Tip O’Neill, the speaker of the House when the collective wisdom was that Congress belonged by right to the Democrats, insisted that “all politics is local.” That was the key to the success that rained and rained on Democrats.
Every senator, every congressman, even every governor learns to put his considerable ego aside to recognize that it’s the race for sheriff that draws the voters to the Election Day polls.
But there’s an occasional exception, and this is that year. This year, politics is about waking up after a long sleep with Barack Obama, and wishing the president had been in someone else’s bed. This is the year the national became local.
The consequences for the president and his party will be severe, unless all the pollsters, politicians of both parties and the man in the street are spectacularly, phenomenally wrong. So ordained is the Tuesday result that the actual voting and counting is almost an afterthought. So unanimous is the expectation of a Republican wave that Nov. 2 is the perfect opportunity for the gods to throw a colossal spitball to give us an upset to remember. But probably not.
Mr. Obama, who has turned out to be a better community organizer than a president, never thought to learn anything from men, like the late speaker, who should have been his mentors. The ego-in-chief saw himself (and no doubt still does) as too important to be bogged down with issues that concern a sheriff’s constituents — like where a man can find a job, or how to pay his bills without one. A president as important as Himself, the big fellow, naturally figured he should spend his time on big things, like hectoring his constituents and reassuring the folks in Europe and the Middle East (not necessarily in Israel) that he really, really loves them.
But the elections this year are not a referendum only on the president, if he wants to take comfort in something small. Nancy Pelosi, the ultimate “San Francisco Democrat” and the national symbol of her party, is only slightly below the president in the esteem of the current majority. No one has run away from her harder than some of her Democratic colleagues. “In my district and a lot of others, she’s the poison for which there is no known antidote,” says a Democratic incumbent who doesn’t want to put his name to the comment. “She might survive, even if a lot of the rest of us won’t.”
Mr. Obama and his Democratic colleagues set out a fortnight ago to bridge the “enthusiasm gap,” and have clearly failed. The president’s rhetoric, which he and nearly everyone else thought could move mountains, end wars, cure cancer and eliminate teenage pimples, became, on the October stump, an ineffective babble of mere words. As the campaign ended, the president of the United States allowed himself to become just a “dude,” trudging from cable-TV studios to hustling a lethargic crowd in a half-empty arena in Cleveland.
Good ol’ Joe, the vice president, joined him in that Cleveland arena trying to salvage a campaign that might cost the party six seats in Ohio alone. The president temporarily abandoned his weary metaphor of the car in the ditch (previously abandoned by Bill Clinton in the off-ramp of “the bridge to the 21st century”) to blame his troubles on Herbert Hoover. No, wait: It was George W. Bush. “It’s up to you to remember that this election is a choice between the policies that got us into this mess and the policies that are leading us out of this mess.” The Democratic National Committee put up a television ad on Election Eve warning that Republicans would make record cuts in education funding and roll back legislation to ensure financial accountability. Not even the orphanage and the old-folks home will be safe.
One measure of the “enthusiasm gap” that so terrifies the Democrats is that large numbers of voters can’t wait for Tuesday, and are casting ballots in early voting. Nearly 750,000 early ballots are in the box in Ohio, 1.7 million in Florida and 2.5 million in California. (Even Mr. Obama’s teleprompter is said to have cast an early vote for the Republicans.)
The curiously weird 2010 campaign ends Tuesday. The 2012 campaign begins Wednesday. No one expects the Republicans to keep a cork in the champagne. They will be tempted to think the results are all about them, and imagine that nothing succeeds like success. That little lie has led many good men astray. They should remember that nothing recedes like success.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.