Here are election-eve observations after time spent in Arizona, New Jersey, and North Carolina, as well as at home — and conversations with analysts in other states — over the past two weeks.
A big wave is building
You can see the coming Tuesday trend in the presidential candidates' schedules over the past fortnight.
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama has been campaigning in marginal and red (Republican-leaning) states and is given a chance to win several that President Bush carried four years ago. Arizona Sen. John McCain has been concentrating on key electoral states (Ohio, Florida) and even on a state (Pennsylvania) where Obama is presumed to have a double-digit lead. Always a gambler, McCain is hoping to surprise in that electoral-rich state to remain competitive.
In his home state of Arizona, McCain is leading by only a few percentage points. He will return there to campaign today, Nov. 3. In a normally Republican Arizona congressional district, I found Democratic activity to be intense and a Democrat given an even chance to win the open congressional seat. In North Carolina, normally Republican in national elections, I found a toss-up situation between Obama and McCain. Incumbent Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole, running a desperate, negative campaign, appeared on the verge of losing her seat. In New Jersey, I spent time in a marginal congressional district where new voter registrations (mainly Democratic) and Obama volunteer activity and lawn signs were the story of the day.
The fundamentals matter
The Bush administration's unpopularity, the mid-campaign economic/financial crisis (favoring Democrats), Obama's huge campaign-money advantage (up to 3- and 4-to-1 in key states down the stretch), and a highly professional Obama organizational effort all have provided Obama-Biden and Democratic congressional candidates with a big advantage in the fundamentals which make the difference between winning and losing.
If a national security crisis had arisen a month ago, rather than a financial meltdown, McCain would have benefited and might even have had a solid chance to win. But that did not happen. Moreover, the McCain-Palin campaign has been one of the most scattered and least professional I have seen over the past 20 years.
What comes next?
After the euphoria wears off, Obama will need, post-haste, to tell the American people and Congress that the tough financial/economic climate means that the 2009 agenda will by necessity have to be limited. Nationally — just as at state and local level here in Washington — big new spending programs will be impossible. Small tax cuts may be necessary for short-term stimulus, but not so large as to add to the huge public and private debt burdens the country now faces.
Obama and McCain have had differences over Iraq. But the imperative there will be clear and unrelated to partisanship. As soon as the political/security situation there seems to have stabilized — certainly sometime in 2009 — the U.S. will begin withdrawal. No one knows what will happen after that. With luck, an Iraqi government will be able to maintain order and to govern passably. Without luck, old divisions could lead to turmoil and even a civil war (almost certainly to be won by Shiites, who comprise 60 percent of the population and who would be supported by Iran). Either way, we would not return.
Politically, both U.S. parties will face huge challenges. Obama and a heavily Democratic Congress could come into conflict if more liberal congressional leaders push for an agenda Obama cannot support. Democrats conceivably could get a 60-40 majority in the U.S. Senate, which could bring its own problems if bipartisanship is not sought to address the financial/economic crisis.
Obama appears likely to appoint either a Republican Defense secretary or secretary of State. That, too, might not sit well with congressional Democrats.
The Republican Party needs to go through a period of rethinking and redefinition. Among this year's national candidates, only former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin appear likely to play important continuing roles. Palin was much derided during her vice-presidential campaign but has political talent and a chance to be a force in her party over the next four years. At the congressional level, Republicans will be decimated and demoralized. Yet it is after one-sided defeats that political parties most often do reappraisals they would not do otherwise.
Obama and congressional Democrats will over the next four years face daunting challenges which they must face with limited resources. Bush-Cheney will not be on the scene to assume blame for failures. The heat in the kitchen will be wholly on Democrats.
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