Every presidential election brings noise, strife, passion and energy. Those who ride herd over the process, the candidates, face Election Day with a frizzled, manic fatigue. And they are the lucky ones.
The most insufferable moment for campaign strategists is Election Day. Not because they fear the verdict. Oftentimes, they know the verdict. But even then, the campaign headquarters is a tomb of twitchy, incoherent idleness. Nothing can be done. All the switches have been flipped. The machine is in control. The voters are rendering their verdict and strategists are no longer in control.
If they ever were.
At a weekend stop in Bristow, Va., President Obama sheepishly referred to himself as little more than a "prop" in the campaign's dying hours. He knows that's baloney. Props cannot launch nuclear missiles or send C-130s to hurricane-damaged New York and New Jersey. But Obama struck a chord of truth when he said his senior White House adviser David Plouffe, who has no equal in the Obama reelection hierarchy (excepting first lady Michelle Obama), is also little more than a bauble. "He's just bothering a bunch of folks," Obama said of Plouffe. "Calling [and] asking, 'What's going on?' "
Indeed. This is the rendering. This is the sickeningly lonely task left for top-flight political masters.
After nearly two years and hundreds of millions spent, tens of thousands of words spoken, hundreds of polls and focus groups taken, dozens upon dozens of conference calls yawned through and untold snarling arguments over travel, messaging, ideology, and ad scripts, the vast, ego-soaked behemoth of a presidential campaign offers its top strategists the task of calling other people asking about what it is they cannot control.
This is why strategists are a lower form of political life than candidates. Strategists struggle with the illusion of control and are made manic walking its knife's edge. On the night in 2006 when Democrats regained control of the House and only the magnitude of its victory was in doubt, the central force behind the strategy, then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel, stalked about Democratic headquarters, a frayed, sparking wire of doubt, vulgarity and anxiety.
Candidates know they aren't in control. In fact, one of the cruelties of success in American politics is that the farther you rise, the less of yourself you control, the less of your original self you recognize. The best candidates and the best leaders retain an irreducible core of ideas and beliefs that strategists and stratagems cannot touch or dislodge. It is a place where character resides—the character to accept victory and defeat; to remain steady when few others can; to summon strength when every fiber of your being feels weak.
Every politician on a ballot knows something about summoning these strengths or finding them unreachable. That is the discovery that comes with the "arena" Teddy Roosevelt talked about.
This Election Day is no different. Except it looks and feels too damn close to call. At such times, those of us who fancy ourselves educated about politics like to fall back on what we call The Fundamentals.
It's not a rock band or a group of superheroes—though, honestly, I could use the diversionary entertainment of both.
The Fundamentals are a set of loosely understood truths that have predictive power ... until they don't. A classic example is The Fundamental that a president seeking a second term would not be reelected if his favorability rating dropped below 50 percent. George W. Bush defied that when he beat John Kerry in 2000 with a preelection Gallup favorability rating of 48 percent—the new bleeding edge of endangered incumbency.
The Fundamental that no president has been reelected since the Great Depression with an unemployment rate higher than 7.2 percent (Ronald Reagan's in 1984) is in obvious jeopardy now because Obama is—according to Stan Greenberg and James Carville—on the cusp of victory with a jobless rate of 7.9 percent.
I don't know if Obama will win. But I know he's turned one of the The Fundamentals on its ear by being this damn close to victory.
So, which of The Fundamentals matter and how much?
This is the sanity-lacerating game that's gone on in Chicago and Boston since Sunday.
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