WASHINGTON – Is this election really about nothing? Democrats might like to think so, but it’s not.
First, like all U.S. elections, it’s about the economy. The effect of the weakest recovery in two generations is reflected in President Obama’s 13-point underwater ratings for his handling of the economy.
Moreover, here is a president who proclaims the reduction of economic inequality to be the great cause of his administration. Yet it has radically worsened in his six years. The 1 percent are doing splendidly in the Fed-fueled stock market, even as median income has fallen.
Second is the question of competence. The list of disasters is long, highlighted by the Obamacare rollout, the Veterans Affairs scandal and the pratfalls of the once-lionized Secret Service. Beyond mere incompetence is government intrusiveness and corruption, as in the overreach of national security surveillance and IRS targeting of politically disfavored advocacy groups.
Ebola has crystallized the collapse of trust in state authorities. The overstated assurances, the ever-changing protocols, the startling contradictions – the Army quarantines soldiers returning from West Africa while the White House denounces governors who did precisely the same with returning health care workers – have undermined government in general, this government in particular.
Obama’s clumsy attempt to restore confidence by appointing an Ebola czar has turned farcical. When the next crisis broke – a doctor home from West Africa develops Ebola after having traversed significant parts of New York City between his return and his infection – the czar essentially disappeared. Perhaps he is practicing self-quarantine.
But there’s a third factor contributing to the nation’s deepening anxiety: a sense of helplessness and confusion abroad as, in the delicate phrase of our secretary of defense, “the world is exploding all over.”
Most voters don’t care about the details of Ukraine, the factions in Libya or the precise battle lines of the Islamic State. But they do have a palpable sense of American weakness.
This was brought home most profoundly by the videotaped beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff. It wasn’t just the savagery that affected so many Americans but the contempt shown by these savages for America – its power, its resolve. Here is a JV team (Obama’s erstwhile phrase) defying the world’s great superpower, daring it to engage, confident that America will fail or flee.
Obama got a ratings bump when he finally bestirred himself to order airstrikes and vowed to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State. Yet almost two months later, there is a realization that the disorganized, halfhearted, ad hoc U.S. reaction has made little difference. The vaunted 60-country coalition is nowhere to be seen. The barbarians are even closer to the gate.
Moreover, U.S. flailing is not just demoralizing at home. It is energizing the very worst people abroad. Being perceived as what Osama bin Laden called the “strong horse” is, for a messianic movement on the march, the ultimate recruiting tool.
Will this affect the election? While there is widespread dissatisfaction with the administration’s handling of the Islamic State, in most races it has not risen to the level of a major campaign issue. Its principal effect is to reinforce an underlying, pre-existing sense of drift and disarray.
The anemic economy, the revulsion with governmental incompetence and the sense of national decline are, taken together, exacting a heavy toll on Democratic candidates. After all, they represent not just the party now in government but the party of government.
This portends a bad night for Democrats on Tuesday. State-by-state polls show continued Democratic control of the Senate to be highly tenuous.
With one caveat. Democrats could make it up with the so-called ground game (i.e., getting out the vote on Election Day) that polls do not measure. Just a fraction of the unprecedented success the Democrats enjoyed in 2012 in identifying and turning out their voters (especially young, female and minority) could shift the results by one or two points. That, in turn, could tilt several of the knife-edge, margin-of-error Senate races in their favor and transform what would otherwise be a Republican sweep into something of a stalemate.
This could happen. More likely, however, is that the ground-game differential is minor, in which case the current disenchantment – with disorder and diminishment – simply overwhelms the governing Democrats.
The stage is set for a major Republican victory. If they cannot pull it off under conditions so politically favorable, perhaps they might consider looking for another line of work.
Charles Krauthammer’s column is distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.