Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Election 2012: A Watershed in American History?

One week from today, Americans will go to the polls and vote in our 57th presidential election. This quadrennial civic ritual is so ordinary that almost half of qualified voters won’t bestir themselves to cast a ballot. Nevertheless, Election 2012 will be an extraordinary event.

This year’s big October Surprise turns out to be a windbag – no, not the candidates, but Sandy, the most monstrous storm ever generated off the East Coast of the U.S. The storm, whose landfall coincides with the high tides that accompany a full moon, is projected to impact more than 50 million people. Not only have the campaigns been disrupted, but power outages are sure to linger in some locales through Election Day. In the face of Mother Nature, the U.S. isn’t as “sovereign” as we presumed.
Other October surprises have popped up since 10/3, when the now-famous first debate between President Obama and Governor Romney shocked a good number of the 67 million TV viewers:

-     We’ve learned – or relearned – that debates matter. Just one month ago, the president was enjoying a comfortable lead in both the popular vote and Electoral College. However, the latest Gallup and Rasmussen polls suggest that Romney will win the popular vote, while the Electoral College is now up for grabs. The last election when a debate made such a dramatic difference was in 1980, when Ronald Reagan’s sole debate with Jimmy Carter helped the California governor overcome an 8-point deficit, then go on to defeat the incumbent by 3 points. Debates also made a difference in 1960, when underdog John F. Kennedy challenged Richard Nixon in a TV debate that helped him win the presidency in a squeaker; and in 1992, when George H. W. Bush was caught by cameras looking at his watch during a debate with Bill Clinton, making the incumbent look disengaged compared to the more empathetic challenger.

-     Another surprise: In this 2nd presidential election since the Great Recession, we’ve been subjected to a barrage of contradictory economic data. By everyone’s measure, the recovery has been too halting and hollow to allay widespread anxiety. A historical sidebar: Since the 1930s, no incumbent has won reelection when GDP growth has sputtered this many years. And since the 1940s, no incumbent has won reelection when the unemployment rate has been this high this many years. A week from Tuesday we shall see if “history is prologue.”

-     Another surprise: It turns out that the too-big-to-fail banks are even bigger than they were in 2008. The culture of crony capitalism has hardly eroded, and lavish compensation packages are still the norm. In spite of such an unsettling development, corporate pessimism exists alongside consumer optimism this election season.

-     It is as much a disappointment as a surprise that young people are not tuned in this election. In 2008, it was Barack Obama who was the change. In 2012, he is no longer the change but the status quo. (Recall that during his first two years in office, he enjoyed the luxury of working with a Democratically controlled Congress.) As one student recently told me – an Obama supporter, by the way – during the last four years, the change just didn’t happened, and it doesn’t look as if the next four years will be any different. The incumbent, in this student’s opinion, does not offer “hope and change we can believe in.”

-     Also sobering is that our politics are no more post-partisan or post-racial than in 2008. In fact, the reverse may very well be true. Just look at the ads and listen to the flaks.

-     Finally, it is not clear whether Benghazi or the Israeli-Hamas conflict or the failed cease fire in Syria will lead to additional surprises in these final days leading up to the election – nor whether Donald Trump’s $5 million wager to the president will have any impact. (What would have been surprising is if The Donald had not thrown his hair into the ring at the 11th hour.)

The narratives of this campaign season are well established. Barack Obama's is that he inherited a hot economic mess, and, while recovery has been slow, we are now on the right track. Mitt Romney's is that the recovery has not been nearly strong enough, and Benghazi may prove to be the incumbent's achilles heel.

Whichever narrative you are inclined to accept, one thing's for sure. Americans have not engaged in such a heated debate about the nature, scope, and purposes of government in a long time. The choice is between the creative destruction of capitalism (Mitt Romney's "ism") and the permanent revolution of progressivism (Barack Obama's "ism"). Come November 6th, we will know which philosophy gets the nod.