further exploded myths of feminism. The older sisters wanted to elect a woman simply because she was a woman; how could Hillary's liberals not loathe Sarah Palin? They said it was because she flubbed her first interviews because, quick study or not, she was late in turning in her homework. She dazzled nearly everyone else, reason enough to hate her.
So now we brace for an uncertain future, where we can get back to feeling like whole people rather than stick figures generated by pollsters. Descartes said something else that applies here: "Except our own thoughts, there is nothing absolutely in our power."