Tuesday, October 14, 2008

It Ain't Over Yet: Before V(ictory in the) E(lection) Day Comes The Bulge

The Online Etymology Dictionary explains that “campaign” comes from the Old French “champagne,” meaning “open country that is particularly suited to military maneuvers.” At its root, the word derives from the Latin “campus,” which means “a field.” Old armies spent winters in quarters and took to the open field or “campus” to seek battle in summer.

Not surprisingly, the extension of meaning from military to political is distinctly American, and it’s still the best way to describe what it is we do in politics. We wear buttons and t-shirts, just as warriors put on their insignia to identify with their side. We display yard signs and bumper stickers the way ensigns used to fly the colors as they marched forth with armies from their respective pavilions to battle.

In that spirit, I think the Democrats are in for a long, bloody campaign these next three weeks.

Over and over again in American history, people looking for quick and easy victory have been discouraged. (See Bull Run,* Shiloh,** and D-Day.***) Overconfident armies have missed opportunities to strike final, decisive blows. (See Gettysburg.****) Prematurely triumphal leaders have emboldened their enemies by talking about how land would be divided and armies dismantled after surrender.***** In the famous Yogiism, it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.

On Monday, we had just a 10-point lead among registered voters in the Gallup poll. That number dropped to seven points among likely voters. Though we seem to be ahead in states for 343 electoral votes right now, 79 of those votes are in states where Obama leads six points or less. Take those away, we have 264 votes and a John McCain presidency.

Commentators and pundits like new Nobel laureate Paul Krugman are starting to presume an Obama presidency. As early as July, Frank Rich of the New York Times, whom I admire, wrote a column headlined, “How Obama Became Acting President.” There’s talk of Obama’s Cabinet. Particularly among former supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton – Lanny Davis, Howard Wolfson, and President Clinton himself – the tone is stridently jubilant.

As to Congress, there’s talk of Democrats reaching a filibuster-proof 60-seat Senate majority. People are rubbing their hands together, speculating how little time it will take for the Democrats to throw Joe Lieberman under the bus once they don’t need him to have a majority anymore. And on the House side, partisan pundits with tons of hope and no perspective toss around giddy numbers like bean bags.

But predicting any win is foolish, let alone predicting a landslide. Overconfidence only emboldens the other side and makes our side less likely to vote or work hard leading up to the election.

There’s a reason Woody Allen is my favorite director: I perceive the world through anxiety. But just because I always imagine all the terrible things that could happen in life doesn’t mean that kids don’t trip and impale themselves on the spires of wrought-iron fences, that people don’t accidentally step on their pets in the night and crush them to death, or that John McCain can’t whittle away at Barack Obama’s lead for the next three weeks and win this election.

Remember 2004? After two wars, the Patriot Act, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and everything else, I just knew that there was no way the American people could let Bush have another term. On Election Day, Gallup had the race tied. As late as November 1 – the day before the election – John Kerry led in the Electoral College 298 to 247. And while things were, as Dan Rather might say, tight as a tick, we were assured that Kerry’s ground game, and all the young and first-time voters, would surge to the polls and push the Democrats over the top.

I spent Thursday, October 28 through Tuesday, November 2 in Cincinnati, Ohio, doing get-out-the-vote operations for the Kerry Campaign. I had bet my Dad a steak dinner that Kerry would win, and the night before the election, I was so sure Kerry had it in the bag, I boasted to Dad, “Somewhere in America, the cow from which my steak is coming is already dead.” In my journal, I wrote, “Bush is done. Over and done. The election is ours for the taking.”

On Election Day, turn-out was up, all our voters were getting to the polls, and there was a prevailing spirit of cooperation and we-shall-overcome-ness. I left Cincinnati about 5 p.m. to drive back to Bloomington, Indiana, where I arrived just in time for my friends and me to watch Kerry lose the election. Instead of steak, I ate crow.

This past spring, after the Iowa caucuses, I predicted that if Sen. Obama could win the New Hampshire primary, he’d be unstoppable. But we’ll never know, because Clinton won New Hampshire, and the two of them went on to engage in the longest, most expensive primary campaign in U.S. history, one that felt every bit like the Siege of Petersburg. Those six months were a nightmare.

