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Reversal of Fortune

Call it the law of political gravity: What goes down (an economy, a president’s stature) must go up. So why are we always shocked when it happens?


We’ve just had the reversal.

Since the summer, the momentum and mood—both mo’s—have been against the president. There was an anti-Bush flowering. He had seriously dented invincibility. The Iraq toll, together with the murmurings of “quagmire,” helped by endemic swing-state unemployment and precipitously falling approval numbers, seemed to be turning Bush into his father.

Until the flipperoo. In quick succession, the economic news got marginally better, then in a revised report it got drastically better (a twenty-year benchmark of betterness), and the administration suddenly had a new plan in Iraq (and a new plasticity); what’s more, the president, reversing six months of military ineptness, flew into Baghdad for dinner (if not quite erasing then blurring the image of him, late last spring, in pilot getup prematurely proclaiming the end of the war), and, slam-bam, Medicare moved into the Republican column.

How bad is this for the Democrats? The Times’ new conservative columnist, David Brooks, was suddenly proclaiming—as is often the case at the moment of reversal—the new Republican hegemony and the coming of a 60-year Republican New Deal.

And it was not just the Republicans who were crowing. The Democrats—at least those who carry the adjective mainstream as well as liberal—seemed, overnight, entirely without hope. My friend Tom Keane, the political columnist for the Boston Herald, a dedicated as well as optimistic Democrat (he represented ultraliberal Back Bay on the City Council and ran for Congress a few years ago), seemed as near to throwing up his hands as a partisan can come.

“The fact is,” he wrote, “everything is breaking George W. Bush’s way. Increasingly his reelection looks inevitable. It’s going to be a grim July at the FleetCenter.”

And this: “Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe is fond of predicting—as he did just this week—that the election will be ‘fought on the 3 million jobs lost under George Bush.’ Make that 2.7 million. . . . By the time the election rolls around, most of us will be reasonably optimistic about the economy, and not inclined at all to abandon the administration that brought about the improvement.”

His column came out the day before Thanksgiving—the day before the president’s secret trip to Baghdad—and so he was even more despairing when I called him the day after: “We’ve got James Bond for president! Did he carry a capsule to bite on if he got captured by enemy troops? Forget James Bond, this is Harrison Ford. Say what you want, as much as a lot of Democrats hate this guy, a lot more people think he’s kinda cool.”

Ignoring all the evidence to the contrary, I want to disagree with this view of Bush triumphalism.

Or at least make an argument for the illusory nature of political news. This may be a cognitive rather than political issue. It’s something like a learning disability. We can’t remember the prior chapters. By “we” I mean the media, which, even though it forgets what happened before, pays obsessive attention to every detail, as well as voters, or at least swing voters, who pay no attention and then act on whatever the conventional “who’s up?/who’s down?” wisdom is at the moment they have to vote.

It’s Pavlovian.

We respond to a series of precisely timed stimuli.

Michael Dukakis was, when he cinched his nomination, brimming with energy and potential (I kid you not), until, all of a sudden, he wasn’t. He was a joke.

The president’s father was—eighteen months before he lost his reelection campaign—among the most popular and beloved modern presidents. Then he, too, caught in a reversal downdraft, was a kick-me loser.

We—the people who cover politics, and the people who pay attention to politics (not a large group)—are literalists. We believe, unimaginatively and credulously, with a deep lack of humor and irony, in what we write and what we read (partly because we write it and are among the relative few to truly read it). We believe that the news of the day is real.

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