According to the New York Times, “the magic is gone.” According to the New York Post, “the thrill is gone.” And yet, according to the polls, he isn’t a goner. Even if you shave off two-three-four points for Democrat over-sampling and other pollster malarkey, the unmagical non-thrilling President Obama remains remarkably competitive.
Which means that if he wins we won’t have the same excuse as we did last time. In 2008, Senator Obama was lucky, as he has been all his political life: a global downturn, war-weariness, a Republican opponent who even in his better moments gave the strong impression that honor required him to lose . . . These and various other stars all aligned for him. But he himself was the biggest star of all: a history-making candidate, a messianic figure and not merely a national but a planetary healer. Not all of us bought into it even then: I saw him on the stump just the once and thought the silver-tongued orator was a crashing bore. Couldn’t see what the fuss was about. But fuss there was. It’s one thing if the Republican loses to a thrilling, magical superstar; it’s quite another if the Republican loses to a mean, petty, leaden, boring, earthbound hack who hasn’t lit up a room in years. In 2008, the American people said: We like this guy. In 2012, they’d be saying: We like these policies. That’s far more disturbing.
And yet it’s entirely within the realm of possibility. The conventional line is that this election is a referendum on Obama. But it’s also, as Jay Nordlinger wrote, a test of the people. In advanced Western societies spending themselves into oblivion, the political class has looted the future to bribe the present and the electorate has largely gone along with it. The question for voters now is a very simple one: Can they get real before it’s over?
The Democrats think they know the answer to that one. In recent election seasons, the United States has been, rhetorically, a one-party state: Republicans sound like Republicans, and Democrats sound like Republicans — tough on crime, fiscally responsible, cool with churchgoing. Bill Clinton slapped down Sister Souljah and went back to Arkansas to fry a guy. But even John Kerry talked about how he’d hunt down and kill America’s enemies, and, when abortion came up, did 40 seconds of anguished contortions on what an agonizingly painfully deeply painfully agonizing decision it is.
Not this time round. Abortion? The more the merrier. Bring it on. Half the speakers onstage at the Democratic convention would gladly have performed partial-birth abortions on audience volunteers, of whom there would have been no shortage. God (and Jerusalem) found Charlotte a tougher crowd. And, as for debt and jobs and boring CBO graphs and numbers with twelve zeroes on the end, who cares? Anyone can rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, but it takes a certain bravura panache to stage The Vagina Monologues on the lido deck as the iceberg looms.
A month or so back, I chanced to drive through Brussels, specifically the “Euro-quarter,” home to the architectural excrescences that house the EU bureaucracy. From every ugly rain-streaked concrete tower dangled their current slogan in 30-story-high font: “Strengthening Europe through Governance.” A charitable sort, I assumed something had got lost in translation. But the Democratic party’s first language is still, just about, English, and their money quote was: “Government is the only thing we all belong to.” Take any electable center-leftie from around the Anglosphere in recent years — Britain’s Tony Blair, Canada’s Jean Chrétien, Australia’s Kevin Rudd, New Zealand’s Helen Clark — and the disposition on display in Charlotte was well to their left. All that coy stuff from the Clinton years about “New Democrats” and “Third Way” has been cast aside. These Democrats are out, and proud. They offered their most explicitly left-wing convention in 40 years — and they got away with it.
The Dems have made a calculation. They’ve bet that the electorate accepts the first part of the Republican critique — times are bum and getting bummer (to quote Gus Kahn in “Ain’t We Got Fun”) — but not the second part: that the antidote to the lousy Obama economy is Romney-style economic dynamism. In a land where Americans in their late 20s have moved back in with their parents and Americans in their early 50s have gone on permanent disability, more and more people have given up on any hope of change. To the old question “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” there are millions who answer “No” — but that’s all the more reason to stick with the party of mass dependency and supersized food-stamp programs. In other words, what conservatives think of as Obama’s “failure” — the moribund economy, flatline jobs market, underwater housing, general sclerosis — the Democrats see as a wildly successful expansion of the base. Or as Hilaire Belloc put it, “Always keep a-hold of Nurse / For fear of finding something worse.”
Over on the other team, the instinct is to soft-pedal. Romney decided a long time ago that his general line on the incumbent is that he’s a nice guy who’s in way over his head. This might even work — that’s to say, it may enable Mitt to thread the needle and get to 270 electoral votes. But it happens not to be true, so that even the terms in which Romney has chosen to frame the election are a preemptive cringe and a concession to the other side. As I say, Mitt could yet pull it off. But the confidence underpinning the Democratic convention — that the bleak certainty of dependency without end has more appeal than the possibility of economic revival — says nothing good about where America’s headed.
– Mr. Steyn blogs at SteynOnline (www.steynonline.com).