Desperately Seeking Seriousness
Maybe the polls and the conventional wisdom are all wrong, and John McCain will pull off a stunning upset. But right now the election looks like a blue sweep: a solid victory, maybe even a landslide, for Barack Obama; large Democratic gains in the Senate, possibly even enough to produce a filibuster-proof majority; and big Democratic gains in the House, too.
Yet just six weeks ago the presidential race seemed close, with Mr. McCain if anything a bit ahead. The turning point was the middle of September, coinciding precisely with the sudden intensification of the financial crisis after the failure of Lehman Brothers. But why has the growing financial and economic crisis worked so overwhelmingly to the Democrats' advantage?
As someone who's spent a lot of time arguing against conservative economic dogma, I'd like to believe that the bad news convinced many Americans, once and for all, that the right's economic ideas are wrong and progressive ideas are right. And there's certainly something to that. These days, with even Alan Greenspan admitting that he was wrong to believe that the financial industry could regulate itself, Reaganesque rhetoric about the magic of the marketplace and the evils of government intervention sounds ridiculous.
In addition, Mr. McCain seems spectacularly unable to talk about economics as if it matters. He has attempted to pin the blame for the crisis on his pet grievance, Congressional budget earmarks - which leaves economists scratching their heads in puzzlement. In the immediate aftermath of the Lehman failure, he declared that "the fundamentals of our economy are strong," seemingly unaware that he was closely echoing what Herbert Hoover said after the 1929 crash.
But I suspect that the main reason for the dramatic swing in the polls is something less concrete and more meta than the fact that events have discredited free-market fundamentalism. As the economic scene has darkened, I'd argue, Americans have rediscovered the virtue of seriousness. And this has worked to Mr. Obama's advantage, because his opponent has run a deeply unserious campaign.
Think about the themes of the McCain campaign so far. Mr. McCain reminds us, again and again, that he's a maverick - but what does that mean? His maverickness seems to be defined as a free-floating personality trait, rather than being tied to any specific objections on his part to the way the country has been run for the last eight years.
Conversely, he has attacked Mr. Obama as a "celebrity," but without any specific explanation of what's wrong with that - it's just a given that we're supposed to hate Hollywood types.
And the selection of Sarah Palin as the Republican vice-presidential candidate clearly had nothing to do with what she knew or the positions she'd taken - it was about who she was, or seemed to be. Americans were supposed to identify with a hockey mom who was just like them.
In a way, you can't blame Mr. McCain for campaigning on trivia - after all, it's worked in the past. Most notably, President Bush got within hanging-chads-and-butterfly-ballot range of the White House only because much of the news media, rather than focusing on the candidates' policy proposals, focused on their personas: Mr. Bush was an amiable guy you'd like to have a beer with, Al Gore was a stiff know-it-all, and never mind all that hard stuff about taxes and Social Security. And let's face it: six weeks ago Mr. McCain's focus on trivia seemed to be paying off handsomely.
But that was before the prospect of a second Great Depression concentrated the public's mind.
The Obama campaign has hardly been fluff-free - in its early stages it was full of vague uplift. But the Barack Obama voters see now is cool, calm, intellectual and knowledgeable, able to talk coherently about the financial crisis in a way Mr. McCain can't. And when the world seems to be falling apart, you don't turn to a guy you'd like to have a beer with, you turn to someone who might actually know how to fix the situation.
The McCain campaign's response to its falling chances of victory has been telling: rather than trying to make the case that Mr. McCain really is better qualified to deal with the economic crisis, the campaign has been doing all it can to trivialize things again. Mr. Obama consorts with '60s radicals! He's a socialist! He doesn't love America! Judging from the polls, it doesn't seem to be working.
Will the nation's new demand for seriousness last? Maybe not - remember how 9/11 was supposed to end the focus on trivialities? For now, however, voters seem to be focused on real issues. And that's bad for Mr. McCain and conservatives in general: right now, to paraphrase Rob Corddry, reality has a clear liberal bias.
© 2008 New York Times