I talked a few weeks ago about one of Barack Obama’s few missteps during the campaign—his reference to poorer white voters in places like semi-rural Pennsylvania and Ohio who cling to religion and guns out of bitterness. I said then, and I still believe, that Obama has shown that he understands that that is only half the the problem, the other half being that Democrats have failed to do anything meaningful to make their lives better for so long. His remarkable infomercial made that point beautifully by looking at the real lives of four such American families (even though one family was black, their story was representative of a whole economic group.) Sarah Palin and John McCain have done their best to make what capital they could out of that quote, but they have not been very successful. Indeed, their campaign has made clear to a shocking extent that the Republicans have nothing to offer such people but bitterness and empty dreams.
Essentially the Republican campaign has been telling poorer whites during the entire campaign that whatever their economic condition, they, not the Democrats, have the right values, and they are the true Americans who live in the American parts of America. That is the essential Republican appeal to what the Party calls its “base,” and many of its strategies have forgotten that it is impossible to win on one’s base alone. (In recent days commentators like William Bennett talk as if Tuesday’s election were a Republican primary: as long as McCain/Palin have the base behind them, they have nothing to worry about. Democrats and independents will however also be voting on Monday.) Meanwhile, the Republicans want to flatter the dreams of Thomas Wurzelbacher, a.k.a. Joe the Plumber, that with proper tax policies they can become rich. This aspect of their message was even more obvious in a speech I saw Arnold Schwarznegger give for McCain in Ohio two nights ago. Arnold explained that he had left Europe because of the regulations that stifled opportunity there and had come to the United States to make his fortune. Europe, he said, was now “wising up” and beginning to free its economies, but Obama wanted to go backwards, in the wrong direction. (That of course is silly: in practice every major right-wing party in Europe, like Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats in Germany, is well to the left of our Democrats.) Vote Republican, he seemed to say, and your children can be like me—not, it seems to me, a very comforting notion based upon the laws of probability. With their constant attacks on the notions of “spreading the wealth around,” the Republicans seem to be embracing the notion of a society divided into an enormously wealth few and a declining mass, flatterring their supporters that with the right values, they can ascend to the top. This appeals to the traditional Calvinism of America, which saw material success as proof of the Lord’s blessing. Indeed, all we need to do to accept the idea of some mild redistribution of the wealth—which in the long run will help our economy more anyway—is to accept that chance plays at least as big a role as grace or ability in determining the extent of our economic success, and that there is no reason not to structure our tax system to acknowledge the role of chance and even it out a bit. In any event, economic justice means justice for the many, or it means nothing at all.
Having taken a last look at electoral-vote.com, I shall hazard my own prediction for Tuesday’s results. On November 1, 2004—the day before the last election—that site showed John Kerry winning with 298 electoral votes, thanks to averaged-out leads of two points in Ohio and one point in Florida. Today Obama has leads of at least ten points in state with 264 electoral votes, 6 shy of a majority, and of six or seven points in four more states: Virginia (14), Ohio (20), Colorado (9), and Nevada (4). He has leads of two or three points in Florida (27) and North Carolina (15). He will win, in my opinion, with between 291 and 353 electoral votes. That looks if anything like a conservative prediction, but the exact result still depends on too many unknowables for me to hazard any further guesses.
The other night, in a remarkable interview, Rachel Maddow asked Obama if he had any second thoughts about becoming President at this moment in history, with so much going wrong, and he turned the question on its head. No, he replied, this was the kind of moment of which people in public service should dream: the kind of era in which they could make a real contribution. Asked at one point to describe the difference between Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, both of whom he had known, the British philosopher Sir Isiah Berlin said that FDR radiated more than anything else a great joy in his life and work, and JFK, a sense that every morning offered a chance to do great things. Obama, it seems to me, is closer to JFK in that regard, but he has something of the FDR touch as well. He has established his lead with a mixture of inspiration, organization, and steadiness of nerves. I feel rather astonished that the United States has managed not only to produce such a man at this moment in history, but to bring him to the threshold of the White House.