We all know the feeling. You’ve made up your mind to support a candidate for public office. Maybe you’ve done some volunteer work, sent in a contribution or poked a yard-sign into your lawn. Maybe you’ve simply done your civic duty – studying the candidates and issues as time permitted and making a firm decision who will get your vote.
And then, sometime in early fall, you watch in dismay as the wheels start coming off.
For some reason – perhaps many reasons – your candidate’s campaign starts making mistakes, showing signs of internal confusion or simply running out of energy or resources. Or it comes to light that your candidate has been concealing some dark secret.
Or he starts saying stupid things, probably from a combination of exhaustion and the desire – just once – to get away from that infernal stump speech.
Four years ago, around this time, I found myself watching the wheels come off for John McCain. And make no mistake, McCain was my man. I’d voted for him with enthusiasm in the 2000 Republican primary. If he’d beaten George W. Bush that year, I’d almost certainly have supported him in November, even against Al Gore.
Last time around, my enthusiasm for the Senator was tempered. McCain was distinctly past his prime; an elder statesman who would, if elected, likely prove a one-term President. But still, I supported him. Even after the disastrous Palin nomination, McCain was my guy.
But by this time in September, 2008, it was clear McCain would never be President. The wheels were starting to come off.
This year, it’s happening again. The Romney campaign started with an almost unprecedented opportunity. The economy is recovering, but with painful tardiness. The incumbent, who ran as a “transformational” candidate, has done rather little transforming; spending most of his term getting on-the-job training. The President’s one major domestic accomplishment is, justly or unjustly, far from popular.
But in politics, as in so much of life, nothing beats luck. President Obama’s advisors dreamed of running against a far-right Republican like Rick Santorum. Instead, they got the one opponent they truly feared - the relatively moderate, incredibly successful and absurdly good-looking Mitt Romney.
Romney looked like a shoo-in.
Instead, he’s starting to look like the Ryan Leaf of Republican politics.
After the polls have closed and Romney has made a graceful speech congratulating President Obama on winning his second term, there will be many post-mortems. But I suspect the long-term, historical consensus will have a lot to do with the fact that Romney – like McCain in 2008 – failed to run as himself.
In the case of Romney, an intelligent, pragmatic, managerial moderate, the year-long burden of faking it has worn him down. He’s simply incapable of spouting nonsense, 24/7, for such a long, weary time.
And that’s hardly surprising. We tend to think of politicians as professional actors, but, with a few exceptions, they’re not. And even a professional actor, performing under a Broadway contract, only signs on for six months. And if the play is bad, filled with lines as vague and uninspiring as the speeches Romney’s writers have been putting into their star’s hands, a Broadway show will close long before those six months are up.
But a candidate who wins his party’s nomination must continue speaking the same lines for at least a year, so if his public position differs greatly from his private thoughts, there’s a good chance his brain will start to short-circuit.
That seems to be happening to Mitt Romney, a fundamentally decent man who, under a different political system, would probably have made a fine president.
President Obama is starting to pull away from Mr. Romney in the polls – particularly in the “battleground states.” The Romney campaign and the candidate himself seem to be falling apart. The “smart money” on the Right is starting to shift toward congressional, Senate and statewide campaigns.
Things can still happen, of course, but this presidential campaign appears to be over.
I won’t pretend to be sorry about this. I decided to support the President back last winter, when Romney shifted so far to the right.
But that’s not my point today. My point is that those of us who aren’t wedded to one of the major parties should now begin shifting our focus to the congressional races.
Assuming a second Obama administration, we have to decide whether we want to give the President a Congress he can work with or a Congress that will do everything in its power to thwart him.
Make no mistake that is the choice.
It’s a tough call, but the vicious deadlocks of the past two years don’t seem to have done our country any good. I’m leaning toward voting to give the President a Democratic Congress.
But that’s a subject for another piece.