What happens if it turns out that we've nominated two unelectable candidates for president? Do we get our money back?
Logic, common sense and the Constitution insist that either Barack Obama or John McCain must be elected Nov. 4. Right now it's difficult to see how. This could be the big break for Ralph Nader and Bob Barr. Together they could break 1 percent.
The senator from the South Side of Chicago is too grassy green, the man from the Hanoi Hilton is too old. Mr. Obama continues to demonstrate that lean and lithe or not, he may not be ready for prime-time politics. Mr. McCain looks like he may be past his prime. He delights mostly in needling Republicans, and mavericks are clever only the first time. Mr. Obama threatens to desert whoever brung him to the dance, giving conflicting hints as to who he intends to go home with. The late, great Casey Stengel's plaintive benediction on the New York Mets in their inaugural season applies on any given day to both candidates: "Can't anybody here play this game?"
Mr. McCain gained considerable ground in the public-opinion polls over the past fortnight, with Rasmussen (the current hot pollster), Newsweek and Gallup all saying the race is a dead heat. Allowing for "the Bradley effect," that more people will say they're voting for a black man than actually will, Mr. McCain may be ahead by a point or two. A poll in mid-July is hardly worth a nubbin, except to show that events and familiarity have steadily nibbled away at the rock star's once-formidable persona. "Yes we can" has become "maybe we won't." Mr. McCain's great white hope lies in the ancient folk wisdom that most people vote against, not for, and Mr. Obama's inexperience would give Mr. McCain the edge, just. We probably have to get used to the idea that we're permanently polarized.
The McCain campaign put out a list last Tuesday of 17 examples of Obama flip-flops, ranging from a flip on the immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq (once demanding it, but not now) to flops on public financing of presidential campaigns, presidential debates, taxes, welfare reform, nuclear power, monitoring of electronic communications, the death penalty, guns, gay "nuptials" and diplomatic relations with Cuba. It's an impressive list. But all politicians flip and flop, dating from the early days of the republic when a right honorable gentleman could be for hanging horse thieves in one town and prescribe Christian mercy down the railroad line, and get away with it. The invention of the telegraph ruined that.
But Mr. Obama's trouble is more fundamental. He's becoming familiar, aging like a French cheese left out overnight, or a groupie who insists on staying around the morning after. Most voters, similar to the man who's been to both Natchez and Mobile, have seen too many big towns and heard too much big talk to be easily taken in. Body-slamming in the mosh pit is said to be fun, but eventually everybody tires of the act on stage and wants to climb out of the pit and go home.
Since he won't reveal who he is, or was, this enables everyone to define Mr. Obama for himself. The cover of the New Yorker magazine this week depicts the Obamas as a mullah-like figure and his moll (Michelle with an AK-47), and the scorched remnants of an American flag in the fireplace. The editors of the magazine insist it's satire aimed at the hayseeds who actually believe the discredited rumors, and satire it no doubt is. But the Obama campaign said it "'taint funny, McGee." The senator could see this cover becoming an icon, reproduced in the millions by Election Day. Sophistication on the Upper East Side runs only to wine, cheese and the occasional beansprout.
Soon Mr. Obama is off to Berlin in pursuit of a Leni Riefenstahl to duplicate spectacle when he stands before the Brandenburg Gate. He will reprise John F. Kennedy's Cold War promise to West Germany that "Ich bin ein Berliner" - "I am a Berliner." Since some polls show that 72 per cent of Germans are itching to vote for Mr. Obama, he'll get his photo-op. But a Berliner is also a jelly doughnut, like a Frankfurter is also a hot dog. If the Obama speech is a dud, he could sell the videotape to Krispy Kreme. He's a man with perfect pitch.
c Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Times.