The readership here is small – a hundred hits a day, give or take, save when CNN or BBC World Service notices this column or that and the traffic jumps. It happens. But given that – the situation where this is just one more political site in a sea of tens of thousands of such things, even if one of the few from the heart of Hollywood – some of you, or most of you, will have stumbled across this column long after John McCain has pulled off the biggest upset since Truman defeated Dewey and won the presidency, or Barack Obama has done the extraordinary and come from nowhere – one speech in Boston four years ago – to defeat the Clinton machine in the primaries and embarrass the powers that be, from the White House to Rush Limbaugh to Roger Ailes, to become our first black president. His win would owe much to the mess George Bush has made of everything – as Bill Maher put it on Halloween night, people are so fed up with the last eight years that, you know what, a black guy with an Arab-sounding name sounds good right about now.
Be that as it may, stepping back from things, two days before the election that decides things one way or the other, might provide some perspective. And if you’re reading this after everything has been decided, well, understand this as an attempt to work through some issues that might be of consequence no matter what happens.
As of Sunday evening, November 2, things hadn’t been decided yet, and all we had were dispatches from the front, like this from John Dickerson. He was travelling with the Obama campaign in Ohio, and noted that if Barack Obama wins the election it will be historic, but also historic if he loses – “It would mark the biggest collective error in the history of the media and political establishment.”
Yep, all the pundits, reporters and analysts would have been wrong:
Pollsters would have to find a new line of work, since Obama has been ahead in all 159 polls taken in the last six weeks. The massive crowds that have regularly turned out to see Obama would turn out to have meant nothing. This collective Fail of elites would provide such a blast of Schadenfreude that Republicans like Rush Limbaugh would be struck speechless (another historic first).
Dickerson explains how unsettling this all is:
This situation lends a feeling of unreality to the proceedings as we begin to measure the time till Election Day in hours. It is the elephant on the campaign plane. No one is letting on. Journalists aren’t supposed to. Plus, we’ve been wrong so often, and politics can be so unpredictable, it would be dumb to say that Obama is going to win big.
But he is reporting from Cleveland and sees that Obama is feeling good:
When the rally in Cleveland concluded, Obama was drenched but lingered for a moment in front of the crowd, estimated at 80,000, and did a few tiny little dance steps to “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours,” the Stevie Wonder song that plays after each rally the minute he stops speaking.
It’s hard to guess at a candidate’s inner feelings. It is particularly hard with Obama, whose emotions are as carefully constrained as a Bonsai tree and who keeps the press at a chilly distance. It could be that Obama is just happy to be with his family. Since Saturday, Obama’s wife Michelle and children, Malia and Sasha, have been with him. The girls are clearly delighted to be in his company. At most stops, Michelle introduces her husband and implores the audience to help her husband finish the quest he started in their name 21 months ago. “I would love to give credit to my husband,” she said, “but this race is not about him but all of us, all of you. He’s taken us 85 percent of the way. The rest is on us.”
Obama told the crowd in Cleveland that the family time is shaping his mood. “The last few days I’ve been feeling good,” he said. “You start thinking that maybe we might win an election November 4.”
He is a restrained fellow, isn’t he? McCain flat-out claims he, McCain, will win – his jaw thrust out and anger and defiance in his voice. Obama offers a tentative maybe. Aren’t you supposed to show superb confidence? How else would people know that you are an assured – and self-assured – leader? The contrast is interesting – if McCain wins he looks strong and above all visionary, and if he loses people will talk about how he is delusional. It’s a George Bush thing, as with the Iraq War and those weapons of mass destruction. It’s a gamble. Obama doesn’t even go there. He prefers empirical evidence, and in the case of all the polling, he has quite a bit. But it’s not quite enough to justify anything rash. You can infer the nature of a McCain or Obama presidency from this.
