Just a month ago (although it seems like a political lifetime now), progressives, liberals, and Democrats of every stripe were wailing and gnashing their teeth at how popular Sarah Palin was with the public, and what a surge John McCain had made in the polls, and how Barack Obama would surely snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and dash everyone’s hopes. The mainstream punditocracy and the blogosphere alike were awash in armchair quarterbacking, urging free advice of every sort on the candidate:  Obama needed to be angrier, to show his passion. He needed to be more soothing, to avoid frightening (white) voters. He needed to attack Palin. He needed to ignore Palin. He needed to rebut deceptive attacks. He needed to avoid seeming defensive. He needed to move to the left, to reassure his base. He needed to move to the right, to capture independents. He needed to be all things to all people simultaneously, and yet never forget to show the strength of his convictions. He needed to reframe everything.

Anyone left-of-center in America—and the putative center has moved drastically far to the right over the last thirty years—is used to this kind of strategic second-guessing. Usually it comes in the form of a post-mortem, trying to make sense of our latest electoral loss. 2004 is still a painful memory, when after months of fervent collective determination that we’ve gotta get rid of this guy, Bush somehow hung around to plague us further. But swift-boating and terror alerts were only the most recent instances of a longstanding and generally successful political strategy on the part of the “conservative movement,” dividing the country and pushing the window of acceptable debate ever further to the right. And like a battered spouse, the rest of us felt trapped, yet kept looking for ways to blame ourselves.

We’ve become accustomed to disappointment; to always playing to minimize our losses rather than to win new ground. Through my entire political life, seven presidential elections I’ve been aware enough to pay attention to, I’ve never yet seen a result I could have any genuine enthusiasm about. (Yes, that includes Clinton. From the start I was a skeptic about his DLC-style, triangulating politics, and while it worked well for Clinton himself and for the stock market, it was a disaster for his party and for progressive politics.)

That sense of our side as perennial losers was hardly altered by the 2006 recapture of Congress, which immediately took impeachment “off the table” and meekly let a lame-duck president and minority party dictate the legislative agenda. This long-term, deeply ingrained sensibility has only been exacerbated by the short-term thinking engendered by today’s 24-hour news cycle, with its constant wash of information making every bit of bad news seem urgent.

Through it all, though, those nerve-wracking days of early September, Obama did something few of his supporters managed: he kept his cool and didn’t panic. While all the advice hurled at him concerned short-term tactics, he kept his eye on consistent strategy. As he had throughout the primaries and the convention, he kept his demeanor remarkably calm and pragmatic, his campaign rhetoric (and even counterpunches at his opponent) remarkably substantive. He was playing chess, looking three moves ahead.

And by sticking to this approach, he avoided the sort of impulsive tactical pivots that outsiders were advising—understanding how they undermined Gore in 2000 (just as they’re undermining McCain even now).

Obama’s campaign, all along, has been premised on the idea that Americans are intelligent enough to deserve a democracy. He behaves in a way that says he expects to be taken seriously by people, even those who don’t necessarily share his views. And I’m happy to say that in the perpetual tug-of-war betwen my idealism and my cynicism, the former is being rewarded by seeing his confidence in us borne out.

It became clear soon enough that Palin doesn’t have the brains God gave a turnip. It became clear that McCain had abandoned his claims about dignity and straight talk, and was descending into character-based attacks and outright lies. And people noticed. And the McCain campaign’s numbers began to sink back to pre-convention levels, while Obama’s began to climb again.

And then:  the economy struck.

Not that it was particularly good even before the “credit crisis” started taking down half of Wall Street, of course. Still, it was manageable enough that well-paid experts could argue that we weren’t technically in a recession, and that it was irresponsible to “talk down” the economy. I’m sure Bush, Cheney, Paulson and the rest of the administration had all fervently hoped they could forestall the worst of the downturn until after Election Day, perhaps helping a Republican squeak back into the White House or, at least, displacing blame for the collapse onto the incoming Democrats.

