Now that we've entered the home stretch of this presidential campaign, we're starting to see what happens to high-information political partisans after they've spent many months staring at this neon god we've constructed and named "The 2012 Horse Race": Everyone starts to slowly, but readily, tip into derangement.
A few weeks ago, when President Barack Obama was enjoying a modest bounce in the polls, activists on the right developed a whole new space algebra and started "unskewing" the polls and insisting that Mitt Romney was actually the one enjoying the modest bounce. Last week, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics' jobs report came out, reporting a modest downtick in misery, the same crew led a lycanthropic rage-parade against the agency, accusing it of "cooking the books."
That sh*t was, as the kids say these days, "cray," but at the same time, there was almost something admirable about the way the conservative tribe manifested a will to power so pure and so intense that it was briefly able to slip the surly bonds of objective reality. This was communitarian discomposure at its finest, warlike in its dubiety. In the face of slightly bad news, the right didn't so much suspend their disbelief as much as they waterboarded it into submission.
Since then, however, there has been a presidential debate, in which Romney prevailed as the more confident debater, and this has tipped the president's most ardent supporters into their own sense of disarray. It is not a little bit weird. People talk about the "expectations game" going into these presidential debates, but I am forced to conclude that the president's biggest fans fully expected Obama -- the same guy who spent a few months being pretty sure he could win Sen. Chuck Grassley's support for health care reform with the right mix of politesse and compromise -- to go to the debate and serve Mitt Romney his own balls on a plate with fingerling potatoes and a squash puree.
That obviously didn't happen. Romney prevailed against a performance from Obama that's been universally rated somewhere between "too polite" and "outright lifeless," and has in recent days experienced a resurgence of his own in the polls. This all culminated Monday when Pew Research released its round of post-debate numbers and found that Romney had taken a four-point lead nationally among likely voters. And so it was the left's turn to give into derangement and -- as anyone who has watched politics for more than a week knows is typical of them -- they passed on the chance to manifest the same reality-altering will to power for their preferred reaction, pure animal panic.
In the immediate aftermath of the debate, the seeds necessary to grow organic, free-range woe were quickly sown by people such as Kevin Baker of Harper's, who saw Obama's performance as a de facto admission that the president just wanted to tank the election and bail. On Thursday, Baker wrote:
Obama had a perfect opportunity to impose his own agenda on last night's debate. He could and should have made the entire evening a debate on Romney's shocking contention that nearly half the country is made up of "victims and dependents," mooching off the rest of us simply because they are not currently paying federal income taxes.
Instead, Obama signaled that he wants out. His diehard supporters are already trying to wave away this weirdly awful, unengaged performance as just his latest turn of Zen mastery, but that dog won't hunt. They should steel themselves for more shocking displays of indifference over the next month on the part of this strangely diffident individual. It's quite possible that he means what he says, and he really can't wait to become an ex-president.
Who can deny that all of the muscular effort that Obama has made all year campaigning and fundraising and shoring up the base with a number of executive orders and pouncing on every opportunity to define Mitt Romney as a clueless plutocrat was definitely leading up to an intentionally thrown debate performance that would ensure the end of his own presidential tenure. My God, Obama must have been terribly despondent after his convention went so swimmingly! If anything, Baker makes too much sense here.
But nothing could have prepared America for the reaction that the Daily Beast's Andrew Sullivan had Monday, when Pew Research released its numbers. By that point, everyone in the world should have been fully expecting Romney's success to manifest itself favorably in the polling results. Yet for Sullivan -- evidently the only British person to have not seen a "Keep Calm and Carry On" poster -- Pew's results were nothing less than the distant early warning of the pure, earth-shattering doom and demise to come. In his piece, not at all hyperbolically titled "Did Obama Just Throw the Election Away?" Sullivan freaks out thusly:
The Pew poll is devastating, just devastating. Before the debate, Obama had a 51-43 lead; now, Romney has a 49-45 lead. That's a simply unprecedented reversal for a candidate in October. Before Obama had leads on every policy issue and personal characteristic; now Romney leads in almost all of them. Obama's performance gave Romney a 12 point swing! I repeat: a 12 point swing.
Romney's favorables are above Obama's now. Yes, you read that right. Romney's favorables are higher than Obama's right now. That gender gap that was Obama's firewall? Over in one night.
Seriously: has that kind of swing ever happened this late in a campaign? Has any candidate lost 18 points among women voters in one night ever? And we are told that when Obama left the stage that night, he was feeling good. That's terrifying. On every single issue, Obama has instantly plummeted into near-oblivion.
The rest of Sullivan's dispatch was dictated to loved ones through the walls of his panic room, apparently. He says that he is "trying to rally some morale," but Obama threw "away almost every single advantage he had with voters."
Sullivan asks, "How do you erase that imprinted first image from public consciousness: a president incapable of making a single argument or even a halfway decent closing statement?" I would have thought that a reasonable answer to that question would be something like, "Do better in the next two debates," but I am probably thinking too clear-headedly. I mean, when I read about Obama telling a supporter that his campaign was "making him do his homework," I read that as a wry joke about the dull process of campaigning. Sullivan, on the other hand, reads it sincerely and concludes that Obama is literally refusing "to take a core campaign responsibility seriously."
Here's Sullivan on Sept. 27: "Obama Moves In For The Kill." That was written about a campaign ad the president's campaign released -- you know, as a part of their larger effort to eventually stop "taking core campaign responsibilities seriously."
"I've never seen a candidate self-destruct for no external reason this late in a campaign before," Sullivan now writes, "[Al] Gore was better in his first debate -- and he threw a solid lead into the trash that night." So he's never seen a candidate self-destruct, except for that time 12 years ago when a candidate self-destructed. O-kay!
Even Sullivan's solutions are slightly unkempt in their rationale:
If [Obama] now came out and said he supports Simpson-Bowles in its entirety, it would look desperate, but now that Romney has junked every proposal he ever told his base, and we're in mid-October, it's Obama's only chance on the economy.
Jeezy-creezy, Simpson-Bowles! That will solve everything. Put some Simpson-Bowles on your skin rash and call me in the morning! More realistically, of course, Obama will win all of the District of Columbia's electoral votes and, in all likelihood, outperform Romney in the Maryland and Virginia ring suburbs of the nation's capital, and so that essentially covers the part of America where the people who authentically believe Simpson-Bowles is the be-all and end-all of economic policy actually reside.
Look, Obama's September bounce actually happened and Romney's October comeback is real. But fundamentals matter, and as Ken Layne points out Tuesday, Andrew Sullivan is not recognized by political science as an election-year fundamental: "Andrew Sullivan is not a useful metric for measuring the opinions, stances or engagement of American voters slowly waking to the reality of a presidential election next month."
Here are the fundamentals of the election. Obama is the incumbent, but he cannot fully manifest the advantages of incumbency because the economy is terrible. If the economy were better, he'd be doing better. But it's not, so he won't. Romney, if he were better at running for president, might have led in the polls for a longer period of time this year. But he's not particularly good at running for president, so he hasn't. All signs point to the fact that we are going to have the same tight-as-a-tick election that just about everyone of sound mind thought we'd have from jump.
There is, perhaps, some acknowledgement of this from Sullivan, who is slightly more chilled out on Tuesday: "Look: there's time. I've sat through a few very very flat Obama performances in my time as well. He is often best when up against the wall."
Someday, I hope people take a moment and consider what a luxury it is to be in a full-tilt panic over the fate of a well-liked, permanently affluent political celebrity at a time when millions of Americans are unemployed and our soldiers are bogged down in a war that began when some of them were just 8 years old.
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