November's (Not-So-Surprising) Surprises


November: it's the new October.

In a normal election year, the 10th month is the time for surprises--that is, the last-minute slips, blips and/or cataclysmic events with the greatest potential, by virtue of their last-minuteness, to influence the election's outcome. In 2004, for example, Osama bin Laden got his videotape on; four years earlier, reports surfaced that Dubya had once been arrested for drunk driving. Both were said to rock the vote.

But this year, October came to close without any real scandals, kerfuffles, farragoes or to-dos. At first, we here at Stumper headquarters took this as a sign that the home stretch would be unusually quiet. But that wasn't quite right. Instead, the fates--and/or the oppo researchers in Chicago and Crystal City--were simply waiting until November to shock us.

Unfortunately, they appear to have had a pretty good reason for delaying: their surprises aren't all that surprising. Here's our guide to the disappointing eleventh-hour efforts to sway undecideds.

I. Auntie Z!

Story: Zeituni Onyango, the Kenyan half-sister of Obama's late father, has been living illegally in Boston public housing since an immigration judge rejected her request for asylum four years ago.

Desired Effect: Rally the rabid anti-immigration right to rise up against Obama for "being related to" a lawbreaking alien; revive subliminal fears of Obama's "otherness"; and/or convince the American people that the candidate is a heartless nephew (and therefore would be a heartless president). Reinforced with a third-party push poll in Virginia.

Actual Effect: Nil. For starters, the Lou Dobbs brigades--i.e., the folks most likely to get fired up over the words "illegal immigrant" with little concern for context--weren't voting for Obama anyway. As for independents--i.e., the people McCain actually needs to win over--they won't punish Obama for being personally affected by such complicated problem. Especially when he had no knowledge of Onyango's status--and has said that "

Story: Vice President Dick Cheney praises this year's--gasp!--Republican presidential candidate while campaigning in his home state of Wyoming, saying "I believe the right leader for this moment in history is Sen. John McCain." Obama, in turn, immediately characterizes Cheney's routine remark as an "endorsement" and releases a juvenile ad taunting his rival for receiving it. "That endorsement didn't come easy," Obama says. "Senator McCain had to vote 90 percent of the time with George Bush and Dick Cheney to get it."

Desired Effect: More of the same, 90 percent, Bush-Cheney policies, four more years, yadda yadda yadda.

Actual Effect: Did anyone expect Cheney to "endorse" a candidate not named "John McCain"--especially after first giving his support to the Arizona senator last spring? Didn't think so.

III. Wright Returns!

Story: After months of McCain refusing to "go there," third-party groups and state Republican parties have begun to air ads in Florida and Pennsylvania (and on the cable-news networks) attacking Obama for his long relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. "Wright was his mentor, adviser and close friend," the announcer intones. "For 20 years Obama never complained--until he ran for president." 

Desired Effect: Remind voters that Obama's pastor said some pretty offensive stuff; revive subliminal fears of Obama's "otherness" (again).

Actual Effect: Might affect voters suffering from short-term memory loss. But Noam Scheiber ably explains why it won't work with the folks McCain's relying on to propel him to victory in the Keystone State: "A huge number of ...

IV. Obama Bankrupts Big Coal!

Story: The Drudge Report, Fox News and the McCain campaign are heavily hyping a 10-month-old audiotape of Obama speaking to the San Francisco Chronicle about his plan to limit carbon emissions. "So if somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can," Obama says. "It's just that it will bankrupt them because they're going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that's being emitted.” Robo-calls have already cropped up in Pennsylvania and Ohio and both McCain and Sarah Palin have slammed Obama on the stump.

Desired Effect: Convince economically stressed voters in coal-producing states like West Virginia (leaning McCain), Ohio (tossup) and Pennsylvania (leaning Obama, and critical to the McCain campaign) that Obama wants to put them out of work.

Actual Effect: Too little, too late. Palin has claimed that the Chronicle suppressed the interview, but it's actually been available on the paper's Web site since January. So the whole "conspiracy" angle loses a little bit of its oomph. What's more, Obama was merely reinforcing his long-held support for a mandatory cap on carbon emissions--a view shared by none other than John McCain. In fact, when McCain bravely (and rightly) proposed a bill designed to limit greenhouse-gas emissions in 2005, his Ohio colleague Sen. George Voinovich took to the floor to argue that the plan would "put coal out of business" and cost thousands of jobs. McCain's response? That his plan "would involve some sacrifice on the part of the American people."

So to say that Obama wants to "bankrupt" the entire coal industry is inaccurate--unless you say that McCain wants to do the same thing. The fact is, both candidates favor a system that makes constructing new coal plants that lack “clean-coal technology”—i.e., carbon capture and sequestration technology—prohibitively expensive. But that doesn't mean the old coal plants--or jobs--disappear. As Obama put it later in the same interview, "this notion of no coal, I think, is an illusion ... What we have to do then is figure out how can we use coal without emitting greenhouse gases and carbon."

Where's Osama when you need him?