I notice lately everyone I talk to has a new insight or a big theory. In the past week I bumped into two journalists who with cool eyes watch the national scene. The first was in Washington. She told me she’d just been taken aside by a savvy Democratic operative who told her, “It’s going to be a landslide. It’s feeling like 1980 out there.”
I wasn’t sure what this meant, so I asked, “A landslide for whom?”
“He said Kerry,” she said. Oh. Interesting if true, meaning interesting if he’s seeing something most of the rest of us aren’t.
The second journalist, in Manhattan, told me she’s hearing that in focus groups, voters are lately consistently expressing broad and deep affection for President Bush. Even when the leader of the focus group tries to draw them out on Mr. Bush’s negatives, she said, they don’t go there. The leaders says something like, “What about Iraq?” and they’ll say, “That’s not Bush, it’s his advisers.” That’s interesting if true, too.
Lots of swirls of information and misinformation out there. The political class is more fully engaged than ever in the big drama. It’s odd: they have never been so obsessed with who the president is, and at the same time so fundamentally disrespectful of presidents.
* * *
I don’t have a Big Theory to share, but I’ve been thinking a lot about someone who’s more important than pundits, and that’s a woman I spent a few hours with last week. She’s a middle-aged, middle-class, suburban middle-of-the-roader.
Some of the things she said surprised me. For one thing, she often votes Republican but isn’t sure she’ll vote for Mr. Bush. Also, she brings no crusading temperament to it, but she is very much against the Iraq war.
I will call her Anna, because that is not her real name. I can’t quote her because it wasn’t an interview but a conversation, and I wasn’t taking notes. But the meaning of what she said, if not her exact words, is in italics.
Anna lives in a $250,000 three-bedroom house in a neighborhood that never quite jelled aesthetically (the highway is 200 yards away, and the whoosh sound the traffic makes when it isn’t drowned out by birds gives you a feeling not of movement forward but of hubbub and rush) and never quite jelled in human terms either, at least for her.
She told me the neighbors seem nice but she doesn’t really know them. Which is odd, as she’s lived there 22 years. But people move in and out—this is the great move-in-and-out nation. Years ago she still stopped by with a Pyrex dish of baked ziti when new people moved in, but not so much anymore. In their old neighborhood, when the kids were young (they have three, all college-educated, grown and living on their own), they got to know the neighbors, but not now. You get quieter. Your family grows. Your grandchildren become everything.
In the house now are just Anna and her husband, who’s semiretired. They’re in their late ‘60s, getting a little achy, thinking about full retirement.
* * *
Someone once said, “Show me the headlines when a young man was 20 and I’ll tell you what he thinks.” The headlines when she was in her 20s and 30s were about Vietnam and antiwar demonstrations. She and her husband were young and earnest—he’d been a Marine—and they couldn’t understand the anti-American rhetoric of the kids. They couldn’t understand how anyone would dodge the draft. But now she thinks she thought that way because she was young.
Anna is not romantic about presidents. She figures we hire ‘em and fire ‘em. She thinks politicians are pretty much in it for their own reasons. But it’s also true that if she met the president tomorrow her eyes would dance. This is the modern democratic paradox—”Presidents are nothing. I just met the president!”
As for wars—Vietnam, Nicaragua, anything in Africa, the Mideast, whatever—she has come to believe one thing: None of them were really necessary. War is never good and usually not right. The communists invade Long Island, you have to fight. Otherwise—they rarely have to be fought. You can always sort of put it off. Talk, give a little here and there, make a deal. Don’t have a war. Men have war not because they’re brutal but because they’re romantic, they get all excited. The flags and parades. And they take things very seriously, like oil and geopolitics.
Anna is not a pacifist, she just thinks man likes war too much, and when you look back you think: What was that about? Couldn’t they have avoided that?
She voted for Mr. Bush in 2000. She’s by nature a Republican, which she thinks of as the more boring and mature party. Boring is good in government. Exciting is for “Ryan’s Hope.” But she likes Democrats too. They’re more rascally. But Clinton—he was very smart and he had a great economy but he was a bum. Not just the sex but the money and the pardons and Hillary probably walked out of there with a couch on her head! Bush is a better person. He gets in and 9/11 comes and he handles it. He brought respect back. But he’s always too eager to get involved in things. He pushes too much. He’s pretty impetuous! It was good in Afghanistan, we got rid of those nuts. But Iraq—I don’t know. Iraq is very—who knows? Maybe it was too much. Maybe it was the right thing—but now we’ve got this antiwar mess and it’s 10 troops today and the Israelis and the Gaza strip and fighting and suicide and kids with backpacks and—what a big mess.
* * *
Anna is going to vote in November. That’s not in doubt; she always votes. But she isn’t sure who she’s going to vote for.
She’ll make up her mind. It’s not like they say on TV, that there will be some picture and it will crystallize for her “Yes Bush” or “No Bush.” It’s more like she’ll be imagining “more Bush” and the world that brings, or “let’s hire Kerry” and the world that brings. And she’ll vote for the better world she imagines.
And oddly enough she’s starting to feel a little like Mr. Bush can be let go because maybe he has already done the job he was meant to do. He did what we hired him for. He got us through 9/11, he led us through, he got the Homeland Security Department. He cleaned out Afghanistan. Then he moved into Iraq, he fought hard. And maybe that’s the job he was supposed to do. And maybe now we can let him go. Maybe Kerry’s supposed to handle it the next few years. He’ll get us out of Iraq as soon as possible because he’s a Democrat and they don’t want to be there. He didn’t put us in there, so he has no personal issues in getting us out. He’ll work better with other countries because he’s kind of their type—he’s like Chirac, he probably kisses ladies’ hands. He won’t raise taxes too much, because the Republicans in Congress won’t let him. He won’t do anything radical, because the country won’t let him. We could hire him for a few years, let him get things more stable, and then fire him. Put the Democrats in charge of the war; they don’t like war. Put them in charge of the economy; Wall Street seems to bounce when they’re in, funny thing.
Anna knows the world of her children and grandchildren is going to be tough. She wishes everyone were preparing for it, though she isn’t sure there’s anything you can do to prepare. But it would be good, she feels, if Mr. Bush were trying to get the suburbs safer. What do we do if New York is hit? Besides have a lot of water, which is down in the basement waiting. (Does bottled water turn bad after a while? She intends to check this.)
She’s leaning Kerry. But she’s not sure. And she has some issues with him, too.
* * *
It’s a mistake to make too much of chance conversations with likely voters, especially ones who are a little older than the average. But our conversation suggested a few things to me. One is that it could be a surprising year. That’s always true of course, but one does have the sense no one has a lock on almost any group in this cycle. Everything feels fluid.
If I were George W. Bush I might be thinking that down the road but not too far down, it might be a good idea to start making clear two things. One, why I am indispensable—a delicate thing to communicate, but something re-elected incumbents always have to get across sooner or later. “I am leading us in the right direction and my work is just begun.” And the other is to make the case that a Kerry presidency would not be a lunge toward greater stability, that it would not be a “return to normalcy,” that Mr. Kerry wouldn’t right things but make them worse, bringing more trouble.
A one-two punch: If you stand with me, I’ll get the peace and prosperity we seek; and if you go for him it will make the world less safe and the country less healthy.