Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Gloom and Doom

Bob Herbert and David Brooks pair up to forecast a bleak campaign season.

First, Mr. Herbert on the long march of the Democratic nomination.

This should have been the year when the Democrats just hammered the Republicans over the economy, the war, energy policy, health care, appointments to the Supreme Court, the failure to rebuild New Orleans, and so on. The list of important issues on which the Republicans are vulnerable is endless.

Instead of running for cover, the G.O.P. is growing ever more confident that it will be tossing inaugural balls for John and Cindy McCain come January.

There is no end of blame to be apportioned among the Democrats. The Clintons have behaved execrably. But weak-willed party leaders showed neither the courage nor the inclination to stop them from fracturing the party along gender and ethnic lines.

As for Senator Obama, he’s been mired in a series of problems of his own — problems that have done serious damage to the very idea that brought him to national prominence in the first place: that he was a new breed of political leader, a unifying candidate who could begin to narrow the partisan divides of race, class and even, to some extent, political persuasion.

Can the Democrats still get their act together?

Only if they hurry. The party will have to exhibit extraordinary unity, coming together quickly to heal the wounds of this long and bitter primary. Senator Obama will have to develop (again, quickly) an exceptionally compelling economic program while trying to strengthen his appeal across ethnic and class lines.

The Democrats have done far more damage to themselves than the G.O.P. could ever have inflicted.

Now Mr. Brooks, who, after the obligatory Dem bashing that he must do in order to keep his Concern Troll credibility, sees bleakness ahead for the GOP:

The Republican camp, meanwhile, is possessed of the belief that Obama is a charming lightweight. Republican senators have contempt for Obama’s post-partisan image, arguing that he and his staff refused to even participate in backroom bipartisan discussion groups.

But Obama is far from a lightweight, as Republicans will learn if he agrees to do joint town meetings with McCain. McCain’s jabs that Obama is naïve will backfire. In this climate, a candidate can’t define the other guy, only himself. When McCain attacks Obama for being naïve, all voters see is McCain being sour and negative.

More fundamentally, McCain’s problem is that his party is unfit to govern. As research from the Republican pollster David Winston has shown, any policy becomes less popular when people learn that Republicans are supporting it. If the G.O.P. sponsored the sunrise, voters would prefer gloom. Many Republicans are under the illusion that they are in trouble because they’ve betrayed their core principles. The sad truth is that if they’d been more conservative, they’d be even further behind.

I’ve spent the past few years trying to find conservative experts to provide remedies for middle-class economic anxiety. Let me tell you, the state of free-market thinking on this subject is pathetic. There are a few creative thinkers (most of them under 30), but for the most part, McCain is forced to run in an intellectual void.

Today, he is scheduled to give a forceful speech on why “reform” is better than “change.” He plans to describe how to remobilize government and address economic anxiety. But McCain’s reform message is only being carried by him and a few bloggers. Obama can draw on a coherent body of economic work and 10,000 unified voices.

This election will be asymmetric. Obama has to come up with a personal narrative voters can relate to. McCain needs to come up with a one-sentence description for why he represents a clean break and a compelling future.

At the risk of sounding biased, I think the Republicans have more of a problem than the Democrats. As Mr. Brooks points out, the GOP is basically running on nothing. The only thing they have is the echo of the campaigns of 2004 and 2006 where they ran on fear. Then it was the terrorists, a generic term that covered everything from Osama bin Laden to big tubes of toothpaste in your luggage at the airport and the paranoia that comes from the mindset that it was okay to listen in on phone calls without a warrant because if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to worry about. (And yet they never really got around to defining what “wrong” was. Calling Uncle Abdul in Beirut to wish him a happy birthday? Sending a wire transfer to the Caymans to reserve the honeymoon suite at the hotel on the beach? Gambling over the internet in Antigua?) But in 2008 with the “War on Terror” and the search for WMD’s a presidential punch line, an economy that is gasping and sputtering with mortgage foreclosures through the roof (to which I can testify personally), gas at $4 a gallon, and over 4,000 dead American soldiers from a war that was sold through cynical propaganda and a permanent campaign mentality, the Republicans have nothing fundamental to offer the country that we haven’t already seen and turned against, and they have no new ideas other than telling us that John McCain isn’t George W. Bush. Really, he isn’t. Just ask him. But so far, Mr. McCain has offered nothing other than vague platitudes and gaffe-prone attacks on the Democrats, which is just a warmed-over version of the last four Republican presidential campaigns.

The Democrats, meanwhile, have a more immediate yet more solvable problem: how to unify two strong candidates into a winning campaign. I daresay Mr. Herbert is far more pessimistic than I am, and history proves that when the primaries are over, the Democrats have been able to put on their happy faces and work together. Granted, they’re not as lockstep as the GOP, who fell in behind McCain like the Ohio State marching band, but it has been known to happen. And as Abraham Lincoln once said, “No matter how much cats fight, there always seems to be plenty of kittens.” I’m pretty sure that within a week, the Obamabots and the Clintonistas will be working together as if the last six months had not happened. The convention in Denver will be a Rocky Mountain high of unity, brother-and-sisterhood, and giddy thin-air predictions of a Democratic avalanche. Sober reality dictates that it probably won’t be a landslide; the knives of the Orcosphere have yet to be fully unsheathed, and if you think that the current kerfuffle over Michelle Obama’s alleged use of the word “whitey” is over the top, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Five months from now we’re going to look back on this primary battle and, as one of my commenters noted yesterday, wistfully reminisce about the good old days, and Mr. Herbert’s and Mr. Brooks’s predictions of gloom and doom will seem positively sunny by comparison.