When President Bush was at the height of his popularity, I wrote that he was beatable. Now, for the same reason, I caution you against all the current predictions and analyses about the presidential race.
Last September I said that Bush was beatable because who becomes president depends on how the American people are thinking on the day of the election, not on how they were feeling last September. That's still true. Polling data saying how people would vote in June cannot tell you how they will vote in November.A great number of Americans will not even begin to think about whom they will vote for until much closer to Election Day. Many things can happen between now and then that can change people's perceptions of Bush, Ross Perot and Bill Clinton.
For one thing, in today's environment of instantaneous communication, one careless slip of the tongue by a national candidate can sink him the way a reef can sink a sailboat.
For another, how the economy is doing in October will influence many people's votes. There is also the possibility of some unforeseen crisis arising, and how the candidates react to it could have an enormous effect.
We all tend to have this little model in our heads of how we imagine democracy works. We fantasize that candidates come before the people and present reasoned presentations of their positions and philosophy. That we the people then, thinking only of what's best for the destiny of the nation and posterity, wisely cast our ballots for the right person.
Reality is much less comforting and, frankly, a lot more sleazy. It's easy to criticize politicians for selling their votes, but voters also sell theirs. A great many people will be voting strictly on the basis of what they think a candidate will do for them.
I've seen more than one idealist run for office and emerge from the process a cynic because of the constant bombardment of purely selfish demands by people the candidate meets during the campaign.
Most of what candidates are hearing are increase my pension, cut my health-care costs, help me buy a house, get me a job, cut my taxes and raise his taxes, get me a grant, do this or do that for me. The average American today does not look upon government as a mechanism for protecting his rights but rather as a benefactor. Their real quarrels with government are over distribution of the loot.
Wow, that's a cynical view of democracy, you may be thinking. I disagree. The idea that we are all supposed to be philosopher-citizens is nonsense. We talk and believe in generalities, but we deal with specifics and the real world.
What produces cynicism are the fantasies and the generalizations of the intelligentsia. We could move much closer to a reality-based politics if we began by recognizing that honesty doesn't just mean not stealing; it also means admitting the truth about ourselves.