In 1932, in the midst of a disastrous economic meltdown, Franklin D. Roosevelt made "the forgotten man" the centerpiece of his presidential election campaign. Far more than we suspect, this year's election may turn not on a forgotten man, but on a forgotten war in a forgotten country.
Even before the present financial meltdown hit the news, the Iraq War had slipped out of the headlines and off the political stage. Now, as investment houses totter and bailout plans fill the headlines, it will be even harder for Iraq to get major media attention. Yet the war remains just beneath the surface of the presidential campaign, and so is sure to affect the outcome in ways too complicated to fully grasp.
Think of that war not as one, but two currents, affecting the coming election all the more powerfully because they are out of sight, out of mind, and -- interacting in unpredictable ways -- out of anyone's control.
Obama's War: The Realistic Disaster
The first current is that of realistic perception. Polls continue to show that at least 60% of prospective voters see the war for what it is: a disastrous mistake. Among Democrats, the percentage is far higher than among Republicans, which may be the main reason that Barack Obama is now the Party's candidate for president.
As the only major candidate in the Democratic primaries who opposed the war from the beginning, his stance proved decisive. It remains a powerful factor in his favor as undecided voters make up their minds, even if they don't fully realize it. Remember, most people's electoral decision-making processes -- like the war in American consciousness at this point -- run largely below the surface.
Widespread opposition to and unhappiness with the war (and its expense) has long fueled a broader feeling that the U.S. is "on the wrong track" and needs change of some kind. About 80% of voters were voicing that feeling even before the recent financial collapse began. Much of it came from frustration over a major Vietnam-like military effort that, somehow, once again went terribly awry. Once again, we tried to save a nation by destroying it. Once again, American treasure was poured into a hopeless, hapless venture abroad. From this, there remains a powerful feeling of disillusionment and mistrust across the political spectrum, largely directed at the party in power.
Until recently, it was the war more than anything else that made George W. Bush such an albatross around the McCain campaign's neck. It was the war (and McCain's ongoing support of it) that let the Obama campaign score so many points with the simple slogan: McCain = Bush's Third Term. There will never be any way to measure just how many votes that anti-Bush feeling will cost McCain, but it will surely be felt on Election Day.
In fact, it's already being felt in the halls of Congress as negotiations over an instantaneous emergency fix of the financial system drag on. If it were not for the web of deceit the administration wove around Iraq, the public might have rolled over and accepted the proposed "bailout" with little question. But having been fooled by one rush to power -- supposedly to save us from Saddam's dreaded WMDs -- the people are sending a message to a president who has a job approval rating in the mid-20% range and, in a recent CBS poll, a 16% approval rating on the economy. That's bound to help the Democrats.
"The forgotten man," now joined by an equally empowered "forgotten woman," is back in American politics. Terrified by a financial system they are assured is beyond anyone's control, they are shouting from Main Street loud enough for Wall Street and K Street to hear. Americans know enough about finance to understand one simple fact: When you're wasting jaw-dropping amounts of public money every day on a disastrous war, you can't be cavalier about spending hundreds of billions more on another self-proclaimed emergency, especially when there's no reason in the world to believe the administration has the answer to either of them. Come Election Day, many may simply say: Let the other guy run the show for a while.
The sense that the other guy -- Obama -- has a better approach to the war is borne out by one powerful fact that most Americans have probably not taken in. The position the senator has espoused all along is now essentially the official Bush administration position: U.S. combat troops must be withdrawn from Iraq by a date certain. In case anyone in Washington misses the point, top Iraqi government officials seem eager to remind them at every opportunity that it's Obama's position which makes sense to them.
Much as they may have given up on the President's war long ago, most voters haven't heard about this because, in one of its few triumphs of the last year, the administration has managed to preside over the tamping down of violence in Iraq just enough to push the whole ongoing story of the war out of the media spotlight. That's why few voters know that Bush has now, however reluctantly and quietly, embraced the basic principle of Obama's withdrawal plan.
Nor do many Americans realize just how little the surge had to do with diminishing the violence in Iraq, or how unstable the post-surge situation actually remains. On that we have the witness of none other than the strategy's main architect, General David Petraeus, who recently doubted that the U.S. could ever claim victory in Iraq and warned that American gains were "not irreversible... Many storm clouds on the horizon could develop into real problems." Yet his warning, like most of the news from and about Iraq, has quietly slipped beneath the surface of our political waters.
