Democrats, hit reset. Accept the fact that the race has changed utterly, that you’re up against a ticket that has captured the public imagination. Now you must go out and recapture it.
Out of the shirtsleeves, into the suit. Stop prowling the stage with what looks like Phil Donahue’s old mic. No more scattered, listless riffs; back to the podium and the prepared—and focused—speech. Campaign as a duo, Obama-Biden, together again. Obama alone looks like he’s part of nothing.
You must aim your fire at the top of the ticket, John McCain, and not at this beautiful girl, Sarah Palin, about whom you can do nothing.
You can never kill her now. Forget it. She can hurt herself, but in terms of Democratic attacks she is bulletproof. You made her that—she wasn’t that way when she walked in.
Hope that Mr. McCain stops campaigning with her and spins her off into her own orbit, to small towns and medium-sized cities. It will cut his recent power in half. Some press will follow her, but mostly on gaffe patrol. They will want to keep their main lens on Obama and McCain.
This is going to be the only way to contain her power: Ignore it.
* * *
This race is not over. Everyone I know thinks it is, but I don’t buy it. Mr. Obama just suffered a catastrophe, his first. Mr. McCain just enjoyed a triumph, maybe not his last. GOP strategists are experiencing premature triumphalism; they’re puffing up like blowfish, emitting great bubbles of self-regard. Democrats, be encouraged by this! They make mistakes when they’re winning. They always start to think they’re the reason.
Democratic strategists have their heads in their hands, knowing they took a bad hit but not understanding exactly how, or why. Republicans, be inspired by this! They can’t come up with the right cure if they can’t diagnose the illness.
Here’s why it’s not over: We are a more or less 50/50 nation experiencing 80% wrong-track numbers, alarming economic challenges and two continuing wars. New voters are about to flood to the polls. There are more than 50 days to go. The media environment is volatile. The Obama campaign has some experience in turning inevitable candidacies into evitable ones. Sen. Obama himself is talented, resourceful and compelling.
More important, obviously, the race shouldn’t be over. The nation deserves—and requires—a real debate, a real and spirited presenting of fact and argument. It won’t get that if the election is over. The candidates must argue this thing out or it means nothing. And the day after the election, for the winner in this tempestuous nation, it better mean something, or he won’t be able to govern.
* * *
After the past 10 days, it is not remarkable that Mr. McCain has caught up with Mr. Obama. It is amazing that Mr. Obama is still roughly even with Mr. McCain.
There is no denying that Mr. Obama is in a bad place, that he must now be considered the underdog, that he’s wearing Loser-Glo. The slide started with the Rick Warren interviews in August, just as America was starting to pay attention. Verdict? McCain: normal. Obama: odd.
Then Mrs. Palin, and the catastrophe of the Democratic and media response to her. Books will be written about this, but because it’s so recent, and so known, we’re almost not absorbing how huge it was, and is. Here was the central liberal mistake: They used the atom bomb just a few days in. They used it so brutally, and yet so ineptly, in a way so oblivious to the true contours of the field, that the radiation blew back over their own lines. They used it without preliminary diplomatic talks, multilateral meetings or Security Council debate. They just went boom. And it boomeranged.
The atom bomb was personal and sexual perfidy, backwoods knuckle-draggin’ ma and pa saying, Tell the neighbors the baby’s ours. Then the ritual abuse of the 17-year-old girl. Then the rest of it—bad mother, religious weirdo. (On this latter it must be noted that Mrs. Palin never told a church that the Iraq war was God’s will; she asked them to pray that it was God’s will. It wasn’t the sound of Republican hubris, it was the sound of Christian humility: We can’t know the mind of God, we can only pray we are in accord with it.)
All of this was unacceptable to normal Americans. They experienced it as the town gossip spreading rumor and slander before the new neighbor even got to put down her bags. It offended the American sense of fairness. And—it still lives!—gallantry.
Most crucially, the snobbery of it, the meanness of it, reminded the entire country, for the first time in a decade, what it is they don’t like about the left. Really, America had forgotten. Mr. Obama’s friends reminded them. Unforgettably.
And it wasn’t just excitable bloggers or 24-hour cable news shows desperate to fill the maw. The chairwoman of the South Carolina Democratic Party said this week that Mrs. Palin’s “primary qualification [for vice president] seems to be that she hasn’t had an abortion.”
The Democrats were up against Xena the Warrior Princess and came across, in response, as pale-lipped Puritans who actually, at the end of the day, don’t really like women all that much. Mrs. Palin radiates the sense that she’d never give up her femininity in her quest for power because her femininity is part of her power. (On the Democratic side, she can be compared in this to Nancy Pelosi.)
A certain normal-versus-sissy template was captured in a deadly email that is making the rounds. It offers two pictures. One is of a young Mrs. Palin in a short skirt, smiling at the camera as she leans against a big ol’ motorcycle. The other is of a thin and careful Obama on a bicycle, in a plastic safety helmet, looking like a tony suburban professional trying to lower his carbon footprint. The headline on the email: “This settles it.”
* * *
All of this is being exploited—so far relatively deftly, soon to be heavy-handedly—by the Republican Party, which is sending out emails saying that if you’ll click on this little link you’ll be able to contribute money to help stop the smears and lies aimed at Mrs. Palin.
Right now only Mrs. Palin can hurt Mrs. Palin. Messrs. Obama and Biden can’t do it and shouldn’t try. And the media can’t, because more than half the country won’t listen to them on this subject now, and for a while. The media could get videotape of Mrs. Palin saying, “We should invade Mars and it will be easy because Mars is hidden inside my hair!” and people would say, “Stop sliming Sarah!”
The mainstream media may themselves come down on Mr. Obama. They like him, but if he doesn’t come back and make this a race, he’ll embarrass them. They just might be on the edge of getting angry, having been left exposed. Forget what Mr. McCain and Mrs. Palin can do to Mr. Obama: If he embarrasses the media, they’ll kill him.