Pretty regularly this year, I’ve gotten an e-mail from readers asking . . .
“Where’s Obi-Wan Kenobi?”
They’re referring, of course, to my political mentor who appeared in the closing months of the 2004 election, an individual who had been involved in the highest levels of GOP politics for longer than I have been alive. (Some of the most influential minds in Republican political circles have had to dodge the query from Kerry Spot/TKS/Campaign Spot readers: “Are you Obi-Wan Kenobi?” When I repeat these anecdotes to Obi, he’s usually a little offended that anybody could think his thoughts could be mixed up with that guy’s.)
As I’ve said earlier, the wisdom of a “Jedi Master” in the world of American politics is something that you must use carefully, and not too frequently.
Our conversations in 2004 addressed the tracking polls, the late-breaking Osama bin Laden tape, the unreliability of those election-day exit polls, and whether Kerry actually won the final days . . .
In 2006, he reappeared in early October, and we looked closely at the tracking polls, seeing the GOP base “come home.”* **
Obi and I have touched base from time to time this cycle, and now he’s offering his first thoughts for NRO readers.
Q: Where are we?
OWK: Well, Gallup has an historic GOP lead and Dick Morris is predicting over 80 seats . . . The vote has taken shape much earlier than usual, which means when it makes its final break it could be just that devastating.
[I would offer the cautionary note Dick Morris also wrote a book in fall 2005 entitled Condi vs. Hillary.]
Q: The atmosphere can’t stay like this for two months, right? Something has to go wrong for Republicans.
OWK: Can the Democrats outplay the GOP in the closing weeks and save just enough to hold on?
One problem area is that Republicans don’t usually get the media dynamic. Look at the week of the Obamacare vote — while Republicans were focused on legislative maneuvers and talking amendments, the White House created the right media climate, one where wavering Democrats could feel comfortable by citing the support of the Catholic nuns and the hospital associations and the CBO in a nice little series of TV set-pieces.
Remember that Politico piece about the daily phone call of Rahm Emanuel, James Carville, Begala, and George Stephanopoulos on the White House line of the day? ABC News has been tracking pretty accurately on the White House various pitches this spring and summer — the Tea partiers are haters or Timothy McVeigh types — then the whole setup for the NAACP convention launched the “they’re all racist” theme, etc. So keep an eye on ABC, especially Stephanopoulos and also First Read and Politico — they’re usually the first-wave transmitters of the White House line. Believe me, they’ve already got a pollster or two who’s ready to bend some numbers and journalists ready to write about the “sudden Democratic surge.” I’d love to know which week they have picked for the “Democrats are back in business” story. They have tried it twice this summer, but neither polls nor events carried the storyline any further. They will badly need the networks’ news departments to come through if there is a real domestic terrorist incident or some ugly display by someone on the right.
This fall they will know no checks — October Surprises, maybe every day and all day. What this means, I don’t know — bombing Iran? Capturing Osama bin Laden or some other big name and announcing the news two days before the election? Get tough with Paris Hilton and send her to Guantanamo?
[I am fairly certain my mentor is exaggerating. Having said that, I hope Paris pays her lawyers well.]
Q: What can the GOP do?
First, predict it. Just tell the people that the White House and Democrats will try and control the media dynamic and narrative. This is what they do. They don’t really know how to govern for the public good; if they could do that, they would be in better shape. What they do know to do is use media events to hold onto power, to go on television and blab.
Second, Republicans ought to be using the words “October Surprise” endlessly. Hold a contest to see who comes up with the most creative suggestion for what the Dems might do.
Third, and above all, they need to cut off the one escape route the Democrats have, particularly the “moderate” Democrats who are trying to run away from Obama. Get the word out that this election is not just about Obama — he is just a symptom of what the Democratic party has been since 1972.
There are no moderate Democrats in Congress, because when you vote for a supposed Blue Dog you are voting for the enablers — the ones who keep the House and Senate run by liberals.
And don’t sit on the lead — throw the damn ball! Keep the issues coming and keep the Democrats off balance. Berwick’s appointment was an amazing double down by the White House and the biggest gift of the campaign season. Every GOP Senate candidate can talk about the rationing that is coming to their state with this guy as the personification of it. He wants to decide whether grandpa or for that matter Dad gets his medical device or drug.
It’s a little encouraging what Boehner is doing — calling for the economic team’s dismissal, and then going to the national-security issue. For the first time in a long while, the GOP is selecting issues and talking to a national audience and trying to influence the media dynamic.
* I can hear it — “Hey, weren’t you guys way off that cycle?” No, Obi was among the very few predictors who said that by the Thursday before the election the Dem lead would start to fall and do so rapidly into the weekend. He (and I) saw a late shift to the GOP in the generic polls. Republican internal polls were showing a loss of 50 seats in the House (that admittedly, I thought were too negative).
On Election Day, 19 Republican seats won by five percent or less. Democrats won 31 seats in 2006. 31 + 19 = 50; that surge to the Republicans in the final days, worth about five percent or so, saved 19 Republican seats.
As for 2008, both of us were relative optimists about McCain’s chances, seeing potential avenues for the GOP campaign until the very end, but acknowledged the strong undertow the ticket was swimming against. Obi, October 27, 2008:
The fear and anger factor over economic disruption is powerful. It could rise to a 1974 level where voters just want to express their anger and take it out on the incumbent and his party. That’s the nightmare scenario, where you lose all sorts of good Republicans in the Senate and House.
Also note that Obi was among the few saying that McCain’s final debate performance was huge and would give him a boost; one week later:
Most heartening for conservatives will likely be a new Associated Press poll, conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media, which showed the presidential race as a one-point contest. According to this survey, Obama leads McCain among likely voters nationwide by just 44 percent to 43 percent.