OCTOBER 24, 2008
43% Isn't Nothing
Obama looks like a winner, but it's not over yet.
By PEGGY NOONAN
It's all going fast, the whirl of images on the screen, words on the page, data flashing by. Barack Obama's up here, his lead now in the double digits there. In green rooms on book interviews, I see quietly angry former Reagan staffers, defensive former Bush aides, harried McCain spokesmen, and almost-jaunty Democrats. A network correspondent with a reputation for fairness—no one knows how this reporter votes—came by one day and shrugged with frustration. Everyone asks me about media bias. Of course the media loves Obama, but I can't say it. I didn't take notes, but I think that's word for word. Soon after, I received an email from a different journalist who referred, in passing, to where many journalists stand.
Neither of these people is conservative. When nonconservatives see the Obama love, and refer to it without prompting, the Obama love is deep. Remember how John McCain used to refer jokingly to the press as "my base"? Now it's part of Mr. Obama's. But if Mr. McCain loses, the reason will not be press bias.
The press knows who the press is for, and it isn't generally the one to the right. This has been true all my life. What has also been true is that the Republican had to get around it with the truth of his stands, the force of his arguments, the un-ignorability of his words, the power of his presence. You have to go over the head of the interpreters and gently seize the country by its lapels. Mr. McCain never got much over their heads. This is not because they're so tall. His campaign was not so much about meaning as it was, in the end, a series of moments—a good interview with Rick Warren, a good convention, Joe the Plumber . . .
And yet: It's not over. For one thing, Mr. McCain has got to be reading Steven Stark's piece in the Boston Phoenix, which imagines the forces that could produce a McCain upset. What if Mr. Obama underperforms on Election Day, just as he did in the final primaries with Hillary Clinton? What if senior citizens turn out in record numbers and vote for the older guy, and the financial crisis seems to fade, and Mr. McCain finds new grounding on the issue of taxes, and the Obama campaign undermines itself with premature triumphalism . . .
Mr. McCain has endless faith in his ability to come back. He's been doing it for 40 years, from Vietnam, where, with the injuries he'd sustained and the torture he experienced, he might have died, was likely to die, and yet survived, to exactly a year ago, when he was out of money and out of luck. And then he won New Hampshire. When he says, "We got 'em where we want 'em" he must mean: They think they are looking at a corpse. No one in politics has so repeatedly relished coming back from the dead.
Not a single poll has Mr. McCain ahead. The RealClearPolitics average of national polls as I write, rounded off, is Obama 50%, McCain 43%. Actually Mr. Obama has 50.1%, and if that is true and holds, it would make him the first Democratic presidential nominee since Jimmy Carter to break 50%. But I find myself thinking of what that 43% means. It's a big number, considering that this is the worst Republican year in generations. Amid two wars, a deep economic crisis, a fractured base, too much cynicism, and a campaign with the wind not at its back but head on in its face—with all of that working against Mr. McCain, 43% of the American people say, right now, in these polls, they are for him. And there are a significant number of undecideds. Four years ago about 122 million people voted. Forty-three percent of 122 million is 52 million people, more or less. A huge group, one too varied to generalize about because it includes flinty elderly Republicans from New England, home-schooling mothers in Ohio, libertarianish Republicans in Colorado, suburban patriots outside the big cities, and many others.
They are the beating heart of conservatism, and to watch most television is to forget they exist, for they are not shown much, except at rallies. But they are there, and this is a center-right nation, and many of them have been pushing hard against the age for 40 years now, and more. For some time they have sensed that something large and stable is being swept away, maybe has been swept away, and yet you still have to fight for it. They will not give up without a fight, and they will make their way to the polls.
And they will be a rock-hard challenge to Mr. Obama if he wins.
This is the thing: If Mr. Obama wins, and governs as a moderate liberal, not veering left, not seeming to be the cap that pops off a kettle that's been boiling for eight years, but governs to a degree, at least in general approach, as Bill Clinton did—as a moderate Democrat well aware of the terrain—he may know some success. And he may be able to tamp down the insistence of the long-simmering left by the force of his own popularity, which will grow once he is president among grateful Democrats, and others. But if he goes left—if it comes to seem as if the attractive, dark-haired man has torn open his shirt to reveal a huge S, not for Superman but for Socialist, if he jumps toward reforms such as a speech-limiting new Fairness Doctrine, that won't yield success. It will yield trouble, and unneeded domestic arguments. We have enough needed ones.
In a way, Mr. Obama can more easily go left in foreign relations for the precise reason no one knows what going left is, because no one knows what going right in foreign relations is, at least if "right" means "conservative." Mr. Obama has a great chance, in this area, to confuse the world. And a confused world is not all a bad thing. His persona, name, color, youth and approach will, at least initially, jumble up long-settled categories. Radicals enjoy hating America, but a particular picture of America. He is not that picture. He will give calculating Western European leaders an opening to be friendly to America again; they will feel that Mr. Obama's victory constitutes the rebuke of the Bushism they desire. They will befriend the rebuker.
People wonder if he is decisive. It is clear he is decisive in terms of his own career: He decides to go for president of the law review, to move to Chicago, to roll the dice for a U.S. Senate seat, to hire David Axelrod, to take on Hillary, to campaign with discipline and even elegance. When it comes to his career, his decisions are thought through and his judgments sound. But when it comes to decisions that have to do with larger issues, with great questions and not with him, things get murkier. There is the long trail of the missed and "present" votes, the hesitance on big questions. One wonders if in the presidency he'll be like the dog that chased the car and caught it:
What's he supposed to do now?
It is mean out there, and in the next week it will get darker still, perhaps spectacularly so. To me, the biggest nightmare would be a tie. The worst resolution would be no resolution. And the quarrel would not, for even a moment, abate.