I’m clinging to hope. Not about who’s going to win next Tuesday. I am absolutely certain that by the time we meet again in print a week from now, Barack Obama will be the president-elect of the United States.
Hope, says the dictionary, is about our desires. Faith, on the other hand, is about confidence. I’ve got tons of the former. And damn near none of the latter. So if Obama offers hope, I’ll take what I can get.
When Obama is sworn into office, it will officially mark much more than just the election of America’s first black president (a minor miracle in itself). More than one more peaceful transition of power between the parties (something we take all too much for granted). And much more than what is shaping up to be an electoral landslide (a much-deserved comeuppance). Obama’s hand on the Bible will jump-start an entire new historical epoch, one that is already under way. We just don’t know what it is, or what we will call it, much less what it will bring.
That’s where I start to run a little short on faith.
The spectacular, thunderous and humiliating collapse of the McCain-Palin campaign should come as no surprise. At a time when our very livelihoods and those of our children seem to hang in the balance, it should not shock us that we were offered up such sad gimmicks as a tax-evading Joe the Plumber and an almost pre-verbal Caribou Barbie. That the Republican campaign is ending with what Chris Matthews called a “Seinfeld strategy” — it’s all about nothing — should leave us equally nonplussed.
McCain made no mistakes. He made no strategic fumbles. No more than the U.S. made a “mistake” in Vietnam — or in invading Iraq. The McCain debacle was but the logical, I would say inevitable, conclusion of a political movement that after three decades of dominance has completely exhausted itself. The policy pantry of the Reagan majority had already been looted and left bare by the time McCain declared his candidacy. The Republicans simply had nothing else to offer other than the bogeymen of race, terrorism and taxes. What possible, plausible policy remedy could Johnny Mac have pulled out of his rear pockets that hadn’t already been rather disastrously foisted on the American people since Ronnie Reagan came beaming into office 28 years ago, with a slightly orangish halo overhead?
Indeed, there’s a great parallel between this election and that of 1980. The conservative Long March, initiated by Barry Goldwater two decades previous, triumphed precisely because the Democrats of 1980 found themselves in the same fix Republicans do today. Bereft of any fresh ideas. More precisely, bereft of any ideas whatsoever. The stirring promise — and tangible success — of FDR’s New Deal had stagnated and atrophied into the rather enfeebled candidacies of Carter, Mondale and Dukakis. Can anyone remember any shred of hope that trio inspired?
Enter Reagan and his conservative confederates, who had nothing but ideas, almost all of them toxic. But the Reaganites won fair and square. At least they had something to fill the void left by the shattered New Deal coalition.
First and foremost, there was the conservative celebration of empire. America would no longer be a pitiable giant. Hundreds of billions would be pumped into the Pentagon. The Soviets — and the rest of the world for that matter — would be confronted directly by a bristling new array of troops, armor and nukes.
Next came deregulation. The ruthless smashing of the air-traffic-controllers union got that ball rolling.
Then there was the celebration of the private over the public. The grotesque reworking of American values, with the guy in the White House confirming that greed was good. And if the public sphere was, as we were told, dominated by welfare queens, poverty pimps and “failed government programs,” why not accelerate an obscene transfer of wealth upward? American ideals resided in the steely-eyed resolve of corporate CEOs and venture capitalists and certainly no longer in the mushy-headed fuzziness of some idealistic, liberal social worker or, God forbid, in an overpaid, underperforming and sinister public-school teacher. The word “liberal” itself became stigmatized by a cigar-chomping, pill-addicted ditto head, who, in a different time and place, would have been celebrating the anschluss of Austria or the occupation of Poland.
And, finally, let us not forget the resurrection and glorification of the Moral Majority. For the first time in modern American political life, the Bible-thumpers and televangelist hucksters were ushered into the backrooms of government policymaking, while Pat Buchanan brought the 1992 Republican Convention to an ecstatic blood boil as he promised that kulturkampf would be waged neighborhood by neighborhood, door-to-door, and that no infidel would be spared.