This editorial by Prof. Bowen was published in the News Leader (Staunton VA: October 18, 2008): A13.
by Gordon L. Bowen, Ph.D.
(Professor, Depts. of Political Science and of International Relations, Mary Baldwin College, Staunton VA 24401)
Since it sometimes is difficult to read every word of a scanned article (as above), here is a clear copy of the original version of this editorial for readers' reference:
Our October Surprise
What a difference a month makes. All year long, the contest for the presidency has been framed as test of “hope versus experience.” Now, voters’ own experiences suggest a surprising change has taken place in our electoral dynamic.
“Hope versus experience” originally seemed to be a coded way of telling people that Barack Obama was too green. Two smart politicians have tried, and have failed, when presenting the seasoned judgment of a senior Senator as the safer choice. First, Hillary Clinton, and now John McCain have come up short in this comparison. Voters’ hopes have crowded out any preference for Washington insiders. Across America, including across Virginia, Barack Obama has benefitted from these trends. But he had not sewn up the election until the events of the last month revealed how much voters want a new direction for the country.
It was supposed to be all about the war. All year, the McCain campaign labored to portray the Democratic Party in general, and Sen. Obama in particular, as too risky a choice in times of war. The McCain campaign, drawing on his recognized sacrifices for the nation —formed as prisoner of war and as a three decade long member of Congress—, pointed again and again to his credentials in the area of national security. So long as voters’ chief concerns remained centered on our wars, and so long as the (unpopular) Iraq War policies McCain endorsed appeared to be working, McCain’s trump cards held promise to keep a Republican in the White House.
All year, economic concerns rivaled war anxieties as the central issue on voters’ minds. Yet, for much of the year, many believed the rise in home foreclosures and bank failures would touch only others. But, since late September, when a genuine collapse in stock markets accelerated worldwide, no other issue has come close to being the lynchpin of the election. As James Carville memorably stated in the far less bleak economic times of 1992: “it’s the economy, stupid.”
As Americans have watched their retirement and savings investments get shredded over the last several weeks, in state after state Barack Obama has opened up a significant lead over John McCain. Workers whose wages have stagnated for years rarely have witnessed a spectacle resembling the frenzied, and failing, attempts to save Wall Street and the American economy. The nearly daily alarms issued by Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, and the emergency legislation rushed through Congress, all has given them no clearer impression than that the interests of giant insurance companies, investment banks, and automakers still too much guide our politics. In this context, when presidential candidates have spoken about the calamity, the stark contrast between hope and experience has cut in a new way.
Candidate McCain at first tried to suspend his campaign to attend to the emergency, then reversed course, and sputtered through the first two face-offs with Obama. Candidate Obama, on the other hand, earned high reviews for his steadiness and message. Having forecast all year that his administration would engage well with neglected foreign partners, Obama presented in October the demeanor of a man with the right skill set to manage a global emergency. McCain appeared agitated, and while a greater aggressiveness finally emerged in the final debate (Oct. 15), by this point it appeared to be too little, too late.
Voters’ own experiences with impending economic chaos has opened the door to Obama’s soothing message of hope. Calmly, in point-by-point enumerations of his planned policies, he has reminded voters of the importance of having a person in the Oval Office who is capable of dealing with complexity. Aroused by the crumbling of the financial world around them, Obama re-assured voters in a way that late alarms from McCain simply could not. Having opposed strong federal regulation, and having advocated the inherent virtues of free enterprise for over 30 years, the Republican Party and its chosen candidate might try but could not explain their current embrace of tactics such as nationalizing banks, subsidizing General Motors, and in other ways using federal power now to sweep up the wreckage of multi-trillion dollar swindling on Wall Street.Candidates long have feared that a contrived “crisis” created by incumbents will manipulate voters on the eve of national elections. This is what is meant by an “October Surprise.” But in 2008, no contrivance created the October news that changed many perceptions: reality did. Voters’ experiences have driven them to crave the candidate offering hope. In the days remaining before the election, words alone are unlikely to reverse this tide.
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