That was not to be, and as everyone scrambled around looking for solutions, few in Washington emerged with their dignity intact. (Certainly not McCain, “suspending” his campaign and threatening to skip a debate just to go to Washington for a high-profile meeting in which he… did nothing.)

Obama was an exception, as he kept his head while all about him were losing theirs. He took a characteristically thoughtful, pragmatic approach to both the causes and the effects of the crisis. He looked… presidential. Yet he did not hesitate to place the bulk of the blame where it belonged, on the corrupt GOP culture of deregulation and corporatism.

The debates thus far have only cemented these impressions in the public mind, magnifying the distinctions between the candidates. Obama is responsible; McCain is erratic. Obama is mature; McCain is impulsive. Obama is civil; McCain is mean-spirited. (And Palin is full of empty, folksy blather.) And the polls have continued to move.

Back during the conventions, the concern was all about whether Obama could capture the 270 electoral votes needed to win in November. Now, it’s about how close he’ll get to 400. Even last week, poll analyst extraordinaire Nate Silver was warning that Obama was polling at anomalous highs; that no presidential race had been decided by more than about an 8-point margin in decades, and since Obama was peaking above that and edging into double digits, his numbers would surely level off soon. Since then, though:

(10/10) With 25 days to go until the election, Barack Obama is presently at his all-time highs in four of the six national tracking polls (Research 2000, Battleground, Hotline and Zogby) and is just one point off his high in Gallup.

(10/13) …the polls continue to break in pretty much just one direction, and it isn’t in Senator McCain’s.

(10/14) Perhaps the CBS poll that shows Barack Obama with a 14-point lead among likely voters (12 points when third-party candidates are included) is a modest outlier. But if so, John McCain has more and more outliers that he has to explain away these days. There are now no fewer than seven current national polls that show Obama with a double-digit advantage.

Despite everything, there are still good people looking around nervously for something to worry about, some reason to doubt all the polls and the political fundamentals and the evidence of their own eyes and ears. To doubt the rationality of their fellow voters, really. Just today both CNN and NPR devoted coverage to the so-called “Bradley Effect,” fearing that hidden racism will be a drag on the polls—even though a Harvard political scientist has shown convincingly that the effect no longer exists.

Me, I’m tired of clinging to a loser’s mentality. At this point, I’m expecting not just a victory but a landslide. I’m expecting at least 350 electoral votes, at least 28 states, and possibly a double-digit win in the popular vote. The real question now is whether Obama will have coattails enough to give the Democrats a filibuster-proof, 60-seat majority in the Senate. (It’s not a sure thing, but it’s definitely within the realm of possibility.)

And in the midst of all this, let us not forget, the financial crisis has put the final nail in the coffin of the legacy of the Worst. President. Ever.—and done the same to conservative mythology about “free market” fundamentalism, to boot. It’s painfully clear now, to the entire world, that government has a critical role to play in keeping the economic system functioning for everyone’s benefit… and thus, with any luck at all, the door may have been opened to some serious, substantive reforms of the kind that weren’t even being discussed a month ago.

After all, the new administration is liable to have a pretty decisive mandate.

For the first time in my life, I can look forward to voting for a presidential candidate who not only deserves to win but actually will. And I can look forward to a new president’s politics and policies with a sense of genuine optimism, rather than trepidation.

I’m not a fool or a naïf. I know there will still be hard times and disappointments ahead. But I do think the country will finally be moving in the right direction. And that’s a change I’m planning to enjoy to the fullest.

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3 Responses to “Nervous liberals”
  1. […] a taste of the anxiety and self-doubt that non-conservatives have been suffering for years, as I wrote the other day. The difference is, they’re not used to it. And they’re reacting irrationally with the […]

  2. You make a fair point about the media frame. Still, McCain’s desperation was obvious from the time he chose Palin and started running attack ads. All of this clearly undermined what had been his “narrative”–and that’s a story, exactly the sort of thing the media loves to cover. He should have seen it coming. (And of course, attacking the media itself didn’t exactly win him any favorable coverage.) Let us also note that the blogosphere has been a serious check on the media this time around, calling it to account on the sort of stories that may well have slid by in the past.

