Suddenly, here in the middle of August, three weeks before what used to be the traditional convention kick-off of Labor Day and before either of the very tardy conventions, it seems pretty clear that Barack Obama is going to win re-election. Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com, whom I do not know, has made a name, a reputation, and a career by applying the kind of rigorous statistical models initially developed to explain baseball to politics. And make no mistake about it: baseball is one hell of a lot more unpredictable than politics, which is why so many more people pay close attention to it and why it's so much more fun. Silver at this point gives Romney only a 30% chance of victory, and he shows most of the battleground states, with the exception of North Carolina, very likely to go for Obama. He also, apparently, gives the Republicans a good chance of picking up the Senate, although I do not believe that he has yet published a prediction based on a fully developed model for that.
Obama's re-election, in my opinion, will by our Thermidor. Since 2000 the Republicans have played the role of the Jacogins in the French Revolution, ruthlessly trying to destroy the old regime--New Deal America--without regard to the consequences, and, in the last few years, eating themselves alive in the process. Romney's decision to select Paul Ryan is proof that the Jacobin spirit is still pre-eminent within the party, even though it couldn't produce a winning Presidential candidate. The bounce he is enjoying at the polls is, as Silver has demonstrated beyond a doubt, meaningless--like convention bounces, it's something that happens to every candidate without affecting the eventual outcome. The choice has already put Romney into deep trouble with older voters, the Republicans' greatest strength. Ryan is what passes for a thinker in today's Republican Party, but his famous budget has never been fleshed out, depends on fantastically optimistic assumptions, and does not include a real explanation of how he would make up the lost revenue from his tax cuts. It is simply another step in the degradation of American politics.
An Obama victory will be a relief, but hardly a cause for celebration. The House will probably remain Republican and the Senate too evenly divided to do anything. The economy will grow slowly and much of the younger generation--like GIs in the 1930s--will be locked out. Generation X, which generally regards both the elder Boomers and the younger Millennials as spoiled brats, will gain more and more power with advancing age. In an effort to restart an effort towards bipartisanship, the President will probably once again cobble together a compromise in December to prevent the Bush tax cuts from expiring. In my opinion he should have let them expire two years ago.
Leadership requires clarity of vision and directed action. Both are almost completely lacking from our politics, just as they were 130 years ago during the Gilded Age. Then, the parties fought a series of close elections decided by a few key states. (New York and New Jersey played the role of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida and Virginia today.) The parties opposed one another with violent rhetoric without offering anything fundamentally different, and there was no real natonal consensus about anything.
Thinking nationally has become unfashionable. While Republicans encourage economic selfishness, Democrats encourage their adherents to define themselves by gender and race. This country was built upon impartial principles expressed in universal language, and our previous crises--even the least successful, the Civil War--gave that language new meaning. That is not yet happening this time. It may be many more years before it happens again.
Paul Ryan, by the way, has been cited many times as yet another acolyte, like so many of today's Republicans, of Ayn Rand. Oddly, Ayn Rand embodied all sides of our national spirit: she was both a dedicated free marketeer and a social liberal who hated religion and favored abortion. (I don't know what her stance was on homosexuality.) In the last couple of weeks I decided I had no choice but finally to try to find out what all the fuss is about, and I began reading Atlas Shrugged. It's an odd, self-indulgent and very long book, and after 120 out of 1000 pages I'm not too impressed, but I shall try to continue and report on it. Any popular book explains something; the question is what.