I love Barack Obama. I have believed in him and his politics ever since I first met him in 2004. But this battle is no longer about the people who love Sen. Obama versus the people who love Sen. McCain. It’s about people in the middle, who want what’s best for their families, their homes, their towns, their jobs, their paychecks, and their country, but who still don’t know which way to turn.

Several factors cut in Obama’s favor. It’s hard for any party to control the White House for more than two terms; it’s been done once since 1952. The economy’s in shambles. The war is unpopular, and so is the president. Democrats now significantly outnumber Republicans, and for once, their campaign coffers are much fuller.

But Obama is relatively new, and he’s black, and his name sounds foreign. People are constantly reminded that he’s got that crazy preacher in his past, and he’s from Chicago, where all those shady characters live. McCain’s a war hero. Many folks still believe that all Democrats are good for is raising taxes, losing wars, killing babies, and confiscating guns. And there is still a genuine terrorist threat in this world, one that the Republicans are trying every day to hang around Obama’s neck. Particularly if our stock market and those around the world continue to rally, people might stop worrying about Hoovervilles and bread lines and some of McCain’s nasty lies might start to filter through.

A Billboard in southeastern Missouri that just about sums up the Republican line on Obama.

No election is ever easy, even for the best leaders. Lincoln almost lost in 1864, FDR almost lost in 1940, and Truman almost lost in 1948. Churchill was replaced in the United Kingdom by Clement Atlee before World War II was even over.

I pray that we wake up on November 5 with 350 electoral votes for president-elect Obama, 60 Senate seats, and 250 House seats. But I will thank Almighty God if we wake up with 270 electoral votes, 50 Senate seats plus a tie-breaking Joe Biden, and 218 House seats.

Happily, for those of us who support the Democrats, we can do more than hope. We can go to http://www.barackobama.com/ right now and see how to get involved. Using phone lists there, we can make calls to encourage people to vote and to ask them to volunteer election weekend. We can give money. We can find out where our nearest Obama office is so we can show up to help knock on doors or stuff envelopes. This election is in our hands!

But let’s just please, please hush up this malarkey about a Democratic landslide and how screwed McCain is. Noses to the grindstone, let’s do everything we can to work for 1932, but let’s not count on anything but 1948. Otherwise, rather than being our new Roosevelt, Obama could be our new Dewey, and we Democrats could be banished to another four years in the wilderness.

I hope no Democrat who sees this picture can sleep soundly until he or she has done everything possible -- giving money, time, cell phone minutes, door-to-door volunteerism, and prayer, to make sure this nightmare doesn't come true.

* July 1861: Bull Run. The Union Army marches southwest out of Washington, D.C. to Manassas Junction, hoping to crush the Confederate forces decisively to end the rebellion as quickly and painlessly as possible. Many Congressmen and the upper crust of Washington society pack picnics and bring their families to the battle, expecting free entertainment and an easy victory. And guess what? The Confederates win the day, sending both the Union Army and all the prematurely gloating spectators flying back to the safety of the capital.

** April 1862: Shiloh. The Confederates take Grant’s army by surprise and attack in what becomes the deadliest battle of the war up to that time. For the very first time – sixteen months into the Rebellion – the North understands this will be a war to the bitter end, with nothing quick or easy about it.

*** June 1944: D-Day. American and British forces land in Normandy and imagine that they’ll be able to roll through France and into Germany like a wave to end the war by Christmas. But the Germans dig in and fight fiercely, and in December, they begin the counteroffensive known to history as The Bulge (in which my Grandpa Harris and Sen. Obama’s Grandpa fought). The Bulge kills more Americans than any other battle ever, and the war lasts another five months.

**** July 1863: Gettysburg. After the deadliest battle of the Civil War, the victorious Union Army allows the Confederates to retreat unmolested, instead of rushing in on them and crushing them to end the war, which goes on to last nearly two more years.

***** Autumn 1944: Morganthau Plan. When the Axis learned in 1944 of the Allied plan to carve up Germany after the war, the news galvanized the Germans like “thirty fresh German divisions,” and made them hang on for another half a year.

No comments: