By George F. Will
Thursday, October 9, 2008
Time was, the Baltimore Orioles' manager was Earl Weaver, a short, irascible, Napoleonic figure who, when cranky, as he frequently was, would shout at an umpire, "Are you going to get any better or is this it?" With, mercifully, only one debate to go, that is the question about John McCain's campaign.
In the closing days of his 10-year quest for the presidency, McCain finds it galling that Barack Obama is winning the first serious campaign he has ever run against a Republican. Before Tuesday night's uneventful event, gall was fueling what might be the McCain-Palin campaign's closing argument. It is less that Obama has bad ideas than that Obama is a bad person.
This, McCain and his female Sancho Panza say, is demonstrated by bad associations Obama had in Chicago, such as with William Ayers, the unrepentant terrorist. But the McCain-Palin charges have come just as the Obama campaign is benefiting from a mass mailing it is not paying for. Many millions of American households are gingerly opening envelopes containing reports of the third-quarter losses in their 401(k) and other retirement accounts -- telling each household its portion of the nearly $2 trillion that Americans' accounts have recently shed. In this context, the McCain-Palin campaign's attempt to get Americans to focus on Obama's Chicago associations seems surreal -- or, as a British politician once said about criticism he was receiving, "like being savaged by a dead sheep."
Recently Obama noted -- perhaps to torment and provoke conservatives -- that McCain's rhetoric about Wall Street's "greed" and "casino culture" amounted to "talking like Jesse Jackson." What fun: one African American Chicago politician distancing himself from another African American Chicago politician by associating McCain with him.
After their enjoyable 2006 congressional elections, Democrats eagerly anticipated that 2008 would provide a second election in which a chaotic Iraq would be at the center of voters' minds. Today they are glad that has not happened. The success of the surge in Iraq, for which McCain justly claims much credit, is one reason why foreign policy has receded to the margins of the electorate's mind, thereby diminishing the subject with which McCain is most comfortable and which is Obama's largest vulnerability.
Tuesday night, McCain, seeking traction in inhospitable economic terrain, said that the $700 billion -- perhaps it is $800 billion, or more; one loses track of this fast-moving target -- bailout plan is too small. He proposes several hundred billions more for his American Homeownership Resurgence -- you cannot have too many surges -- Plan. Under it, the government would buy mortgages that homeowners cannot -- or perhaps would just rather not -- pay, and replace them with cheaper ones. When he proposed this, conservatives participating in MSNBC's "dial group" wrenched their dials in a wrist-spraining spasm of disapproval.
Still, it may be politically prudent for McCain to throw caution, and billions, to the wind. Obama is competitive in so many states that President Bush carried in 2004 -- including Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Colorado and New Mexico -- it is not eccentric to think he could win at least 350 of the 538 electoral votes.
If that seems startling, that is only because the 2000 and 2004 elections were won with 271 and 286, respectively. In the 25 elections from 1900 to 1996, the winners averaged 402.6. This, even though the 1900 and 1904 elections -- before Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma attained statehood, and before the size of the House was fixed at 435 members in 1911 -- allocated only 447 and 476 electoral votes, respectively. The 12 elections from 1912 through 1956, before Hawaiian and Alaskan statehood, allocated only 531.
In the 25 20th-century elections, only three candidates won with fewer than 300 -- McKinley with 292 in 1900, Wilson with 277 in 1916 and Carter with 297 in 1976. President Harry Truman won 303 in 1948 even though Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrat candidacy won 39 that otherwise would have gone to Truman. After John Kennedy won in 1960 with just 303, the average winning total in the next nine elections, up to the 2000 cliffhanger, was 421.4.
In 1987, on the eve of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's third victory, the head of her Conservative Party told a visiting columnist: "Someday, Labour will win an election. Our job is to hold on until they are sane." Republicans, winners of seven of the past 10 presidential elections, had better hope they have held on long enough.