And Obama knows that the polls are one thing, but there are other things to consider, like the new guest on most of the Fox News shows, Joe the Plumber. Joe is in constant rotation there – Fox has found its all-purpose resident everyman, brought in as an expert on what Americans are really thinking several times each day. He’s part McCain spokesman and part Fox News analyst. And here he is, on the business show, chatting with Neil Cavuto:
JOE: McCain has fought and bled for our country, and loves our country. There are too many questions with Barack Obama and his loyalty to our country. And I question that greatly.
CAVUTO: Well, you’re not doubting that he’s a good American. Or you are?
JOE: Oh you know, his ideology is something that is completely different than what democracy stands for, so I had some question there – in my opinion.
Cavuto feigns sad outrage that Joe would say such a thing, but you suspect Cavuto is secretly grinning ear to ear. Things like this make Obama say maybe, and not count on the pools. Cavuto works for Roger Ailes who works for Rupert Murdoch – you don’t underestimate these guys. Guest experts, especially ones who they can say speak for us all, are booked carefully.
Josh Marshall is not pleased:
When he was just the topic du jour because of his question to Barack Obama back in the neighborhood in Ohio that was one thing. But “Joe the Plumber” is now actively campaigning with and for John McCain, appearing on stage with him at multiple events, etc. He has become a part of McCain’s campaign, like any other surrogate.
So here “Joe” is on TV just about an hour ago saying that people shouldn’t vote for Obama because he doubts Obama’s “loyalty to America.”
I guess saying Obama reminded him of Sammy Davis, Jr. wasn’t bad enough. But isn’t it time someone ask McCain whether he’s really willing to associate with this extremist?
There is no point in asking. See McCain in this video clip:
This has been a long campaign but recently we’ve learned more and more about Senator Obama. He said the other day that his primary victory “vindicated” his faith in America. My country has never had to prove anything to me, my friends. I’ve always had faith in it and I’ve been humbled and honored to serve it.
So Obama may be loyal to America, sort of, but he’s obviously no patriot – Obama should NOT have been pleased Americans do nice things now and then, or something.
Here’s the Obama campaign’s response:
“It’s pathetic that John McCain would take a statement Barack Obama has been making for a year about his faith in the American people and distort it to attack his patriotism,” spokesman Bill Burton said in response to McCain’s attack Saturday. “Sadly, this is what we’ve come to expect from a desperate, dishonorable campaign that will say anything in a failed attempt to win this election.”
Each response indicates what either presidency would be like. Obama would be regularly surprised and pleased when things work out well. McCain would expect them to work out well, and be angry when they didn’t. We get to choose one or the other. We are good and perfect, damn it, from McCain. Let’s see what we can do now, from Obama. That’s an interesting choice, and it does seem to be a choice between more of the same and something new.
As for what people really expect with an Obama win, see George Will:
By midnight Tuesday, millions of conservatives probably will believe that the nation, foundering on the reefs of sin, is ruined. And millions of “progressives,” emboldened to embrace truth in labeling by again calling themselves liberals, probably will have decided that Heaven is at hand, the nation revived like a flower in an April shower.
Andrew Sullivan counters:
For me, if Obama is elected, it will feel more like a simple end to a nightmare. The earth has been scorched these past seven years. No Heaven awaits – just an end to some sort of Hell.
And Sullivan, in the Times of London, suggests an Obama win would be ambiguous to many:
The reason for the wave of optimism behind Obama – just look at the massive crowds across the country this past year – is almost entirely due to the profound national demoralization of the recent past. Iraq and Afghanistan, Katrina and the financial meltdown, torture and religious extremism: all these have led many Americans to the brink of despair about their own country. A historically unprecedented number of Americans believe their country is on the wrong track and view Obama as the vehicle to repair it.
But that is the whole problem:
Among the most enthusiastic Obama supporters, there are tinges of hero worship and aspirations beyond anything any human being can deliver. And the hostility born of dashed expectations is always the worst. People expecting a messiah will at some point be forced to realize they have merely elected a president.
No president will be able to wave the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan away with some kind of magic wand – there are few good options in either conflict, and many potential perils. No president will be able to end a recession with deep roots or alter market confidence in a single speech.
