Maybe it’s because I was told there’d be no math when I got into politics, but there comes a point in every campaign when I run screaming from the torrent of poll numbers and go looking for signs and portents, moments that (rightly or wrongly) seem to me to be of potential significance.
Sometimes they can be found in unexpected defections from the ranks. In 1980, for example, Ronald Reagan won the backing of the onetime leader of Manhattan’s Democrats—“Tammany Hall,” as the New York Democratic political machine was known back in the day—as well as former Sen. Eugene McCarthy. By themselves, they could be dismissed as aberrations (McCarthy was famously contrarian), but to me, they spoke of a shift in the political weather.
In 2008, a surprising number of prominent conservatives—ex-Solicitor General Charles Fried, ex-George W. Bush spokesman Scott McClellan and legal scholar Doug Kmiec—joined ex-Secretary of State Colin Powell in throwing their support behind Barack Obama.
Sometimes these portents are late developments that shift the political landscape, such as when Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh implicated President George H.W. Bush in the Iran-Contra scandal just before Election Day, or when a tape of Osama bin Laden was released just before the 2004 election. In the last few days, several such portents have emerged, and if you’re rooting for the Obama campaign, they will have you reaching for the Maalox.
Consider, for example, the anguished acknowledgment of Buzz Bissinger (author of “Friday Night Lights”) that after a childhood on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where the Republican voting machine levers have rusted from disuse, and after a lifetime of casting Democratic ballots, he is voting for Mitt Romney.
What makes Bissinger’s piece so damaging is that he is not retreating from his Democratic roots, nor even embracing Romney’s policies. Rather, he has concluded that Obama is “burnt-out. ... He is no longer the chosen one.”
Or look at the response of the late-night comedians—one of Obama’s securest bases—skewering his debate performance. From David Letterman to Jon Stewart to Bill Maher to the folks on “Saturday Night Live,” they have subjected Obama to something he experienced in the past only from his most zealous foes: ridicule. It is precisely the last thing the Obama campaign needs right now, as it works to gin up excitement among the president’s supporters, especially among the younger voters, for whom 2008 was a time of passionate engagement.
“Come on,” the reply might be. “These are trivial, insignificant items—nothing of real heft.”
So turn instead to one of the more remarkable pronouncements I have seen in recent years from a prominent American journalist: the remarks of CBS chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan.
In a speech last week to Chicago’s Better Government Association, Logan, who was brutalized by a mob in Cairo’s Tahrir Square last year, painted a frightening picture of the terrain in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Libya—and accused the Obama administration of soft-pedaling the dangers there. On the heels of her “60 Minutes” report a week ago Sunday, her remarks amounted to nothing less than a frontal assault on some basic assumptions of Obama’s foreign policy—an area where he retains a significant advantage over Mitt Romney.
It is almost unimaginable that Bob Schieffer, moderator of the Oct. 22 foreign policy debate, will ignore the blistering words of his colleague, or that he will not raise his network’s report that security in Libya was reduced just before the attacks there that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.
What’s significant about these items is that they are not stemming from the president’s ideological or political foes. And they are coming just at the moment when the president’s re-election prospects have been seriously damaged by his own inexplicable debate performance.
Please note what I am not saying. The president is no more doomed to defeat than was Mitt Romney in the days before that debate, when many of his own supporters were hanging crepe. Romney himself still faces serious headwinds. His major foreign policy address Monday was riddled with inconsistencies, and in some cases flat-out repudiations of his past stands. And some of his debate assertions, while confidently presented, leave him open to the charge of dissembling.
It’s just that these unrelated events of the past week call to mind the wisdom of basketball legend Bill Russell, who during his days as a TV analyst would often proclaim: “When things go bad ... they go bad.”