The eclipse of the war -- which was supposed to be Obama's winning issue -- is one big reason that he has, until recently, remained stuck in a statistical tie with McCain in the opinion polls.
McCain's War: The Symbolic Victory
Why has the war generally been consigned to the dustbin of news and so largely forgotten? Here's one reason: The realistic American perception of disaster is continually blocked by a powerful countercurrent that runs deep in our political culture in which war is perceived not as a bloody fact but as a web of symbolism and a test of "traditional American values." This countercurrent triggers powerful nationalistic feelings.
On that level, there seems to be no need to dwell on Iraq any more because "the surge worked." In other words -- the war is over... we won (sorta)! Even Sarah Palin says so.
Of course the administration and the media designers of war symbolism don't put it that bluntly. They know that they don't need to. The simple disappearance of scenes of Iraqi carnage from front pages and the TV news does the trick just as well. The public, getting no news and assuming that means good news, hears what it wants to hear.
The idea that we're on a path to "victory" -- or at least "success" -- is seductive exactly because it seems to prove that we are still the good guys wearing the white hats. Don't they always win? It's easy to submerge frustration and disillusionment beneath a reassuring feeling that America is still the world's shining beacon of moral hope.
For some voters, that remains crucial. Another military defeat, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan, could raise deeply disturbing questions about moral order, not merely in international affairs but in the cosmos.
So when a white-haired "hero" shows up, crying "country first" and proclaiming America "the only nation I know that really is deeply concerned about adhering to the principle that all of us are created equal," some may follow him, regardless of his policies -- especially if what made him a war hero was five years of Christ-like suffering at the hands of America's enemies.
Who better to lead the forces of virtue in their endless battle against the "me-first crowd"? And where better to do it than on a battlefield far away, where evil seems to hold sway and "victory" remains on the American banner?
Yes, such symbolism is a riptide running against the current of reality. It has an often unassailable logic all its own, which can be very compelling.
For how many voters? No one can say -- especially when these currents of realism and symbolism are colliding largely out of sight in the murky waters of the presidential race, as equally murky poll results have been indicating.
For many months, clear majorities of voters have supported the policy that Obama touts as his own: Get the combat troops (or even all U.S. troops) out of Iraq by a date certain. Yet a majority, even if a slimmer one, has consistently claimed to trust McCain, who wants to stay until we "win," more than Obama when it comes to the handling of the war (as well as other national security issues).
Typically, in the most recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll, McCain topped Obama as "best at achieving success in Iraq" by a margin of 50% to 34%. Yet when the same voters were read the positions of the two and asked, "Which do you agree with more?" the outcome was a virtual tie. In other words, fully 14% of those who sided with Obama's Iraq position failed to name him best at handling the issue.
That's puzzling to those who think that voters simply listen to candidate positions and then choose the one closest to their own views. If only it were so. In that same poll, for instance, just about a quarter of the voters said they would base their decision in the polling booth mainly on issues -- and that's typical of other polls that ask the same question. Among that quarter, tellingly, Obama was favored by a whopping margin of 70% to 24%. Among the other three-quarters, the choice went decidedly for McCain.
McCain has stayed competitive, in part, because a significant number of voters remain ready to choose him not for what he would actually do in Iraq, but for what he seems to symbolize in the hall of mirrors that is American politics. On the other hand, at least one poll earlier this year found that a third of those who trusted McCain more on Iraq did not plan to vote for him anyway.
Amid all the confusing crosscurrents, one thing is clear: No wave of symbolism can stop the flow of empirical realities in Iraq. No matter who moves into the Oval Office on January 20, those harsh realities and their fallout around the world will be waiting on his desk, piled high and deep. They may, unfortunately, still be there when that president ends his first (or only) term in office four years later.
That fallout is strongest and most ominous in the Muslim lands to the west of Iraq. Let's just hope the next president is wise enough and open-minded enough to hear us when we point out: One presidency was wrecked in the jungles of Vietnam, another in the sands of Iraq. Don't let a third presidency be destroyed in the mountains of Afghanistan or Pakistan, or over Iran. That danger alone should be more than enough reason to keep the Iraq War in the forefront of our minds as we decide on, and then usher in, a new presidency.