The Nation's Pulse

The Election So Far

It benefits McCain to have the Democrats attacking an imaginary enemy.

By 9.2.08

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"So what do you think of the election so far?" my friend Brian asked me. This was back in March, when the Republicans had settled on McCain but the Democrats were still undecided. All American discussion, Brian behind the counter of his neighborhood hardware store, me out front using the copying machine.

"I think McCain beats Hillary, but Obama beats McCain," I said. "If Obama's elected, Congress will eat him alive."

Shows you how much I knew.

Another parallel experience: I've been printing out my columns and putting them in a binder for my boys. Way at the back end of my archive, I found "The Essential Bush," which I printed on this site on April 8 of 2002. Boy, did I know a lot back then.

Here's the nut graf:

Republican and Democrat operatives alike looked at the famous USA Today red-and-blue map of Election 2000, and in it they read the lineaments of political doom. Democrats saw Texas and Florida governed by Bushes, and knew they could not control the country with just California, New York, and the Volvo states -- the rest of the map was hopeless. Republicans saw that, if Democrats buried Texas and Florida the way they had flooded California -- primarily via Hispanic immigration -- the GOP would be reduced to permanent minority status, and the federal system would effectively come to an end, as the country was ruled by the seaboard elites.

I was right, too, but you can see what "right" gets you. Things didn't work out that way. Why not? George W. Bush and Karl Rove apparently thought they could wipe out Democrats altogether as an electoral force. Some Democrats appear to contemplate the same thing in reverse now. What's the lesson? That the U.S. appears to be good for a fight, almost no matter what the defects of one party or the other.

TAKE THIS ELECTION, FOR EXAMPLE. For a while, it was supposed to be a Hillary coronation. Then it looked like it might be an Obama coronation. Both stumbled on their way to the crown.

(N.B. There is no such verb as "to coronate." "Coronation" is the nominative form of "to crown.")

Democrats have correctly observed that the Republican act has grown old. It didn't grow old with Ronald Reagan, but it has with Bush and the sloppy, self-dealing Republicans in Congress these days. The GOP act has grown so stale that the party ended up nominating John McCain, the Senator the New Republic's Jonathan Chait described as (during Bush's first term) "the most effective advocate of the Democratic agenda in Washington."

REPUBLICANS HAVE DONE "HOLD YOUR NOSE" ELECTIONS BEFORE. This one'll take the Pepe LePew.

But two or three things have played out John McCain's way. First, the McCain campaign has proved a total surprise with both its nimbleness and its willingness to go for the throat. The McCainiacs jab, they counterpunch, they float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. They've got Obama completely off his footing, indeed, seem to be able to make him do what they want him to do. Arguably, the GOP's advertising made Obama deliver a different acceptance speech than he had originally contemplated.

Whatever happened to the Stupid Party? Remember those guys? Leadfooted, lumpen geeks with no clue? The guys who looked so hapless up against Slick Willie?

No, this time around, the Democrats look slow and clueless. This may not continue. The McCain camp may stumble, or a well-plotted surprise may blow up in their faces. But so far, they've got the golden touch. They're setting the public and media agenda. So long as the McCain camp keeps it up, they can win.

In addition, the Democrats seem determined to paint McCain as "four more years" or as Bush II (or III). And he is not, not ideologically, not in his tactics, not in his campaign strategy. It benefits McCain to have the Democrats attacking an imaginary enemy, while the real opponent runs them over.

Now McCain has made an inspired choice of running mate with Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Let's see what the convention delivers. The Democrats left a lot of room for the Republicans to supply some happiness and hoopla (as Peggy Noonan has pointed out), and McCain may just deliver.

WE'RE IN THE HOME STRETCH NOW, forgive the cliche. McCain has found his stride; Obama has lost his footing. It's awfully hard to turn a race around that has been clearly defined so late. We may well look back on the last week of August and say, that's where McCain won it. Right there.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.