It's probably too early in the morning for this kind of cosmic debate, but I'll pose the question anyway: Are we masters of our own fates, succeeding or failing in life based on the decisions we make or avoid? Or are we ultimately prey to forces of nature beyond our control, and thus incapable of shaping our destinies through force of action?
The latter is known, at least in 19th-century English literature, as "determinism." And today some of the top political academics are basically determinists. They argue that, in any given presidential election year, the two major candidates are actually prey to forces of nature beyond their control; that what ultimately matters most is not their behavior and the tactical choices they make, but, rather, the prevailing political environment; and that the environment in the end will dictate who wins and who loses.
For journalists and voters and campaign tacticians who would like to believe that candidates are masters of their fate, the determinist view is not very welcome. Just yesterday, for instance, in a Sunday print column, I offered some tactical tips to Barack Obama and John McCain, and dozens of readers posted tips of their own. But the best determinists - notably, Allan Lichtman, author of the newly updated book, The Keys to the White House, and Alan Abramowitz of Emory University, have rarely been wrong in their calculations, so let's hear them out.
Much to the GOP's chagrin, no doubt, both guys are now predicting that the 2008 race will be a no-brainer; that, no matter what McCain decides to say or do between now and November, he loses.
Abramowitz has worked up something that he calls the Electoral Barometer (I'll spare you the mathematical formula), and it's based on three indicators of the national political climate: the incumbent president's approval rating at mid-year of the election, the growth rate of the economy during the second quarter of the election year, and the duration of time that the incumbent president's party has held the White House.
Abramowitz wrote last week that, when the popularity (or lack thereof) of the incumbent is factored along with the health (or lack thereof) of the economy and the time frame of the incumbent party's reign, the prevailing political mood can be easily measured as a predictor of the November outcome.
He says the formula has accurately forecast the popular vote winner in 14 of the 15 presidential races since World War II (with the sole exception of 1968), and that 2008 will expose McCain to what he calls "the dreaded triple whammy...an unpopular president, a weak economy, and a second-term election," the latter referring to McCain's bid to extend the GOP's reign beyond eight years. He continues: "The current national political climate is one of the worst for the party in power since end of World War II. No candidate running in such an unfavorable political environment, Republican or Democrat, has ever been successful." A McCain victory would be "an upset of unprecedented magnitude."
Lichtman has a more ambitious formula, basing his mood measurement on 13 indicators. Aside from the basic Abramowitz factors, his include: whether the incumbent president has had major foreign policy successes or failures; whether he has been tainted by major scandal; and whether the out-party candidate is charismatic.
So, in 2008 terms, if one considers Bush's Iraq debacle and Obama's magnetism, it would appear that McCain's road is even rockier. But Lichtman put himself out there long before Obama emerged as a serious contender. In his updated book that was published earlier this year, he predicted that "the Democratic candidate will capture the White House in 2008 no matter the choice of a nominee."
Some skeptical political junkies will recall that Lichtman briefly left academia several years ago to run for office as a Democrat in Maryland, but that doesn't taint his long track record as a seer. Back in 1988 (as I well recall, having spoken with Lichtman about this), when Democrat Michael Dukakis was outdistancing George H. W. Bush in the polls by double-digit percentages, Lichtman checked his keys and predicted a Bush victory - and infuriated Democratic strategists, with whom he conducted "screaming fights."
I would assume that the McCain strategists don't accept the proposition that they are powerless to affect the outcome of this race; that they would sneer at Lichtman and Abramowitz just as GOP advisor Roger Stone did back in 1996, when all the academic prognosticators were saying that Bob Dole had no chance to beat Bill Clinton thanks to the prevailing political mood.
Stone told me at the time: "There should be a constitutional amendment to prevent academics from talking politics, because they don't know anything about politics. I don't try to teach college, they shouldn't try to talk politics. This idea that the results are written in the stars - it's mumbo-jumbo, a bunch of crap."
The McCain team had better hope he's right. Even though campaign manager Rick Davis does acknowledge that the current political environment is "probably one of the worst in our party's history," he obviously believes that nothing is predetermined - as this online McCain strategy briefing makes clear. He insists, "We've figured out how to compete" and "we're poised in the polls to win in November." Determinists, beware.
Meanwhile, Obama probably got most of what he wanted from Hillary Clinton on Saturday. In her farewell address, she managed to dial down her trademark narcissism long enough to make the obvious point that her diehard female followers would be voting against their own interests if they translated their frustrations into November support for McCain.
The key Clinton passage: "So I want to say to my supporters, When you hear people saying or think to yourself, 'If only' or 'what if,' I say, please, don't go there. Every moment wasted looking back keeps us from moving forward. Life is too short, time is too precious, and the stakes are too high to dwell on what might have been. We have to work together for what still can be. And this is why I will work my heart out to make sure that Senator Obama is our next president."
One passage was noteworthy for its absence, however. She said that the primary contest had demonstrated that a woman was ready to "really serve as commander-in-chief," but only that "an African-American (could) really be our president." Obama apparently did not rate the same "commander-in-chief" designation, perhaps because Clinton has already suggested that only she and McCain shared those creds - and therefore she might look foolish giving those creds to Obama.
It will be interesting to see whether, over time, she builds up Obama's national-security profile - and helps persuade swing voters that he has what it takes to keep America safe...assuming, of course, that ex-candidates, as well as candidates, are really masters of their political fate, and not mere pawns of the prevailing environment.