How Will the History of This Election be Written?

How Will the History of This Election be Written?

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor

November 4, 2012: The presidential campaign is now measured in only hours and minutes, with President Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney making a last, frenetic sweep through the two or three states which may decide the outcome of the election.

In Florida, campaign workers for both parties are out en mass, going door-to-door with handouts and door-hangers in an attempt to make sure that everyone eligible to vote—and presumably allied to their party’s point of view—makes it to the polls on Tuesday, assuming they have not already cast their vote through early balloting. In Ohio, millions are spent each day on television advertising in what has already been a record-breaking sum of money spent—not only the most ever spent, but very likely the most money spent in the Buckeye State by all presidential candidates, primaries and general elections, combined since 1940.

Ohio remains so stubbornly in play—and so valuable to both sides—that the campaigns have already largely dispensed with concerns over the second tier of swing states, and that means fewer appearances in Virginia, Colorado and Iowa, few dollars deployed in those three states. In fact, with Florida now seemingly tilting inexorably into Romney’s column, key counties in the Buckeye State may become some of the most intensely fought-over pieces of terrain since Dien Bien Phu.

The devastation wrought by hurricane Sandy, now spread indiscriminately across multiple states, has generated a complex subtext to the election; there is the harsh reality of voter turnout and balloting logistics, especially in New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Delaware and Connecticut. In cold terms, however, these states were never really in play for Romney, and their Democratic outcomes were never in doubt. The President will still easily win across this sweep of the Atlantic Coast.

But what appeared at first to be directing the political winds toward Obama—especially as he campaigned newly energized as commander-in-chief complete with leather bomber jacket and sensible shoes—may wash out in the next 48 hours as a negative, especially as press coverage of some of the hardest hit areas ravaged by the storm persists. Mixed inextricably into the political equation is a growing frustration and even visceral over what is being seen as a slow, sluggish federal and state response in the hardest hit areas of New Jersey and New York, areas so traditionally Democratic that the last Republican to claim even modest victory was Richard Nixon. And though it is unclear that those suffering mightily in the aftermath of Sandy’s deadly fury will be reborn as anti-Obama, the hourly narrative still shows a surge of disfavor with the President’s response. Apathy, indecision an frustration do not work to the President’s advantage, though clearly there is no politically sensitive way for Romney or the GOP to channel this energy, nor any practical advantage.

So in the meantime the loudest of the political shouting moves to Ohio, Florida and Colorado, more-or-less in that order.

The expert number-crunchers and data wonks on both sides can see victory but they cannot claim it, even provisionally. And with no serious third party candidacies challenging the two-party dynamic this year (though Libertarian Gary Johnson has seen a measurable surge in the last two weeks), there is little left for the arithmetic gurus to do but watch micro-changes in specific counties and towns: Longmont, Colorado; Nassau and Alachua Counties in Florida; Cuyahoga and Hamilton Counties in Ohio. And in these tight areas the airwaves remain saturated, the direct mail overflows most mailboxes, and landlines and cell phones never stop ringing.

An election this close also produces the need to begin writing the what-ifs early. Both campaigns have their doomsday follow-ups prepared: Obama and the Democrats will blame a hostile and obstructionist Congress controlled by the GOP, a party in turn controlled by the dual elements of Tea Party extremism and the ultra-rich, and, by extension, a rightward-tilting Supreme Court for its sanctioning of virtually unlimited spending by those of great wealth. In addition to their old whipping dog of a largely liberal media, Republicans will assign the fault to Mitt Romney, easily the most pliable man since Gumby; a candidate for whom few Republicans felt genuine love, but a man for whom there was a pragmatic agreement—he would serve the cause of defeating Obama better than Herman Cain or Michelle Bachmann or Rick Perry.

Furthermore, if the final result turns on the same thin dime that held us captive in 2000—a razor thin margin in one state of the other—you can bet both sides will color the history of this election with accusations of skullduggery and mischief. In addition, an ugly aftermath will enable both Democrats and Republicans to complain loudly of a meddlesome, overreaching court—Democrats chafing afresh for the decision in Citizen’s United Versus Federal Election Commission; Republicans for the court’s surprise ruling upholding Obamacare.

Still, it confounds many in the mainstream media that the party of Romney—so seemingly dominated by Tea Party reactionaries and social conservatism—has come this far so quickly, narrowing what was once a comfortable five point difference, robbing Obama of vast tracts of land once deemed safest blue, and shifting some of those alliances into the red column. It became clear to savvy reporters only in the dramatic sea change after the first debate that Obama’s troubles ran deeper than the limited fervor of anti-health care reform, the shrill chatter of the birthers sect, or the sort of social conservatives who rally to support Chick-fil-A. Seemingly undiscovered until thirty days ago was the severity of the disconnect between the Obama White House and the rest of America.

That a president was heavily buffered from reality should come as little shock, for we have seen this before at the low points of the administrations of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. But the Obama administration may have reached a particularly acute form of tone deafness (more like the state-of-affairs which President Carter faced in late 1980) which placed it at deep detachment from Americans and their problems. This insulation and sound-proofing made the outcome of the debates a true surprise to the president, his top strategists, and their compatriots in the media, for in that collective school-of-thought surely Romney’s weaknesses—as well as his manifest difficulties through the long, endless pre-primary, pre-caucus debate season—were enough to elicit a sour taste for the son of George Romney.

In the month following the first debate, Vice-president Joe Biden, then President Obama himself, substituted defense of the indefensible with bullying, rudeness and even sarcasm, then blanched when most reporters didn’t take the cue by declaring these tactical changes tantamount to a moral victory for the Obama record. Even the major polls remained unmoved, and when they did move, the numbers shifted demonstrably toward Romney. The debates were supposed to be a slam-dunk for the President, but instead produced little more than the elevation of Romney to presidential status.

Still, as I have written previously in this column, the state of the economy may be enough to shape the outcome, for the jury remains deadlocked on foreign policy: depending on your predispositions, the President has either made the world a safer place, burnished America’s resolve and its borders, and eliminated bin Laden; or, U.S. prestige has reached such a dangerous low point that it invites a direct challenge, either violently, presumably from a nuclear-armed Iran or a resurgent al Qaeda, or from the nefarious internet hackers and technological thieves of Russia or China. Despite the President’s valid claims of economic improvement (July and August saw substantial upticks in job growth), tens of millions remain unemployed, with many millions more underemployed. Even the profound success stories of Google, Facebook and Apple have the dark subtext of scant few actual U.S. workers, or in some cases thousands of jobs outsourced to China and the Asian rim.

Foreign policy, only a generation ago a stand-alone package of issues and bullet point priorities almost entirely disconnected from the American marketplace of jobs and wages, production and inflation, now becomes interconnected with our economic reality. Obama chides Romney for even mentioning Russia as a threat; Romney needles Obama for issuing coddling words of reassurance to would-be dictators. And either way Americans still feel less secure about their jobs, their homes and their economic future than ever before.

So, Republicans hope for a replay of 1980, with Romney in the part of Ronald Reagan, and Obama in the role of the hapless Jimmy Carter. Democrats yearn to relive 1948, the year when the besieged and underestimated Harry Truman snatched victory from Republican challenger Tom Dewey. In a scant 48 hours we’ll see which of these scenarios becomes the winner’s narrative, and which story becomes the mea culpa for the losers.