Error based on conviction
- Last Updated: 12:48 AM, November 27, 2012
- Posted: 10:24 PM, November 26, 2012
Is victory sweet because your side wins — or is it really because the other side loses? The infamous quote attributed in a 1928 biography to Genghis Khan tells it all: “To crush your enemies, and see them fall at your feet — to take their horses and belongings, and to hear the lamentation of their women. That is the best life.”
Last week, Jonathan Chait of New York magazine had a good deal of sport at my expense in the Genghis Kahn manner.
Noting that an article I wrote for Commentary Magazine a week after Election Day sounded an entirely different note about the technical brilliance of the Obama campaign than columns I’d written before Nov. 6, he went back and dug up those columns and the observations therein that the election proved very wrong.
More power to him. If I were in Chait’s shoes, I’d have done the same to him or others in his camp.
But does Obama’s victory suggest, as Chait says, that I and others were simply writing negative stuff about the workings of the Obama campaign only to switch gears afterward and praise the campaign’s technical brilliance because we’re unprincipled right-wing hacks and cheerleaders?
Whether my columns are worth reading isn’t for me to say. But the answer on the “hack” question, as honestly as I can answer it, is no.
I genuinely believed over the spring and summer that the economic news would make the president’s re-election nearly impossible — and that belief wasn’t limited to “hacks” on the right.
A senior Democrat who has played a key role over the past four years told me flatly in October that he thought Obama was on the ropes in the late spring, when it became clear the economy was turning sour in the first and second quarters of 2012 after a decent quarter at the end of 2011.
Given this general sense of the country’s downward turn and a campaign flush with cash that didn’t have a great story to tell the voters, I was reminded very much of 1992 — a year I spent reporting a book called “Hell of a Ride” on the decline and fall of a Republican administration.
The reason the parallel with the elder George Bush’s 1992 campaign didn’t hold was precisely that Bush’s campaign had been astoundingly incompetent, while Obama’s proved astoundingly brilliant.
It got itself off the ropes in the spring of 2012 because it saw and was able to take advantage of very specific weaknesses in his rival, as the Bush campaign was unable to do in the case of Bill Clinton (and Ross Perot). And it knew how to talk to and motivate its base in a way the Bush ’92 campaign was unable to talk to the GOP base.
Chait also quotes me changing my tune on Romney’s vague general-election strategy — praising it during the campaign and saying it proved to be a failure afterward. The problem here is that there could have been no other strategy for Romney; he ran the best race Mitt Romney could have run. What we’ve learned from this election was that it wasn’t enough to generate the votes he needed.
One strange quality of writing about political campaigns is that it’s a little like writing about a baseball game inning by inning. We presume we can say something about the final result from the state of play a third of the way through. You can when a game is a colossal blowout, but you can’t when it’s close.
Even a ballgame has a running score. Electoral contests have nothing but polls, which is why people have grown so obsessed with them; we’re desperate for an objective rendering of what is happening and what may happen.
But polls feature wildly varying results that serve to support wildly opposing points of view. So all we’re left with are subjective observations based on experience, knowledge, common sense and conviction.
This year I argued Barack Obama wouldn’t win. That was based on experience — my experience as a close observer of a losing presidential campaign. It was based on knowledge — years of study of electoral and presidential politics. It was based on common sense — that a president who’d governed with so little positive benefit for the country’s economy would be fired.
And it was based on conviction — the conviction that Obama’s presidency had failed because his ideas were and are wrong and that the public would concur in that judgment.
I believe deeply the first part of that is true; his ideas are wrong and have proved unworkable and will continue to do so.
I was wrong this year not only about the technical superiority of the Obama campaign but also about the nature of the American electorate. It proved far more forgiving of President Obama, far more willing to give him a second chance and far more accepting of his argument that he’d done the best he could, than I thought possible.
That was not hackery. It was, alas, misplaced idealism.
So shoot me.Follow @NYPostOpinion