Politics ordinarily has a certain predictability. Yet presidential politics this year has often seemed to resemble what science writer James Gleick described in his book Chaos. "Chaos," he quotes one physicist as saying, "eliminates the Laplacian fantasy of deterministic predictability." Time and again this year, unpredicted and seemingly unpredictable developments have reshaped the presidential race. And they don't seem to stop coming.
At the beginning of the year, things seemed fairly simple. Democrats had a big lead in party identification and seemed headed to victory. Democrats seemed likely to settle on a nominee quickly, while Republicans seemed headed for a long, drawn-out primary fight. But three developments changed the shape of the race, to the benefit of Republicans.
First, John McCain clinched the Republican nomination early, while Democrats suffered through a protracted battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. With help from the Republicans' winner-take-all delegate allocation rules, McCain was able to convert razor-edge victories in primaries to an unassailable lead in delegates. Over the objections of radio talk show hosts, Republicans nominated the only candidate, it seems in retrospect, with a chance to win. Meanwhile, Democrats clashed in tribal warfare that inevitably left some in the party unhappy with the nominee.
Second, the success of the surge strategy in Iraq managed to penetrate through a media blackout to the voting public. This undermined the appeal of Obama's call for rapid withdrawal. Obama still can argue that he was right in opposing the war. But McCain can argue that he was right in supporting the surge and that Obama was wrong in opposing it and predicting it would fail. An issue that looked like a big negative for McCain now looks more like a wash.
Third, $4-a-gallon gasoline converted voters from opposing offshore oil drilling to supporting it. McCain nimbly switched. Congressional Democrats dug in their heels and blocked a vote on the issue, then beat a partial retreat. Obama was stuck on the short side of public opinion.
Political maneuvering further evened the scales. After the McCain campaign pointedly made fun of the grandiosity of the Obama campaign, Obama cast his acceptance speech as a partisan attack rather than an appeal to what Americans have in common. McCain, by choosing Sarah Palin, invigorated the party base and put energy and his maverick reformer role on the front burner.
But chaos, it turns out, does not favor just one side. The credit crisis in the last two weeks of September raised an issue that has, so far at least, helped Obama. McCain railed against Wall Street and called for the firing of Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox. Obama argued that the crisis showed the failure of Reaganite deregulation. McCain unaccountably failed to make his strongest argument. The roots of the crisis lie in both parties' encouragement of greater homeownership. But at critical points, notably in 2005, some Republicans, including McCain, called for tighter regulation of the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. This was resisted by Democrats, with no demur from Obama.
Too late. Nor did McCain's "suspension" of his campaign and return to Washington help him. Democrats said he broke up a deal, though none had been made. He did help draw House Republicans into negotiations. But the suboptimal performance of administration and legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle resulted in the House vote on September 29 rejecting the rescue package. Any chance McCain could take credit was gone.
Current polls show Obama with a significant lead nationally and ahead in states like Colorado, Virginia, and North Carolina that George W. Bush carried comfortably in 2000 and 2004. McCain has finally put up ads arguing that he sought regulation of Fannie and Freddie, but they may be two weeks too late.
Now, McCain needs to do more than pick off two or three states that seem narrowly in the Obama column. He needs to change the whole tenor of the campaign. He will get a chance to do so in the two remaining presidential debates, but Obama's smooth performance in the first debate suggests that may be difficult. Chaos has already given McCain and his party a lift up three times and then knocked them down. Is it possible that there is more chaos ahead?