After President Oba ma’s inexplicably passive, uninspired, pro forma performance during the first presidential debate and the precipitous swing of the polls from his growing lead to Mitt Romney’s achieving a virtual tie, I felt a gnawing sense of despair. I never expected the debates to carry so much weight with undecided voters.
Given what we know about the candidates by now, "undecided voters" seem to be men and women who live with blinders on, people who can barely pay attention to the public world they inhabit. For the most part, they are people so politically unaware or uncaring that respective party policies on health care, social issues, tax policy, and the power to nominate future Supreme Court nominees mean much less than the personality that the candidates project, and their capacity to aggressively convey a position, no matter how empty of content. So, Romney merely had to sound slightly more moderate, speak cogently, and look presidential in the first debate to garner the vote of this portion of the electorate. These are axioms of American politics -- performance trumps substance, image transcends accomplishment.
I felt much better after the second debate. Obama seemed to recover his energy and ag gression, and prevented a bullying, soulless Romney from getting away with his cha meleon-like shifts of position. In the third debate on foreign policy, a knowledgeable, confident Obama clearly had a more substantive grasp of an area where Romney lacks knowledge, experience, and understanding. In fact, Rom ney muted all the rhetorical, neo-con saber-rattling he en gaged in on the campaign trail, and suddenly turned into a man of peace, leeching on to Obama’s positions on Afghan istan, Iran, and Syria.
Alternately, Romney contrived to shift many of his re sponses to his comfort zone -- the economy. Where he in voked the same résumé and bromides he had done in past debates. I anxiously began to feel that for many of these "undecided voters," Romney merely had to appear confident and articulate for them to discover a reason to cast a vote for him. To my mind, race was often the key unstated factor for many of them in making that choice.
Still, with about a week to go, the super-storm that ravaged the city and New Jersey momentarily stopped me from compulsively scanning polling sites. It also provided Obama with the opportunity to display how politically decisive and effective he can be, so with his new "odd couple" buddy Chris Christie he was off to take a close look at what the storm had wrought in New Jersey. He also demonstrated the importance of a committed activist government by getting FEMA to aid the many distressed homeowners and communities.
The destructive residue of the storm, especially in outlying urban areas like Far Rockaway and Staten Island still endures. But it’s Election Day, and early in the morning I head for the polling booth, with a slight touch of optimism about an Obama victory buoyed by the analysis of statistical gurus, Nate Silver and Sam Wang. As usual, one of the voting machines in broken, but I am still able to cast a ballot and then spend to rest of the day frozen with anxiety.
Election night, my nerves are jangled, and I keep on switching channels, searching for the one with good news that will make the hours go by more quickly. Predictable results come in -- the South solidly for Romney, the Northeast for Obama. About 10 p.m. I learn that Elizabeth Warren, one of the most articulate and tough-minded liberals, has won over the personable, nondescript Scott Brown, who ran a low-level campaign against her (e.g. "professor," Indian war whoops). That’s one report that exhilarates me.
MSNBC keeps up the drama about who will win going a little longer, though all indications are that Obama will prevail. But when Ohio goes for Obama at 11:12 p.m. he has been re-elected, and I breathe a sigh of relief, and even shed a silent tear much earlier than I expected.
I am not so sanguine about Obama’s victory that I’m going off to sing Woody Guthrie’s "This Land is Your Land." The results clearly show the extent this country remains thoroughly polarized by region, by social values, by gender, and by race and ethnicity. We have to hope that congressional Republi cans are willing to compromise this time around, so gridlock will not be the rule, and some necessary legislation on taxes, climate change, immigration, and the debt will pass.
The election brings some other happy results -- three of four states whose ballots carried referendums legalizing gay marriage passed them. The Senate looks like it will add strong liberal Democrats like Warren and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin. And there is the president’s stirring acceptance speech affirming our common bond as Americans: "I believe we can seize this future together because we are not as divided as our politics suggest. We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be the United States of America."
Leonard Quart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org