Every day (or close to it) until November 4, a series of writers and thinkers will discuss the election over instant messenger for nymag.com. Today, Garrett M. Graff, author of The First Campaign and editor-at-large for the Washingtonian, and New York's Michael Idov discuss dirty campaigning and the Internet, what the future holds for Joe Lieberman and Sarah Palin, and never underestimating the ability of Democrats to screw up winning.
M.I.: My $3,000,000 overhead projector is on. Shall we?
G.G.: I think one of the most interesting stories out today is the New York Times article about how the Democrats may end up scoring major victories in the House and the Senate races across the country — even in some unlikely spots. My question for you, since I know you've covered Mr. Joementum himself: What does a big Democratic victory mean for Joe Lieberman come January 2009?
M.I.: Well, as Joe said yesterday when Andrea Mitchell shana-tova-ed him, "I have a lot to repent for." He's not getting reelected in CT and he knows it; so if McCain wins, his only honorable exit is to be airlifted into the Cabinet. That's the extent of his gamble, basically. Otherwise the Democrats will let him knock around the Senate for the rest of his term, probably in exchange for having him bring his Homeland Security committee in line with Obama's directives. All his bargaining chips are gone.
G.G.: Huh — so you don't think the Democrats, if they end up with 57 or 58 seats, will strip him of every perk/post they can think of and relegate his Senate office to somewhere in West Virginia?
M.I.: Believe it or not, I don't. If his endorsement of McCain didn't help the man win, than what's his harm? Plus he takes them one more vote closer to filibuster-proof majority on environmental issues, etc. I think having to go around praising Sarah Palin for four more weeks is punishment enough! But you know, being a typical liberal worrywart, I'm a little concerned about the glee that's been settling in among the Democrats this past week.
G.G.: Nate at the blog FiveThirtyEight.com has Obama winning now as a nine to one favorite, but I always say never underestimate the ability of Democrats to screw up winning.
M.I.: We have Howard Wolfson, who's been pretty subdued otherwise, saying "it's over" in the New Republic, the Times is picking out the drapes in the entire Hart Building … I trust FiveThirtyEight, but this doesn't mean I don't worry — worry about some great untapped racist demographic that's bubbling just under the reach of pollsters, for example.
G.G.: It's not just on the Democratic side, though. You have Peggy Noonan saying "It's over" a month ago, Joe Scarborough saying on Colbert last night that McCain can't win. The big challenge, every day this gets closer, is that with so many people voting early or absentee, both sides are beginning to lock up voters. If this race doesn't change measurably by mid-next week, it seems like it might be too late for McCain. He certainly missed a big opportunity on Tuesday night to change the discussion.
M.I.: And that means what, Ayers? What else could he throw out there?
G.G.: Ayers, Reverend Wright, all that stuff doesn't matter to potential Obama supporters any more than Keating Five does to potential McCain supporters. It doesn't have a cultural resonance to them and they've heard the stories before. The bigger question, I think, is what's left with these "undecideds"? Are they, as Jon Stewart says, the "stupid" vote? How could you have made it this far and not have strong feelings about this race? Are these the people who are just at a root level uncomfortable with Obama? And, if so, what does he have to do to close the deal?
M.I.: Nothing. Just hope they're too stupid to vote on November 4. And yes, I fervently believe that, in order to remain swayable by today — October 9! — you have to have the short-term memory span of a goldfish. Which brings me to a question I wanted to ask you, since you’re a specialist in Internet strategies. Everyone credits the machine Dean put together for 2004 (with your help) with changing the fund-raising and organizing game, but it also seems like the Internet is enabling a near-perfect distribution of the most horrendous smears. Everyone who thinks Obama is a Muslim (or “Muslin,” as one Florida yard sign says), got it from “The Internet.” And no one is responsible — the McCain campaign can't stop it even if it wanted, which it doesn't. Does this strike you as a fair payoff? Or was the reach of the Internet, in fact, not supposed to be quite THIS total —; was there an assumption that people with access to it are, by default, not complete idiots?
G.G.: You're certainly right that the Internet has really exploded the speed and ease of spreading rumors — true and not true — in recent elections, but I argue that we've never had a period of politics absent that. The lies just come in different forms. In the second presidential race ever, John Adams versus Thomas Jefferson, Adams partisans sent horseback riders (the e-mail chain letters of yore) through the countryside shouting "Jefferson is dead!" In an era before television and when candidates were rarely seen in person, it was easy to convince people someone was dead when they weren't. Jefferson had to spend the rest of the campaign trying to convince people he was alive. Now THAT'S dirty campaigning.
That being said I think it's incredible that you have a candidate in this election who is simultaneously being slandered for having a crazy Christian pastor AND being a closet Manchurian candidate for Muslims.
M.I.: "Jefferson had to spend the rest of the campaign trying to convince people he was alive." Much like McCain is doing now! Thank you, try the veal.
So one last question for you: Sarah Palin, that, as David Brooks says, "fatal cancer on the Republican Party" — the GOP nominee for president in 2012?
M.I.: Well, Kevin Drum had a good post on that the other day — that the Obama victory will plunge the Republican party into factional warfare. I think it's likely that one of these factions will be headed by Sarah Palin. Or the McCain people will successfully spin her as the cause of their collapse, and she'll be cutting ribbons at Wal-Marts for the rest of her life. With Joe Lieberman.
For a complete and regularly updated guide to presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain — from First Love to Most Embarrassing Gaffe — read the 2008 Electopedia.