There are 3½ weeks to go. Life, and political campaigns, can turn on a dime. But I think it just turned on a lot of dimes.
There was an October surprise, and it has all but certainly decided the race. On the left, a smug triumphalism is setting in. On the right, anger rises: the finger pointing is about to begin. In parts and pockets of the middle, we have Americans who aren’t thinking about politics because they’re busy trying to imagine what a modern depression would look like and wondering, for the first time ever, if it is possible that they may wind up living in their cars.
A friend caught the mood in a jollier way, quoting an old comic: “I have enough to live comfortably for the rest of my life, as long as I’m hit by a bus tomorrow.”
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But to the campaign:
People speak of the Bradley effect—more people tell pollsters they will vote for a black candidate than vote for the black candidate. But I have been wondering about the possibility of what may someday be called the Obama effect: You know your neighbors think he’s sketchy—unknown, a mystery, “Hussein”—so you don’t say you’re voting for him, but you are.
I don’t believe any of the polls this year, or rather the situation is too fluid to believe them for more than a day. But Democrats should remain concerned about this: We have two wars, an economic collapse, a two-term Republican president at historic lows in popularity, overwhelmingly negative poll answers on whether America is on the right track—and the Democratic presidential nominee isn’t 20 points ahead? Thirty? This should be a landslide. They say Barack Obama cannot “close the deal.” He hasn’t closed the deal because he’s still making the pitch, and to a wary customer who wants something new but isn’t sure this is the time to buy.
Here’s where Mr. Obama hopes to close the deal: in the half-hour network “address” his campaign announced Thursday. He will speak as a potential leader to a nation in crisis. That’s where the deal will close, or not.
The McCain campaign has famously spent the past week trying to increase doubts as to Mr. Obama’s nature, background, intentions. Their crowds have been irascible. Here is a warning for Republicans: When your crowds go from “I love you” to “I hate the other guy,” you are in trouble, you are on a losing strain. Winning campaigns are built on love. This is the time for “McCain is the answer,” not “The other guy is questionable.”
One thing McCain has going for him, a big arrow in his quiver, is this: In a time of crisis, do you really want one party to control the entire government? Don’t you want one party controlling one power center, and one in charge of the other, with each side tempering the other’s worst impulses?
With regard to the continuing saga of our vice presidential candidates, I think it was a strategic mistake to send Sarah Palin out on the stump as warrior girl. Mr. McCain is war-y enough. It would have been better if she had been, and seemed, a social conservative who is for diplomacy, for an easy-does-it approach to foreign affairs. Instead she has seemed martial, speaking breezily in interviews of war with Russia or an attack on Iran. They forget: Americans don’t like war. We fight it well but don’t like it, especially in times of economic stress.
It continues to be true that nobody really cares what Joe Biden says. He could announce his hairdo is going to war with Mrs. Palin’s hairdo on the fields of Agincourt, and no one would pay attention. That is because he is a known quantity. Everyone who’s followed politics at all in the past 30 years has a sense of him, and his politics. Mrs. Palin is still new to the scene, as is Mr. Obama.
Both campaigns, in the closing stretch, seem not fully worthy of the moment. We are in crisis—a once-in-a-century event, as we now say. And what we got from the candidates, in this week’s presidential debate, was a bunch of gummy meanderings—smooth, rounded sentences so full of focus-grouped inanities that six minutes in viewers entered a kind of trance in which we almost immediately gave up on trying to wrest meaning from what was being said and instead focused on mere impressions. The look of things. The men on the plane, the pseudo-tough political operatives who surround both candidates, sometimes grouse, in private, that it’s all symbols now, all mood, all about the visual.
But they have some real responsibility here. They send their candidates out to speak such thin gruel, such spat-out porridge, that we are struck dumb, and left daydreaming about the fact that Mr. Obama’s suits are always slate gray and never seem to wrinkle, and Mr. McCain tonight seems like a rabbity forest creature darting amid the hedgerows.
As to what they will do about the crisis, Mr. Obama will raise taxes on the rich and help us weatherize our homes, while Mr. McCain favors “energy independence” and buying up mortgages. On the causes of the crisis they spoke of insufficient regulation, or high spending.
But these were not the great causes. Neither party has clean hands. Or rather, both parties have dirty hands. Here is the truth, spoken by the increasingly impressive Sen. Tom Coburn: “The root of the problem is political greed in Congress. Members . . . from both parties wanted short-term political credit for promoting homeownership even though they were putting our entire economy at risk by encouraging people to buy homes they couldn’t afford. Then, instead of conducting thorough oversight and correcting obvious problems with unstable entities like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, members of Congress chose to . . . distract themselves with unprecedented amounts of pork-barrel spending.” That is the truth.
And yet at the debate, when one citizen-questioner invited both candidates to think aloud about the responsibility of our representatives in Washington, they both gently suggested she was cynical.
She was not cynical. She was informed.
Why would anyone trust either candidate to help dig us out of this if they can’t speak frankly about what got us into it?
One had the sense this week that our entire political class is playing Frisbee on the edge of a precipice, that no one is being serious enough, honest enough, that it’s all too revved, too intense, and yet too shallow. I have grown impatient with the strategists from the campaigns, the little blond monsters who go on cable TV to give us their bouncy, aggressive, tendentious talking points. They are like the men on the plane, the gargoyles with BlackBerrys who think the race is about them and their personal win/loss ratio, who think history is their plaything, who stay up with the press in the bar sipping Perrier and calling it seltzer, and who advise their candidates, in essence, to talk down to the voters, to the American people. They treat every crisis as if it is a political fact to be used for gain or loss, and not as a real crisis, something that deserves a response of gravity and seriousness.
It is asking a lot to ask a political animal to be thoughtful, because they find meaning in action. They are propelled through life by the force of their hunger. But now and then you want to see them think. You want to see them speak the truth. This is one of those times.