Nate Silver hasn't said so yet, but the Romney surge since the Presidential debate surely ranks as one of the most remarkable turnarounds since sophisticated polling began. It's true that George H. W. Bush trailed Michael Dukakis by large margins in early trial heats, and it's also true that Hubert Humphrey came from 10-15 points down to finish in a virtual tie with Richard Nixon, but those shifts, while larger, took longer. Obama never had a lead comparable to Dukakis's early lead or Nixon's but he had been gaining critical ground steadily since the conventions. As of this morning, Silver shows Romney now leading in Florida, Virginia, and Colorado, and Obama still projected to win but by the narrowest of electoral college margins. Obama's chances of winning are now about the same as a first-place team's chance of winning against a club with a record of below .500, and no one with any brains would bet his mortgage on such a game. I am inclined to believe that any genuine return to more domestic tranquility depends upon not just an Obama victory, but a comfortable one that would have forced the Republicans to rethink their role in American political life. That prospect is fading.
Regular readers know that I had in fact been rather pessimistic about this election ever since the middle of 2010 (see the entry of July 5 of that year), when I realized that the Republicans had seized the ideological initiative once again and that President Obama was failing to put together a new majority. The twenty-five years from the mid-1970s onward had created a new America by 2000, and George W. Bush had accelerated the change. Obama had not, like Franklin Roosevelt, called for a drastic change of course, because he, who had risen from relatively modest origins to the elite through the educational system, believed in the existing order, as Roosevelt, a patrician from birth, had not. He had staked his political future upon the performance of the economy as he found it, revived with a massive infusion of credit from the Fed and from a short-term stimulus which expired just in time to stop contributing to the recovery before he had to face the voters again. He spent the rest of his political capital on a complex health insurance reform that would not come into effect until after his re-election, and that became an easy target for opposition propaganda. During the next year--from July 2010 until July 2011--he tried and failed to reach bipartisan compromises with a Republican Party determined not to let him accomplish a single thing. He has essentially declined to play the role of Harry Truman (who also lost the Congress two years after coming into office) and call out the Republicans regarding their utterly obstructionist behavior. Indeed, he apparently feels it would be bad politics even to ask the voters to elect a Democratic Congress. In spite of all this, he seemed on his way to a relatively comfortable re-election just two weeks ago, based upon his general likeability, the extreme Republican positions on social issues, and Romney's 47% comments, which should have ended the contest on the spot. Obama inexplicably decided not to make those comments and Romney's record at Bain Capital the focus of the first debate. He did not even mention them. He has paid the price.
This morning I went to the Williams College concert hall to hear veteran journalist Hedrick Smith discuss his new book, Who Stole the American Dream? Smith appears to have broken some new historical ground, tracing the business offensive against the welfare state back to the late 1970s and telling the whole story in some detail. Something else, however, profoundly depressed me about the talk. The hall was packed--but there was hardly a person there under 60, and only three undergraduates, in the crowd. I can only conclude that the elite higher education system has for the last few decades failed to teach its students that issues of economic justice are important. It was easier to do that, perhaps, 45 years ago during my own college days, not only because the New Deal tradition was very much alive, but also because we were paying less than 1/3 of what today's students do (adjusted for inflation) and the only professors who got rich in those days did so by writing best-sellers (the names Samuelson and Galbraith, both liberal economists, come to mind.) For decades now students have been getting an earful about the inequities of race, gender, and sexual orientation, but also, to the extent that they get any economics at all, large doses of free-market orthodoxy. That is the great paradox of the last forty years: the combination of greater personal freedom and greater economic freedom. Whether or not they had to go together, the fact remains that they did, and the picture is not likely to change too much no matter what happens on election day, except insofar as a Romney victory and a new round of tax and budget cuts will plunge us deeper into depression once again.