The threshold of acceptability

This is a revised and expanded version of my weekend print column:

The crux of the McCain-Palin election strategy can be found in these phrases, articulated during the vice-presidential debate by the junior member of the Republican ticket:

“Americans are going to say, enough is enough with (the Democrats) constantly looking backwards, and pointing fingers, and doing the blame game…There’s just too much finger-pointing backwards…Say it ain’t so, Joe, there you go again, pointing backwards again.”

Clearly, John McCain and Sarah Palin would prefer that the voters behave as amnesiacs and cast their ballots next month with scant awareness of the incumbent party’s governance these past eight years.  Palin even tried to channel Ronald Reagan, by adopting his famous 1980 debating line (“there you go again”) in an effort to delegitimize Joe Biden’s attacks on the GOP track record.

But there’s a fundamental problem with the amnesia strategy.

Reagan won the 1980 election precisely because he tapped into the electorate’s strong desire to look backwards on four years of unsuccessful Democratic rule, and to judge President Carter accordingly by throwing him out. Reagan played the blame game and pointed fingers backwards (“Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”). That’s generally how it works. A presidential election is typically a referendum on the incumbent party; if times are tough and the “out party” candidate is deemed to be an acceptable risk, he usually wins.

Palin in debate was an effective communicator for her side, but she can’t change the weather. The prevailing winds favor Barack Obama; indeed, he now enjoys many of the same advantages that aided Reagan in 1980. The economy was bad then (double-digit inflation, lines at the gas pump), and it’s bad now (need I enumerate?). America’s image abroad was bad then (Iranian hostage crisis), and it’s bad now ($10 billion a month in Iraq, with no exit horizon).

Granted, Jimmy Carter was still on the ballot in 1980, unlike George W. Bush in 2008, but the polls show a strong majority belief that McCain will perpetuate the Bush policies. And, granted, Obama as a newbie has a higher hurdle than Reagan (the latter had been a two-term governor of the most populous state), but just as Americans in the fall of 1980 slowly grew comfortable with Reagan, the same autumn trend seems to be happening  with Obama.

Virtually all the latest polls – conducted subsequent to the first presidential debate – bear this out. Obama has now cleared the 50 percent threshhold in several national surveys, something no Democrat has done in decades. More significantly, he has opened comfortable leads in traditionally pivotal Florida and Ohio, both which wound up in Bush’s column in 2000 and 2004; he leads by double digits in Virginia, which hasn’t voted Democratic in 44 years; and he’s essentially tied with McCain, or inching ahead, in states normally assumed to be red (North Carolina, Nevada, Missouri, Indiana, Colorado). It should be noted, however, that Joe McCain, brother of the GOP candidate, has a handy explanation for the Obama tilt in the Old Dominion state; at a weekend rally, he characterized the Obama-friendly Northern Virginia suburbs as "communist country."

Two things appear to be happening in the national race right now: The sour economy has strengthened the desire for a change of parties, and Obama (aided by his steady, albeit unspectacular, first debate performance) is crossing the threshold of acceptability.

The McCain campaign still appears to believe that it can win this election by “turning a page on the financial crisis” (in other words, steering the subject away from the economy, which happens to be the top voter concern), and by sliming Obama as un-American (witness Palin’s weekend charge that Obama has been “palling around with terrorists”). We shall see whether swing voters obsessed with the economy are still in the mood for mud.

Reagan did not cross the threshold of acceptability until late in the 1980 campaign. We tend to mis-remember that race as a Reagan cakewalk, and he did trounce Carter by nine percentage points. But that margin was not foreseen. Until very late in the game, Reagan was widely viewed by swing voters as a risky choice, a charismatic celebrity with no foreign policy experience. As evidenced by the autumn Gallup polls, many feared that Reagan would be a warmonger abroad and an extremist at home. These persistent doubts prevented Reagan from opening a solid lead – much as the doubts about Obama have repeatedly hampered his progress.

Reagan didn’t allay his doubters until he met Carter in their sole debate, one week before the election. He was deemed sufficiently conversant on foreign policy issues, and he exuded a sufficient sense of command. He crossed the threshold from risky to safe. Voters who were looking for a reason to fire Carter felt comfortable enough to follow through.

Most importantly, Reagan accomplished this feat because he had the wind at his back. He did precisely what Sarah Palin now deems to be inappropriate.

He pointed fingers backwards, focusing on four years of Democratic rule – particularly the “misery index,” a term coined by economist Arthur Okin, combining the jobless rate and the inflation rate. He talked a lot about how the incumbent party was failing America’s middle class – just as Obama and Biden are doing today, fueled by the news, released Friday, that the September jobless figures are the worst of any month in the last five years.  (Indeed, the traditional Republican game plan has long been about pointing fingers backwards. In 1988, the GOP ran TV ads seeking to paint Michael Dukakis as Jimmy Carter redux. It aired a TV ad that showed the cars lined up for gasoline back in 1979. The musical score was Johnny Mercer’s old ditty, “I Remember You.”)

Palin was an efficient attacker last Thursday, and she gave a winsome toss of the head while reciting the Reagan line about “the shining city on a hill.” But her invocation of the old master was ahistorical, and her credibility as a candidate is not strong enough to rework the fundamentals of this election. The initial post-debate polls all report that Biden was judged to be the winner, which suggests, again, that Americans predisposed to oust the incumbent party were sufficiently reassured.

I’m not suggesting that Obama will win this election by nine points, as Reagan did in 1980. Hardly. Democrats haven’t done that well since the landslide of 1964. But they’ve got the wind this autumn, and McCain – who has pulled his troops out of Michigan, and who now finds himself being forced to defend Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Indiana, and North Carolina – will head into the second debate, tomorrow night, with no imminent forecast of better weather.