Every day until November 4, a series of writers and thinkers will discuss the election over instant messenger for nymag.com. Today, David Frum, who writes daily for National Review Online, and Lynn Sweet, Washington, D.C., bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times, discuss the unexpected factors working against Obama, Palin's resilience, and what bearing past elections have — or don't have — on this one.
D.F.: You are in the heart of Obamaland. Am I wrong to detect a mood of panic out there?
L.S.: I would not use the word panic. The Obama team knows that campaigns have big ups and downs. I think it took them a few days to get their head around Sarah Palin. McCain surprised them. Obama campaign manager David Plouffe this morning sent out a memo saying they will reply with "speed and ferocity" to the McCain-Palin ticket.
D.F.: Really? Obama looks rattled to me. I hear that congressional Dems are deeply upset by the collapse of their support on the generic party-preference question. The GOP-Dem gap on national security — nearly eliminated in the fall of 2007 — has widened to fourteen points. The Obama campaign is complaining about dirty tactics (always a sign that you are being hammered).
And liberal bloggers are having nervous breakdowns in public, saying things like, "We're going to lose this fricking thing." Josh Marshall was telling his audience this week that it's better to lose with dignity than to win squalidly. A noble sentiment … but one indicative of a certain pessimism, don't you think?
L.S.: You have a few points here. On the Obama camp being rattled: They don't panic — their supporters and surrogates get rattled. That's not to negate that they vastly underestimated Palin's appeal. The Obama camp's big task now is to plow ahead — with what seems to be a more aggressive tone upcoming. The McCain sex-education ad — wrongly accusing Obama of backing sex ed for tots — has been discredited.
D.F.: So they stick to the plan, even if the plan is no longer working?
L.S.: Your question was about panic. This is a state-by-state battle. Obama's big headache is to make sure his big donors do not get rattled. Of course the Obama camp retools as needed.
D.F.: Here's what I'd be worrying about as a Democrat: The party has not won a presidential election in a two-way fight since 1976. That win was achieved by an amazing and unrepeatable confluence of events: (1) the worst political scandal of the twentieth century; (2) a savage economic downturn; (3) a ticket headed by a candidate perceived to be a conservative Southerner who cleverly got to the incumbent Republican's right on national security — remember Ford refused to invite Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to the White House on the advice of Henry Kissinger; and (4) a very weak Republican candidate. And it was still a squeaker of an election!
This time, Democrats gambled everything on 2008 being a 1980 in reverse. (It looked that way to me for a long time too.) That left them free to nominate the candidate they really liked — even if he would normally have seemed extreme and untested — because they felt the wind so strong at their backs. But bad news! 2007 may have been a Republican 1979, but 2008 is not looking like 1980. Things are getting better just when the Democrats need them to get worse. There's no recession. Gas prices are down. The surge is working. And suddenly Obama's vulnerabilities all matter in a way that Democrats had hoped they would not.
D.F.: (Further to what I wrote above, I just this second received in my in-box the following from MoveOn.org: "Angry at John McCain and Sarah Palin? Frustrated with the media? Fed up with the absurd direction this campaign has taken?" Whatever that is, that's not the sound of a winning campaign…)
L.S.: With all respect, I don't think the historical data points matter that much. Obama presented a generational, aspirational, Net-rooted, grassrooted campaign. What they never saw coming was a Palin — another charismatic with a compelling personal narrative.
D.F.: Are you saying, "This time it's different"? I didn't know it was THAT bad!
L.S.: For those who want to read the entire memo from Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, I posted it on my blog, blogs.suntimes.com/sweet.
D.F.: I don't need to read your blog to know what a campaign manager says at a time like this. Stay the course yadda yadda. What else is he going to say? Fire me and replace me? But what do YOU say?
L.S.: David, please. Everyone needs to read my blog. Now, on to the business at hand. Obama needs to get Palin out of his head and press the Bush-McCain message. The Obama team may regret shutting down the 527s — the groups with the ability to more easily make negative arguments against the McCain-Palin ticket.
D.F.: Sorry, no intent to belittle the blog! Seriously, though, the collapse of Dem credibility on national security, the decline of gas prices, the surprising resilience of the economy, don't they call the Bush-McCain strategy into question? And John McCain's self-description as a candidate of change is being believed. James Carville used the formula of change versus more of the same very effectively in 1992, but now the choice is being presented as one between SAFE change (McCain) and RISKY change (Obama).
Then there's this further problem: Sooner or later, Obama had to make specific exactly what he meant by "change." That's what he did in his Denver speech. And there he made clear that he is WAY to the left on issue after issue.
L.S.: You seriously seem to think the Dems should just pull out of the election. Sure, gas prices are down — a few cents from an all-time high. I just paid $3.89 a gallon in Bethesda. I know a lot of people being cut from jobs, people with house prices diving, stock holdings down.
D.F.: Might that not explain why Obama obtained such a small and short-lived "bounce"? Gas prices are down 30 cents on average, or almost 10 percent.
L.S.: Still high.
D.F.: Still high. But trending down. And of course McCain has an idea about how to drive them down further. Maybe a demagogic idea. But an idea. Obama, by contrast, promises to run the economy on sunbeams by 2019. Of course the Democrats cannot pull out. But why aren't they showcasing Robert Rubin? Bill Clinton? Prosperity?
L.S.: On national security — that is McCain's strength. But Obama still does better in the argument that the U.S. will get a second look by the world if he is president.
D.F.: Wait a minute. I thought the war was supposed to be a Republican weakness! If it's a strength, what has Obama got?
L.S.: As I said, he has the vast advantage in improving the international image of the U.S.
L.S.: Regarding your bounce comment: Don't we agree McCain's surprise announcement of Palin the day after the Democratic convention took some points off the chart? And you need to factor in this rare back-to-back convention scenario we had.
D.F.: Maybe. But I attach a lot more credence to this: Except in the most extraordinary times — 1932, 1980 — America wants middle-of-the-road government. Obama's just not a middle-of-the-road kind of guy. And now with gas down … and the surge working … and Palin there to offer a home to all those women who felt that Hillary Clinton was treated shabbily…
L.S.: If Obama is too left — as you assert — isn't Palin too far to the right for the middle-of-the-roaders?
D.F.: But Palin is running as an identity candidate, not an ideological candidate.
L.S.: She can't just run from her values, her ideology. Democrats won't let her. And as for the Hillary Clinton backers who are still wounded, that's a reason the pro-choice groups are kicking in. Abortion rights will become much more of an issue in the 50-plus days left in the campaign (not counting early voting starting next month).
D.F.: Can't she? She ran from the Bridge to Nowhere! And apparently convincingly. Now that's what I call the audacity of hope. You want the last word before we wrap?
L.S.: Just that Obama does not have the exclusive franchise on hope and change.