Reversal of Fortune

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.

Politicians, on the other hand, and even more so, the people whose business is politics—pollsters, and managers, and communications directors, and media consultants—are illusionists. They are engaged in a perceptual act designed to wow the literalists.

A further complicating factor is that we literalists know we are being manipulated. But there is no real way to make the act of manipulation the news. You can’t say: PRESIDENT FOUND MANIPULATING MEDIA. (According to the Washington Post last week, “White House officials do not deny that they craft elaborate events to showcase Bush, but they maintain that these events are designed to accurately dramatize his policies and to convey qualities about him that are real.”) We accept that the manipulation produces the news (only the hopelessly cynical will keep moaning about that). We’re judging the dexterity of the sleight of hand.

For instance, the good economy—the motor of the president’s current reversal. It arrived right on time. Duh.

We understand that all political management skills have been brought to bear to create this turnaround. Indeed, as the turnaround was transparently implemented, countless people pronounced it “just a short-term fix to engineer some pre-election good news.” Indeed, anticipating the reversal makes it somehow even bigger news. They pulled it off!

Politics in its highest media form (and as a function of the endless campaign) may just be a process of anticipating and managing the reversals—of understanding that reversals are inevitable (if you don’t engineer your own reversals, the media, for its own narrative reasons, will do it for you), but that you can make the timing work for you. Which is, of course, the opposite of the first Bush presidency, when the timing of the ups and downs was so … unmanaged. Nobody was synchronizing highs and lows with the campaign schedule.

But hold on. along with the law of reversals, there is another related, and more and more significant, political law—the law of stickiness. The Teflon factor.

“Politics in its highest media form may just be a matter of managing these reversals.”

If you get caught in a nasty reversal, which you will, and if you can’t shrug off the reversal like so much negative energy, or if you can only shrug off half of it, so that some of every reversal clings to you, you’re cooked, or, even worse, slowly, agonizingly brought down.

Al Gore, who was once (you probably do not remember) golden—a really spectacular political creature (of course, his periods of being golden were reversals from his other periods of being leaden)—couldn’t shrug it off. Indeed, he tried to shoulder his reversals. The man was really quite a stoic.

Whereas George W. Bush, who has been reversed as often as any politician, has never seemed any worse for wear. The bad days don’t stick to him. He’s gone up and he’s gone down and has remained pretty much the same unshaded (and unwounded) fellow.

This is, I believe, a matter of expectations. Inevitable negative reversals happen to all politicians—especially in the light of 24/7 news. The real political test is if you can survive your negative reversals (as well as engineer your positive ones). My hunch is that the lower regard we have for you, the easier it is to pick yourself up from the trough. For George Bush, people’s expectations have always been naturally low. When bad things have happened, we’re not shocked, nor disappointed—in some sense, we’re surprised it wasn’t much worse. We have a unique tolerance for him.

But lest this be interpreted as just some liberal, Bush-is-so-dumb stuff, let me rush to say that much the same seems to apply to Howard Dean, too.

He’s recovered from the taint of every dip and sharp turn in the road. He keeps reversing upward. From anonymity to prominence, from novelty to seriousness. It’s expectations: We don’t really have any for Dean, whom we don’t know—hence, in some way, we’re impressed by everything he does. (For Kerry, Edwards, Lieberman, and Clark, on the other hand, it has been a steady process of being diminished. Each began hopefully and so, inevitably, was reversed—and each, never able to entirely recover from that reversal, was set further back by the next. Of the Democrats other than Dean, only Gephardt, who began without promise, seems to have improved his standing. Beginning negatively, he reversed positively.)

And so it occurs to me that Dean, an unlikely and confounding Democratic nominee, may be, in some partially comic sense, perfectly matched to George Bush. Each has a cultivated lack of stature, a sense of unprepossessingness, which seems to earn them the benefit of the doubt. They may be similar ciphers.

Notably, their rises and falls play well against each other.

The Bush dip, for instance, of the past few months was great for Dean—as the not exactly realistic candidate, he fed off of the Democrats’ not exactly realistic hopes. The current Bush rise is good for Dean, too—it depresses (if it wasn’t depressed already) interest by realistic Democrats in the realistic candidates. Only the Dean people, having gotten further than they ever thought they would, feel good.

Likewise, you’ve got to appreciate, all of the preceding is good for Bush. His dip this summer encouraged the Dean forces—and Dean is, surely, the candidate the Republicans most want to run against. And, indeed, Karl Rove knew they could afford the dip, because the economic rise was the November surprise they could count on. The timing here was excellent (excellent timing is the point): good economic news together with the treacly Norman Rockwell portrait of the president serving turkey to the troops.

This lack of stickiness—this reversal advantage—makes both Bush and Dean the perfect consultant candidates. Nobody is much measuring their inner lives. They’re just a reflection of external events. They look good or bad, depending on the day. This means you just have to manage the patterns and rhythms of the campaign narrative and aim to end up on a positive note. In this, both Bush’s Karl Rove and Dean’s Joe Trippi seem to be masterful.

Along with my friend Tom Keane, and, this week, just about everyone else, I’d certainly say it’s invariably Bush. But I don’t think we fully appreciate the art of managed ups and downs. Or that we’ve never had guys like this running against each other. Two guys who can pass through events unscathed, who can weather highs and lows, who don’t leave enough of a lasting impression for us to hold a grudge. Who ride the news cycle with such relative ease and nonchalance.

It could be quite the balletic race.

Reversal of Fortune