It has been 38 years since the Grateful Dead recorded "Truckin'," the song whose lyrics capture this campaign so well: "What a long, strange trip it's been." We haven't had a presidential election in 40 years with as many unexpected twists and turns and weird dynamics.
At this point, John McCain probably can't win without divine intervention. Say what you will about the campaign he has waged and the running mate he picked, but the collapse in credit markets and the stock market may very well have ended his chances of victory, notwithstanding anything he could have said or done differently. The senator from Arizona is a good man, who served his country admirably. And many would say that he deserved a better chance than he got.
Because I've lived and worked in Washington for more than 36 years and spent a lot of time around Capitol Hill, my bias is toward experience--toward believing that time served is often a proxy for knowledge gained about issues and how the federal government sometimes works and often doesn't, about the incredibly complicated world of finance, and about the skills necessary for effective international relations. My preference for experience naturally made me skeptical of Barack Obama. But perhaps it is those who are proven wrong who end up most impressed by someone they underestimated.
Other than his "bitter" comments at a closed-door fundraiser in San Francisco, Obama hasn't made a serious verbal miscue that I'm aware of. The $605 million he has raised is an amount that a year ago would have been considered utterly impossible. His extraordinarily loyal campaign organization not only runs with Prussian efficiency but also appears not to leak or engage in backbiting. The campaigns of McCain and Hillary Rodham Clinton created the impression that half the people in a senior staff meeting would love nothing more than to stick knives in the backs of the other half. You don't sense that with Obama's team.
John McCain probably can't win without divine intervention.
Whether the Obama campaign would bring its best qualities into an administration isn't for me to predict. But I get a strong sense that we are in for something very different from past Democratic administrations: a White House more cautious and circumspect in its decision-making, more careful and disciplined in its execution.
As this campaign draws to a close, I'm reminded of what happened last year in my home state of Louisiana. For more than three-quarters of a century, Louisiana has suffered from what were frequently some of the worst public policy decisions imaginable. Sadly, competence and farsightedness among the state's top officials were the exception rather than the rule. Throw in the lousy luck of being hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the state's saga was really distressing.
Last year, Louisiana elected Bobby Jindal, a 36-year-old son of Indian immigrants, to be governor. Jindal is from Baton Rouge, graduated from Brown University, then turned down Harvard Medical School and Yale Law School to go to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. He next joined McKinsey and Co. management consultants. That's not exactly the typical career path for Louisiana governors.
Louisiana did not elect Jindal to impress the rest of the country or the world with its multiculturalism or to make some symbolic gesture. In the aftermath of Katrina, the state was facing fourth down and long yardage in a losing game. Voters decided to take a risk. It was as if the people of Louisiana said, "We are in deep trouble and have tried everything else. This kid seems really smart, seems to know an amazing amount about the issues, and seems so confident and poised. Let's give the ball to the kid and see if he can do something with it."
If Louisiana weren't in such bad shape, Jindal almost certainly could not have won. But, so far, he has performed admirably and lived up to his advance billing. Indeed, he is one of the few bright spots on the Republicans' horizon.
As I have watched the rise of Barack Obama and how he appears to be on the verge of being elected president, the Jindal analogy seems to ring true: People seem to want to take a chance. If my assumption of an Obama victory proves incorrect, this space will be filled next week with a huge mea culpa.
This article appears in the November 1, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine.