I'm going to be optimistic this morning. I don't feel this way very often, but we've got clear skies, no deadlines for another 48 hours, and only three days left before we're finally done with the Pennsylvania primary. Not only that, but one year from today, George W. Bush will be in permanent Texas exile, dictating his straight-to-the-bargain-rack memoirs to a ghost writer who knows how to conjugate verbs.
But really, the thing that has me temporarily looking to the future with relatively less dread than usual is something a friend told me the other day. She reminded me that sixteen years ago, right around this time of the year, H. Ross Perot was the frontrunner in the race for President of the United States. Her point, of course, was that if old, batty Ross and his cornpone jeremiads could reach top of the charts back in 1992, then we should all know enough to ignore springtime presidential horserace polls.
I mention this because John McCain, presumptive nominee of Mr. Bush's discredited political party, is currently holding his own against either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, at least according to the latest surveys. At first glance, this is terrible news for the Democrats. President Bush is currently about as popular as food poisoning, voters have long since rejected his bumbling foreign policy, and most Americans are convinced that a three-card monte dealer could produce a superior economic outcome.
If this is, as we were all promised back in January, a Change Election, then why are some polls being led by the one Washington lifer left in the game? Is the country really that desperate and childlike in its demand for heroes after eight years of incompetent malevolence? I know a lot of Americans adopted Ronald Reagan as their surrogate daddy, but at least he didn't let the wheels fall off until he had safely handed off the baton to his inarticulate successor. Do people actually think that leadership consists of nothing more than physical courage, unreflective self-confidence, and headstrong blustering?
Or is this, like most everything else, the fault of the media? Political reporters are—most of them, anyway—privileged children of the suburbs who have never been asked to sacrifice anything greater than an Ivy League tuition check. Measured against their lives of entitlement, perhaps McCain and his valiant back story provide what they think is the first taste of reality they have ever experienced in person. Maybe they have been so intimidated by decades of dishonest right-wing rants about the "liberal media" that they cower at the thought of having to expose yet another Republican charlatan.
Anyway, I believe I said I was going to be optimistic this morning. So here goes. For weeks, I have been looking at the polls and wondering how any GOP candidate could still be competitive after the party produced the most incompetent, venal, brutal, repressive administration in American history.
But there's another way to look at it: Given that McCain has received a free pass from the media for nearly three months while Clinton and Obama have been hitting each other with increasingly damaging assaults, why has the presumptive Republican nominee been unable to put any distance between himself and his potential opponents? According to Real Clear Politics, the current average of all national horserace polls has McCain tied with Obama and just one point ahead of Clinton. Only in Florida—and only against Obama—does McCain show a substantial lead in any of the key battleground states needed to win the presidency in November.
It's hard to imagine how things could get any better for John McCain than they are right now. He has no GOP opponent, he enjoys fawning press coverage, and his two Democratic challengers are currently locked in a steel-cage death match. The disaster that is the Iraq War is in a temporary lull that is inexplicably being described as victory. Fears about the economy abound, but the other shoe hasn’t quite dropped just yet. Nevertheless, despite these favorable conditions, if the election were held this afternoon, McCain's best-case scenario would be the sort of narrow, tainted victory secured by George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004.
As for the Democrats, there is a silver lining to all the nastiness of the past several weeks. We're learning a lot of damaging things right now about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. She can't get her story straight about going to Bosnia in 1996; he thinks Middle Americans are "bitter". Her husband has a big mouth; so does his pastor. Democrats naturally worry about the potential destructive power of these revelations, but imagine how much worse it would be had they been uncovered in October rather than April. If nothing else, this extended primary season has used up all of the GOP's talking points as Clinton and Obama lob their nastiest spitballs against one another. By the time the Republicans drag these stories out again in the fall, they are going to sound like ancient history.
There are three serious candidates remaining in the race for the presidency. Two have been severely battered over the course of the first four months of 2008. The other has taken few, if any, significant hits. Despite that fact, half the country still wants to purchase the damaged merchandise. Eventually, the Democratic Party and its nominee are going to turn the spotlight on John McCain and his image will suffer the same tarnish that Clinton's and Obama's have already endured. His poll numbers, in that respect, can only go down, and if they do, he loses.
And we are assuming here the maintenance of the status quo. In fact, things could get a lot worse for the Republicans. At best, the economy could stabilize at its currently unsatisfactory level; at worst, the slippage could continue or ever accelerate. As for Iraq, there is already evidence of a slight uptick in violence against both Iraqis and U.S. troops. Iraq on the back burner doesn't do McCain much good. Iraq on the front burner absolutely destroys his candidacy. Every decent American hopes for the first outcome, but the second—more violence and death—seems increasingly possible.
I am under no illusions that the current presidential race will be easy for the Democrats. McCain is formidable and well-liked by the media. The Electoral College favors the Republicans. The 1988 election proved that voters can be persuaded to act against their own self-interest in the name of patriotism or religion or fear. The GOP will do everything in its power to turn Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton into Michael Dukakis. Maybe McCain will even visit a flag factory, as George H.W. Bush did twenty years ago in his ignoble quest for the White House.
But this isn't 1988, a period in which an apparently robust economy and a crumbling Soviet empire made Americans feel like world beaters. This is more like 1980 going on 1932. In the end, McCain will—as Carter and Hoover before him—have to account for his party's dismal mismanagement of the country's affairs.
I'm sure I'll switch back to pessimism soon enough. That pessimism has, after all, been well rewarded over the past few decades. But at least for now, when I lose hope I can always think of Ross Perot and my unhappiness will at least temporarily fade away.
Like a giant sucking sound.*
(*For you young'uns, that's how Perot described the sound of American jobs being lost to Mexico if Congress adopted the North American Free Trade Agreement. Hillary and Barack think he was right.)