The 2012 US presidential election will long be remembered for the encounters between a sleepwalker and a ghost intent on breaking into the White House. Even now, after one vice-presidential debate and two presidential debates, it is by no means clear which will win.
Millions of astonished Americans watched the first televised encounter, which took place in Denver, Colorado on 4 October. Democratic supporters were apoplectic: their supercool and eloquent President, Barack Obama, was transformed into an unresisting somnambulist by a mysterious intruder. The intruder was identified as Willard Mitt Romney, the Republican challenger. But it was hard to be sure, because he assumed so many moderate shapes and positions which the real Romney on the campaign trail had denounced as heresy.
On that first encounter in Denver, the president could not get a grip on the shimmering ectoplasm who was now Moderate Mitt. In the normal course of events, the oscillations of Romney would have invoked derision and scorn from the commentariat, which likes nothing better than mocking inconsistency and gaffe. To win the party’s nomination Romney had been forced to abandon the moderate, middle-of-the-road policies he’d espoused as the Governor of Massachusetts. He would not otherwise have survived the long, gruelling primary season dominated by Tea Party insurgents from the right.
The Tea Partiers demand that candidates should exhibit none of the corrupting traits of liberalism, like believing Charles Darwin was on to something, or that global warming might not be a hoax. To do really well in the ridiculous primaries — oh, bring back the smoke-filled rooms when the party bosses did the choosing! — a candidate had also to express a suspicion that Barack Obama was not really an American-born citizen.
Mitt could not resist making a cheap jibe that his own birth certificate was in order, but he’d begun to strike a more moderate note after the Republican convention, leaving the contempt for the President to be executed by Clint Eastwood talking profanities to an empty chair. It was ruined for Mitt (or so it seemed) when he bared his heart and soul to a bunch of wealthy donors. The incident took place in May, but remained ticking away until Mother Jones, a magazine which pulses with the spirit of the eponymous Irish rebels of the 19th century (‘the grandmother of all agitators’) got hold of a video shot clandestinely of Mitt.
Maybe someone at the dinner said, ‘Tell us what you really think, Mitt’, since he unleashed a withering contempt for half the population that he’d never dream of uttering before any other than an audience he presumed shared his prejudices. His response is worth repeating in full, as it is being blamed for making Obama suspect the race was as good as over.
‘All right,’ said Mitt, ‘there are 47 per cent who are with Obama, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven per cent of Americans pay no income tax. My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.’
It was offensive and it was factually wrong. Only 18 per cent pay no taxes at all. To Romney’s critics, it was proof: the Tea Party evangelists do believe he spoke truth to privilege conferred by the ‘entitlement society’, but they felt it was not something to say in front of the children. When President Obama and his likely voters went to bed on 3 October they slept happily through the night, since, thanks largely to the Romney gaffe, the President was then ahead by an average of 3.1 points in national polls tallied by Real Clear Politics. There was heady talk that in several key knife-edge states Obama looked like being within striking distance of taking all the electoral votes that decide who is president: the big popular majorities Obama can expect to achieve in California and New York are worth less to him than a handful of votes in places like Ohio, Michigan, and Florida. There was heady talk of a 10 per cent lead. Landslide!
The euphoria was a one-night stand. The execration that the Democrats had looked forward to visiting on Mitt the Hypocrite after that first debate was supplanted by excoriation of Barack the bozo. He’d sleepwalked through the debate. He’d been listless, lazy, shifty, dull-brained, long-winded, languid, flaccid. He’d been ‘off his meds’. He’d looked down, caught by the split-screen. He’d not looked Romney in the eye and blasted him for his 47 per cent insults. He’d let Romney get clean away with saying he’d end funding for public broadcasting and with it funding for the sacred Big Bird on Sesame Street.
Andrew Sullivan, author of The Dish blog which the President is said to read every day in the Daily Beast, wrote, ‘I’ve never seen a candidate self-destruct for no external reason this late in the campaign before. Even Bush in 2004 was better than Obama. Even Reagan’s meandering mess in 1984 was better — and he had approaching Alzheimer’s to blame.’ Immediately on the left-inclined MSNBC, Chris Matthews exploded: ‘I don’t know what he was doing out there. I know he likes to say he doesn’t watch cable television but maybe he should start. Maybe he should start. I don’t know how he let Romney get away with the crap he threw out tonight.’
In Manhattan, where I live, every elevator, every coffee bar, every clubroom, was a similar scene of Democratic supporters having a nervous breakdown, pondering the near certainty indicated by a change in the polls that he’d thrown it away, and the insiders from Washington whispering that they knew the cause, that he’d become inaccessible, a prisoner in the White House surrounded by flatterers. ‘He’s not just in a bubble. He’s in a bunker in the bubble.’
About 10.30p.m. on Tuesday, there was a great exhalation across the continent — a sigh of vast relief in the tensed Democratic enclaves at the end of the second debate. The sleepwalker seems to have come awake. Obama was presidential, Mitt was political. In the last minute, Obama grappled the ghost to the ground as he’d so signally failed to do in first debate. He seized on a claim by Mitt to care for 100 per cent of the people, saying: ‘Think about who he was talking about: folks on Social Security who’ve worked all their lives, veterans who’ve sacrificed for this country, students who are out there trying to, hopefully, advance their own dreams, but also this country’s dreams, soldiers who are overseas fighting for us…’
For Democrats, this has been a deeply traumatic campaign. Their superman had been hurtling down to earth after the first presidential debate. He recovered his powers in the second — but it is far from clear which Obama we will see in next Monday’s finale. The presidential election may well be decided by the answer.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 20 October 2012