A Sure Thing?

David Forte

May 1, 2008

With the surprising and lopsided loss of a Republican seat in Mississippi, the signs of a seismic shift to the left in American politics seem ever more evident. Two years ago, the Democrats erased a 30-seat Republican advantage in the House and a nine-seat advantage in the Senate. This year, the Democrats have won five out of six special elections, and now have a 37-seat advantage over the Republicans. Some Democrats hope to expand their Senate seats to 60 this year.

During this year’s presidential election cycle, hundreds of thousands of Republicans have voted in Democratic primaries, partly because of the interest in the contest between the two candidates, partly because of the attraction of Barack Obama, and party because they have been urged on as “spoilers” by conservative commentators such as Rush Limbaugh. But as every experienced political operative knows, once a loyalist votes for a candidate from another party, he can do so again.

Until 1992, California seemed Republican territory. Now, barring a dramatic event, it is impossible for a Republican presidential candidate to win there. And the more the Republicans are seen to be the anti-immigration party (even if for good reason), the more the massive Hispanic votes will become solidly and semi-permanently Democratic. Until 1992, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and parts of New England were places a Republican could win. No longer. Ohio has been the bellwether state, casting its vote for the winning candidate in every presidential election since 1964. But a Democratic tide swept across the state two years ago, knocking out a respected United States Senator, increasing the Democratic share in the state assembly and shifting the executive branch to the Democrats. Although a recent scandal regarding Ohio’s Attorney General gives the Republicans something of an opening, the Democratic administration has attempted to separate itself in the voters’ minds from the Attorney General’s shenanigans. Ohio looks to stay Democratic.

At the national level, the sitting Republican president has one of the longest running and lowest approval ratings in history. The party of military preparedness is seen now to have allowed the military to be wounded under its tutelage. No Republican candidate anywhere in the country mentions George W. Bush as a plus in his campaign. Americans are pessimistic about the economic future of the country. Homes are being foreclosed at a record rate, the greatest asset of American families is losing value, there is a liquidity crisis, gas prices remind Americans every day that inflation is growing, and the perception remains that American companies continue to take their factories and jobs abroad.

In addition, we have to face the fact that the Republicans in power failed to govern. The war was not successfully executed; spending was not curbed; the tax system was not reformed; the entitlement programs were made worse; the corruption was patent, our civic society continued to fray. Some Republicans now cry out, “Look, the Democrats in Congress are just as bad as we were.” That’s hardly a formula for victory.

Historical trends also favor the Democrats. Americans fatigue with the party in power after a couple of presidential terms. It’s probably a good instinct: a healthy suspicion of those who get used to power. Furthermore, although the proportion of independents has grown among the electorate, and more people count themselves as conservatives than liberals, Democratic Party registration is still ahead of the Republicans. In 1988, Michael Dukakis was early on well in the lead of George H.W. Bush. The 2000 election was Al Gore’s to lose, and he did. John Kerry only lost in 2004 because of Ohio, but Ohio, as we noted, is becoming more Democrat today.

The Republican candidate, Senator John McCain, enters the contest with no enthusiastic base behind him. None of the conservative cohorts—the social conservatives, the libertarians, the evangelicals—count John McCain as “our man.” Having been savaged in the primary by people like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, there are few who rush enthusiastically to his banner. The most that Coulter and Limbaugh can do now is to attack his opponents in the same way that they did him.

McCain’s campaign is that “he can do a better job” on foreign affairs, on judicial appointments, on the economy. He’s probably correct. But he is running against the (presumptive) candidate whose campaign is based on “change” and “hope.” Empty words, some critics say. A far left content to the “change” that he will bring about, other critics warn.

But hope is the elixir of Americans. Especially when things seem to be going wrong, a well-shaped rhetoric of “change” and “hope” is often enough, whether or not the people are aware of the specifics. John F. Kennedy fit that mold. So arguably, does Barack Obama. Even respected conservative observers such as Douglas Kmiec and Peggy Noonan have found much of worth in what Obama has to say.

The rhetoric or even the persona of hope wins elections, for though Americans, like people everywhere, grouse about politicians and government, our ethos of hope is what fuels our identity as a nation, something Europeans still have difficulty in fathoming. It was that rhetoric that brought Franklin Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton into the White House. Out of the mouth of a savvy politician, it is hard to beat.

One attack on such a politician is McCain’s “I can do a better job than he can.” It rarely works, viz., Hoover against FDR, Nixon against Kennedy, Bush I against Clinton. Another is, “I may not be able to do a better job, but the other guy is downright dangerous.” That was Carter’s campaign against Reagan in 1980, blown to smithereens with Reagan’s wry “There you go again” shake of the head.

So how can an effective message of hope be defeated in this election? It can only be disarmed when the American people no longer trust that the candidate really believes in what he is saying. After all, such a candidate touches the American soul, and he had better mean it. For example, of all the unceasing lies that Hillary Clinton told to further her drive for power, the one that drove Americans away from her was her claim that she was under fire in Bosnia. You don’t falsely wrap yourself in the flag when others are truly dying for it. John Kerry’s campaign went awry when the Swiftboat veterans convinced many Americans that Kerry was not the American hero he had claimed to be. The working-class American, the farmer, the ones that fill the ranks of veterans, the ones once known as the Reagan Democrats, are the ones that decide elections.

Thus, when Michelle Obama says that this is the first time in her life that she has been proud to be an American, when Barack Obama equivocates (at first) over the rants and attitude of Reverend Wright, and most revealingly, when Obama claims that Americans cling to Bibles and guns because we don’t have enough of the material wealth that his political allies so treasure as the stuff of life, then Americans begin to doubt whether the hope is really hope, or just another politician’s sham.

Nor is John McCain entirely bereft of his own, albeit more muted, rhetoric of hope. He has been through a fire that few of us could have weathered. The Senator from Arizona is not a Goldwater conservative. He is not a Reagan conservative. He is, rather, an Eisenhower conservative, and at this moment in our nation’s travails, that would not be a bad thing. No, John McCain does not have the manner of Eisenhower, but in his own way, he is not far from the mark of that great general. Dwight Eisenhower had no gift of rhetoric. But he personified hope. And the people trusted in him. It is not beyond John McCain to personify that kind of hope as well.

David Forte is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center and Professor of Law at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.