THIS HAS got to be one of the weirdest elections ever in America. For much of the campaign, the question wasn’t, “Who’s going to make the best pitch?” It was, “Who’s going to make the biggest blunder?”
Mitt Romney was the answer to the second question going into the homestretch. The Obama camp had painted him as a man born with a silver spoon who had no touch with reality, at least as most Americans knew it, and he lived up to the part. He looked at problems like joblessness not from the point of view of the jobless but from that of the employer, which he was, a businessman who had gotten ahead in life with qualities that could not endear him to workers. He was the candidate most Americans, despite the economic woes of the last four years, could not relate to.
Then he committed two huge blunders that seemed to have dug the grave for him. He attacked the president for his handling of the riots in Libya, which led to the death of the American ambassador there. It was a no-no in American politics: You don’t inject politics into things like that. You faced the world as one. He followed it up with an even bigger blunder, saying 47 percent of Americans were victims of their government. His point, which was that it was virtually impossible to do business in Obama’s America, with government interference and high taxes, was lost in the phrasing. Americans, with their sense of self-worth and can-do attitude, do not particularly like to be called victims.
By the end of September, Romney’s campaign was seeing defections. Most pundits, except for those associated with Fox and kindred media, wrote off his campaign. The elections were over.
Then came the debate in Denver.
That took place just 33 days before Election Day. For reasons unfathomable to friend and foe alike, Barack Obama did not show up. He was there physically, but not in much else. He was listless, apathetic and unsure of himself while Romney was aggressive and passionate, and exuded confidence. Suddenly, gone was Obama’s invincibility. Gone was the dreamer who had inspired the nation to dream with him. Gone was the prophet who had given the dreary and fearful to believe in him despite the terrors of the wilderness. He had become The Loser.
Suddenly, too, gone was Romney’s alienation. Gone was the elitist who couldn’t understand how the other half lived whose longings had nothing to do with theirs. Gone was the White-Anglo-Saxon Protestant, whose slogan about taking back the White House had sent racist undertones rumbling all over the place. He had become The Leader.
“Eighty percent of success is just showing up,” Woody Allen says, and Obama paid a steep price for not doing so. The sound of the shot rang from Denver to Delaware, and had Obama on the ground bleeding. Overnight Romney surged, gaining over Obama in several flashpoint states. Some polls had him slightly edging Obama in the overall count. The Republicans reveled, Fox chortled, chorusing that the momentum would carry them through E-Day. The Democrats were awestruck like Dinah Washington about the difference a day—or debate—makes.
Obama did win the second and third debates by most reckoning, but neither had the impact of the first one. It did help to arrest Romney’s charge, or Obama’s slide, but not much else. Outside America of course, Obama remained the overwhelming favorite, but no longer as in 2008 because he represented the dawning of a new America, only because he did not represent the twilight of an old America, which Romney did. Inside America, where it mattered, the two candidates were locked, as most observers observed, in a dead heat.
Then came “Sandy.”
For the rest of his life, every time Romney hears that name, he will cringe. That is the sound of a reach not falling within a grasp.
That was the greatest twist of all. In the end, it wasn’t the individual talent, or dash, of the rivals, that won the day for them. In the end, it would be, as insurance companies put it in their clauses, an “act of God.” Filipinos of course would regard that completely literally, the intervention of God, the hand of heaven, that allowed Obama to win. But of course he has won, the Great Flood has done it for him.
Taking off from it, improvising from it, he forsook the entire thrust and tenor of his campaign, which was to attack Romney, and delivered what the news reports described as a message of gravitas. With politics suspended, or taking a backseat to the relief efforts—its intrusion would be a kiss of death—it was time for the president to shine. And shine he did, or reasonably so, like a break in the grey skies. A near-silhouette against an explosion of clouds overhead, he reclaimed his message of hope and change, the same one he had pitched four years ago, the same one he had allowed his rival to appropriate over the past months.
Overnight, it stopped Romney dead in his tracks. Overnight it thawed the dead heat. “Sandy” was a game-changer, but in more ways than that its winds have blown Obama all the way back to a second term. It was a game-changer in that it changed the game completely. As Obama stood there with his clothes flapping in the wind, you knew this was no longer about the presidency of the most powerful nation on earth, this was about the survival of the planet in its hour of greatest peril. The “Frankenstorm” had battered the message home to the one country that had most contributed to the peril but had refused to acknowledge what happens when you wage war against Nature. Nature fights back. After Tuesday (Wednesday for us), Obama will have four more years to show the world, and not just America, what leadership is made of, what stuff he’s made of.
Something strange happened on the way to the White House.