As we prepare for the kickoff of the 1988 campaign on Wednesday morning, maybe we could pause for some brief reflections on the political season now ending. I write at a moment when the results of some of the lesser contests still are not known, such as that for president of the United States, for instance. But we surely do already know a few immutable and illuminating truths about the two years, more or less, that the nation has just put in electing (I feel confident of this) either Ronald Reagan or Walter Mondale.
For irrespective of the results there were other winners and losers. I would start with my favorite analyst, guru and news source, Some Observers, who had perhaps his best year yet. Some Observers is a fellow who is forever "thinking," except when he occasionally "feels." But whichever it is that day, there is one thing you can always count on with him. He is fearless. Some Observers never thinks or feels what others -- in particular those trying to have their way in a news story -- think or feel or have the gall to assert as a simple fact. His role is that of the unfailing contradictor. Typically, Some Observers will have made himself available for comment -- and what a stroke of luck it is! -- at precisely that point when the subject of the story, poor thing, has just finished delivering himself of an item of good news concerning his political campaign. "Some observers think, however, . . ." the next paragraph will begin. And it's all over.
You want me to tell you who Some Observers is, but I won't. I will only say that I have occasionally cited him myself, and that this year he seemed to me to spend an awful lot of time on the Mondale campaign.
The next winner that comes to mind is the insufferable state of New Hampshire, forever tinkering with its primary schedule and complaining that its place at the head of the line should be recognized and submitted to -- forever. For a while there, it looked as if New Hampshire was on the skids. This, despite the fact that its electorate is demonstrably better trained and rehearsed in primary-election skills than any other. The merest bag boy at your typical Nashua supermarket checkout counter knows how to toss off a newsy, compact analysis of his feelings about the contest that does credit to both himself and his state on the 6 o'clock news. Iowans, to take a challenger, are only beginning to know how to do this. They still tend, unfortunately, to start slogging through time-consuming issues like farm prices and grain embargoes.
So New Hampshire, in a comeback second only to any one of Richard Nixon's various comebacks, decisively reasserted itself as the thrill state of the primary period this year. All that stuff got hauled out again about how either nobody had ever been elected president who lost the New Hampshire primary, or nobody had ever been elected who won it (I would look this up, but we won't need it again for four years), and the state made its point. It sent Gary Hart up to the top of that towering roller coaster we were all observing and gave a grateful nation what must have been its only pure political entertainment this year. I don't think anyone will dismiss New Hampshire's pride of place lightly again.
I guess I would have to say the dopester industry was the final big winner. It is a marvel to me how much time we are able to spend collectively and unprofitably wondering about things that are obvious and assuming things that are not true. I'm not saying the dopesters make us think all these things or put all our energy into such nothing pursuits. No, they only raise the questions. We're the ones who incorrigibly rise to the bait and waste great periods of time trying to dope out the answers.
Being neither a social scientist nor a dopester, I don't have the figures on this, but I would venture a conservative guess that as a national political entity we put in more man-hours worrying the question of whether Ronald Reagan would run again (of course he would) than it took to build the Great Pyramid of Cheops. That preoccupied us through (again, the figures are only approximate here) about $82.6 million of the half-billion dollars we have spent as a nation on politics since early 1983; when you add in the Jesse Jackson will-he-won't-he period, I think you get up to a round $100 million.
These things, as I say, were obvious then, even though we spent endless hours pondering them. Other things that weren't obvious, generally because they weren't true, seemed open-and-shut cases at the time: John Glenn would simply snatch it away from Mondale. Gary Hart was on a roll -- a historically predestined roll that couldn't be stopped -- and he would reveal the Mondale effort for the sham it had always been. Mondale would never choose a woman for his running mate. Reagan was a killer debater, dispatching anyone who was foolish enough to step before the microphones with him.
You think I am dragging up all these old assumptions of ours in preparation for a rash and blockbuster prediction: that the biggest assumption of them all, a Reagan landslide, will be disproved. Well, you're wrong. I humbly and respectfully accept the wisdom of my betters in this matter.
The only certitude I will offer concerning such an improbable upset is this: if such an unlikely, even preposterous occurrence were to take place in the 1984 voting, leaving Reagan without his landslide, the universal assumption that he would enjoy one would itself summarily vanish. Retroactively it would turn out that nobody had actually assumed it. There would not be a columnist (including myself) who would not manage to point out, a little shrilly, within the first 36 hours, some obscure line from something he or she had produced last August suggesting that an upset was coming. Within a week we all would have known it all along. The pollsters would be explaining that the whole thing had changed in a dramatic surge that took place on Monday afternoon.
That's the great thing about the national assuming game, played by all of us who are not actually running or competing for something. In our case, you don't have to worry about winners and losers. Clever old public -- we have set it up so that, unlike the other participants in the game, we never lose, right or wrong.