    You overstate things, though, by claiming that the advantage is “not because of *anything* Obama has done.” We’ve both seen far too many candidates, including smart and experienced ones like Gore, flail around at the mercy of their handlers, and lose the respect of the public. Obama knew better than to do that; he judged, correctly, that shifting tactics was a greater risk than staying true to his strategy and trusting the electorate. I don’t think his campaign rhetoric has been perfect, but it’s been a far, far cry from “inadequate.”

  3. Michael says:

    Speaking as one of those who thought Obama’s rhetorical strategy was inadequate, I must say that I, too, am enthused by the recent polling data. Yet I am not prepared to concede that the welcome turn of events is due to Obama’s political skill.

    If McCain is facing a backlash, it is not because of anything Obama has done (though of course it helps that he did not do anything overtly stupid). For the first time in my memory, the media have begun framing the previously formidable Republican strategy of brazenly attacking the person of their opponent as a question of desperation. Whereas in every earlier case the media reported on the horse race by asking/tracking which strategy will work, this time they are responding to McCain’s attacks on them by treating strategy as a barometer of anxiety. No matter what McPalin does, it gets incorporated into a dominant narrative according to which s/he is struggling to find an effective strategy. As a result, every new gesture only reinforces the frame of desperation.

    Obama is the beneficiary of this media dynamic. Compare the Ayers b.s. to the swift boat b.s. In the Kerry campaign, the dominant frame was “How will Kerry respond?” Every actual response was measured by the horse race barometer of strategic competence. But the current iteration of the same Right-wing assault gets framed as “Is there anything McPalin will not sink to?” So Obama need not counter the charge; it suffices to dismiss it. By contrast, when Kerry tried to dismiss the swift boat ad, he was hounded by the press and depicted as politically naive. Identical strategies on both sides + different media frames = different candidate burdens. Obama’s advantage today has the same source as Kerry’s disadvantage yesterday.

    Now, this lends support to the view that the Left ought not blame itself as much as it does. But self-analysis is what makes the Left what it is. The “decider” could only be a Right-wing nut, since self-assessment is seen as a typical Lefty weakness. We, of course, see it not only as a strength, but as the paradigmatic principle of responsible collective self-rule. Without it, we’d be ideologues. Of course, this constitutive commitment to skepticism produces a strategic dilemma: the Left refuses to resort to the tactics the Right feels entitled to employ. From within a long-standing media norm that construes politics as a contest over access to institutional power, this refusal appears indistinguishable from naivete: it amounts to voluntarily tilting the political field in favor of one’s rivals. The Left’s navel gazing is exacerbated by the understanding that, so long as politics is framed in this way, its strategies will tend to produce a handicap, and the signature dilemma is whether to ease up on our own communicative norms so as to score the occasional victory. (This, I suspect, is the source of the Left’s discomfort with Clinton: he succeeded by accepting norms of discourse we associate with the Right.)

    In any case, the problem remains with us today; what has changed for the time being is the dominant media frame. More precisely, the frame has not changed so much as it has been applied in a modified way, placing an impossible to meet burden on the RIght-wing candidate. It is still a question of power struggle, but instead of forcing Obama to rebut the presumption of naivete, it compels McPalin to rebut the presumption of a ruthless and unprincipled hunger for power. To be sure, Obama’s strategy does nothing to impede this shift, but it is not driving it.

    One more thing, though. I will admit that I find myself more optimistic about the possible Obama administration. While earlier I had strong reservations about the wisdom of his policies and his political acumen, I now discern a greater chance that he will assemble an effective team likely to grasp the complexity of issues and to generate insightful policy options. That is, it is possible we might have an actual “maverick” on our hands—someone who could actually solve policy problems rather than select from a menu of old options whatever might best serve to keep him in office. The probability is not high, but it is the first one I’ve seen in my lifetime.

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