Journalists consider themselves crusty, unsentimental creatures who, their battered fedoras shoved back on their heads, have slouched out of Ben Hecht's 1928 play "The Front Page," oozing skepticism from every pore. Actually, they are round-heeled romantics, such pushovers for a new swain that they did not laugh until their ribs squeaked when Barack Obama concluded his triumphal St. Paul, Minn., speech by proclaiming: "I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick …"
It is absolutely certain that generations from now someone will remember that even before that night in St. Paul, care was provided to the sick in America. Obama also asserted that future generations would say that "this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal …" The man and the moment have met.
Obama's words mesmerize a nation accustomed to leaders who routinely use words with antic indifference to their accuracy. The No Child Left Behind law promises, indeed requires, that by 2014 all children will be "proficient" in reading and math. That will not happen. Obama vows to reduce carbon emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. John McCain says 60 percent. Whether either goal should be reached, neither will be. Commentators, too, use words in peculiar ways, as when they speak of Obama and Hillary Clinton needing to bring together "the two wings of the party." There is the left wing, and the other left wing. As one precise commentator has said, Clinton and Obama differ about as much as the Everly Brothers.
As the primary season folds seamlessly into the general election campaign, there are few certainties, but this will be the first presidential election contested by two sitting senators, so this will be just the third time the country has elected a sitting senator (Harding in 1920, Kennedy in 1960). And there is an asymmetry between the senators' possible trajectories: McCain, although a very familiar figure, has a downside risk from becoming better-known concerning one issue; Obama has an upside potential from becoming better-known regarding an elemental fact.
McCain is fortunate. The eerie narcissism of Clinton's speech the night that Obama clinched the nomination distracted attention from McCain's badly delivered speech the same night, in New Orleans. If he really opposes torture, he will take pity on the public and master the use of a teleprompter.
He said, "The American people didn't get to know me yesterday, as they are just getting to know Senator Obama." McCain, who has been running for president for 10 years, has never entertained the thought that the country might sometimes have a surfeit of him. Does some statute require that he appear on at least one of the five Sunday morning talk shows every week (ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, Fox News)? He has appeared on them 67 times since 2004. He has been such a ubiquitous figure, it will be difficult for him to seize the attention of a public that thinks it knows everything about him.
But it does not. Because of his cultivated persona as a "maverick" Republican, many—perhaps most—voters do not know he is pro-life. When the fact that he is becomes well publicized, and Democrats will make sure it is, Clinton's female supporters will stop sulking in their tents and will rally round Obama.
Something that millions of Americans think they know about Obama—that he is a Muslim—is injurious. When they are disabused of this idea, he will rise. McCain might think Obama cannot rise high enough to win because he, McCain, can get the support of white, blue-collar, culturally conservative Democrats who decisively preferred Clinton to Obama in the primaries.
But there are fewer of these "Reagan Democrats" than there were when that category was identified 28 years ago. That label might not yet be as antiquated as, say, "Wendell Willkie Republicans," but its significance diminishes as the economy and the educational and social profile of the electorate change. War-weary Americans are preoccupied with domestic discontents, but McCain sounds at best perfunctory when talking about things other than those that really interest him, things that fly or explode—the sinews of national security.
Neither candidate can know his current electoral strength because polling is in unexplored territory. No poll is any better than its template for predicting turnout—the size and composition of the Election Day electorate. So Republicans reading alarming polls might be insufficiently alarmed. Obama's candidacy might increase total turnout, and especially participation by African-Americans and young people. If so, some House and Senate races, and some states, may be more competitive than they currently seem.
In 2004, 12 states were won by 5 percentage points or less. Six were won by Bush (Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico) and six by Kerry (New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Oregon). Bush's six have 73 electoral votes, Kerry's six have 69. But Florida, that geographic afterthought—some of it was tardy emerging from the sea, and its highest point is just 345 feet above sea level—might disappear, depending on "the rise of the oceans."