No president can change the Earth’s climate in four or eight years. And when Obama’s limitations emerge, as they will, there is a danger that the powerful expectations of his young base may turn to tears. This is always the risk with political “movements.” They conjure up utopias that can simply never happen.
The best we can hope for is steadiness:
What has been truly amazing is the preternatural calm and moderation Obama has shown throughout this volatile and emotional campaign. He has managed to get to the brink of the White House by beating some of the most formidable political machines in America – the Clintons and the Roves – without intensifying the conflict or polarizing the country himself.
He seems able to absorb these currents without further disturbing them. Of course, this is much harder in office than in opposition. In office, you have to make decisions that delineate winners and losers rather than make speeches onto which everyone can project their interests. But Obama seems unafraid of his enemies, undeterred by his rivals, and able somehow to stay healthy and cheerful.
His temperamental edge is complemented by his organizational and managerial skills. The most seasoned political observers have been struck by the meticulous professionalism of his campaign; and there has never been a fundraising machine as innovative or as successful as his in the history of American politics.
So an Obama presidency would be utterly competent and so professional and pragmatic that we’d perhaps be bored by the lack of drama. We might miss that. If so, McCain is your man.
Jay Newton-Small, in Time, is thinking along the same lines:
Almost two years ago, in the first months of Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency, whenever the Illinois senator would get crowds going he would intentionally dial it down a notch. I remember seeing him in Columbia on his first trip to South Carolina in February 2007, six days after announcing his candidacy. When the crowd started chanting, “Yes, we can,” to his riff on Civil Rights, Obama abruptly changed the subject to labor’s right to organize. It was clear he was making a conscious effort not to be perceived (or pigeonholed) as the same inspirational speaker they saw at the 2004 convention; he wanted to introduce himself and tell his story, but most of all he wanted people to realize that there was substance underneath all the style. Indeed, what he wanted was the reaction he often ended up getting from many who came to see him on the stump during the primaries: “He wasn’t what I expected.”
McCain is the Drama Queen, if you want one of those – although people never put it that way, preferring to say they want someone with passion and firm convictions, with that fire in the belly, as they say, even if such a person is often completely wrong and mistaken about the facts at hand, and gives us disasters. We make our choice.
Hilary Bok sees the alternative Obama offers:
Obama doesn’t play the game the way it is usually played. He also seems to have an unusual personality for a politician: early on in Dreams from My Father, he writes: “I had grown too comfortable in my solitude, the safest place I knew.” Immediately afterwards, he tells the story of an elderly man who lives in his building, who he sees sometimes, helps with the groceries, but who has never said a word to him. He thinks of the man as a kindred spirit. Later, the man is found dead; his apartment is “neat, almost empty”, with money squirreled away throughout. It’s clear, from the way he tells the story, that this seems to him to be one of his possible fates, and though his description of the man is kind throughout, it’s also clear that Obama thinks: his fate is to be avoided.
Ask yourself when you last heard of a politician who had to warn himself away from solitude, or who saw dying alone, without friends or family, as among his possible fates. Imagine how unlikely it is that, say, Bill Clinton ever thought: I have grown too comfortable in my solitude. Politicians normally crave attention. Obama seems to me not to. That’s probably one reason why he can afford to underplay his hand sometimes, and to hold back. And it’s certainly part of what makes him so interesting.
Do we go with thoughtfulness, self-control, personal insight and that quaint old value, propriety? That list makes Obama sound almost French – those warm and kind people who are so often thought of as rude and arrogant when they are merely quite formal and cautious. Yeah, yeah – you don’t buy that. But go see for yourself – if you can bring yourself to be reasonably polite, somewhat circumspect and rather quiet about yourself, and you can observe the long-established formalities. Yes, all that is very un-American – Joe the Plumber would agree to that – but act sort of like Obama. It works wonders.
But maybe it is too much of a stretch for us to elect someone who is, in essence, a gentleman. Eight years of George the Cut-Up has made that unlikely. Still, there is all the polling.
Perhaps this will be decided by the time you read this. If so – never mind.