When you write about war, Barbara Tuchman once told aspiring historians, write as though you don’t know who won. That’s hard to do. It’s just as hard to write about which presidential candidate will win a tight race. But that doesn’t stop pollsters, pundits, back-fence gossips or anyone else from offering their 2 cents’ worth.
Some inevitable presidents have lost in the long run, some in the short run. Who was more inevitable than Hillary Rodham Clinton? She didn’t even make it past the nominating convention. Harry Truman is the patron saint of lagging inevitable presidents, to the historic humiliation of the Chicago Tribune. The newspaper’s infamous early-edition headline in 1948, “Dewey Defeats Truman,” even became a postage stamp. Polls were neither as numerous nor as precise back then.
Still, the iron law of unintended consequences and the inevitability of unpredictable events continue to keep doubt alive. Voters who have made up closed minds speak with smug arrogance to anyone who disagrees.
I overheard this typical and telling conversation between a man and a woman, obviously friends, that grew heated over coffee in a Manhattan cafe. “So what do you think of Mitt Romney’s 47 percent?” he asked with an exuberant gloat. The young woman shot back: “What do you think of the president’s changing stories about what happened in Libya?”
Both aimed for the obvious, and their friendly argument demonstrates how partisan gotcha games move the campaign conversation away from what was supposed to be the killer issue for November: jobs, jobs, jobs.
These two voters, each definitely not undecided, offer the latest snapshot of where such voters are. Their opinions are less snapshots, in fact, than images engraved in stone. But the important voters, as the campaign rattles past the first of the four debates and into the homestretch, are those who still haven’t made up their minds. Their ballots will determine the winner.
The rest of us are spectators, watching what Samuel L. Popkin, author of “The Candidate,” an analysis of campaign mistakes, calls “the world according to Mike Tyson.” When Mr. Tyson was the heavyweight champion of the world, someone asked him what he thought about a challenger’s strategy. “They all have a strategy,” he said, “until they get hit.” It’s how a challenger responds to the hit that makes the difference between winning and losing. That’s what undecided voters are looking for.
It’s that intangible, telling detail that suggests who can get up off the floor after taking a succession of power punches. Can the winded challenger stay in the fight after taking repeated blows to the gut? It’s astonishing that Mr. Obama’s miserable record hasn’t already put him on the ropes — a record of high unemployment, mismanagement of the economy and his insistence on blaming a video that almost nobody saw for the murder of an American ambassador by terrorists he wouldn’t even call terrorists.
By every measurement, Americans are worse off than they were four years ago. A sense of security in the world has diminished sharply, and a quarter of Americans between 25 and 55 years of age are out of work. That statistic would be worse if so many workers hadn’t quit looking for jobs. Joe Biden was right: The middle class has been “buried” over the past four years.
Americans are less safe in the Middle East than they were when Mr. Obama became president. Speaker after speaker at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., hailed the death of Osama bin Laden as proof of the president’s manly virtues but glossed over the policies that weakened us in the eyes of Muslims everywhere. We didn’t know then what we’ve learned since, that an American ambassador in a hostile land repeatedly begged for more security and died when he couldn’t get it. Any other candidate in Mr. Obama’s shoes would be looking for the smelling salts.
Jon Stewart, the television comic and a Democratic partisan, played videos of the endless contradictory explanations of what happened in Libya and what didn’t happen — changing stories by the president, his press secretary, the secretary of state, his witless ambassador to the United Nations and Matthew G. Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center. “Don’t these guys talk to each other?” he asked. It was the question we all asked. Saddest of all was the answer. Yes, they do — and look what happened.
None of the punches has a been knockout blow, but as any good fight manager knows, the full impact of body blows has a cumulative, delayed effect. We’re moving into the most important part of the fight. We haven’t heard the bell on the last round.
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.
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