1. John McCain: Does his appeal to independents, centrists, and Lieberman Democrats outweigh the ennui, nausea, and revulsion he evokes among those on the right of the right? In a sense, this is a row between conservatives who are politicians, and concerned with assembling a center-right coalition they can use to wield power, and movement conservatives who are theoreticians and see the coalition as a vessel to contain their ideas. The first camp are mainly in Congress, the second on the radio and online. When the latter realized after the Florida primary that McCain might become head of the party, it set off a week of ferocious assaults; some struck a pose like that of Rebecca in Ivanhoe, and threatened to throw themselves over the parapet rather than submit to the stranger's embrace. Damage control was commenced by McCain allies such as Tom Coburn, Sam Brownback, Jack Kemp, and George Allen, who have strong ties to movement conservatives.
The results of Super Tuesday, which McCain won in the face of an all-out assault from the right, suggested that while movement leaders may be in touch with their base, the base itself is only part of a large coalition. Yet in a country this size, even a niche movement can account for millions of voters, and in close elections every vote counts. If some people don't vote, the states in which they don't vote could be important: A poll done by SurveyUSA in 2007 showed both McCain and Giuliani falling below the Bush totals in some red states (though not by enough to lose), but doing better than Bush in blue states and swing states, the latter of which they might win. Low blows from the left, like the New York Times's muckraking last week, not to mention Democratic attempts to define McCain as a right winger, may be just the thing he needs. Nothing arouses the right like the enmity of the left. Will it be enough to compensate for McCain's enthusiasm gap with conservatives? This is one thing we don't know.
2. The Democrats: If Republicans seem to be pulling back from the brink of intraparty war, Democrats are still on the edge of one. The party that has lived, and more frequently died, by identity politics now has its dream candidates: the first credible black and the first credible female candidate for the world's most powerful office. But the nightmare is they are running against one another. Barack Obama has shown an uncanny talent for exposing the seamier side of the Clintons, the memory of which had faded since they left the White House. He lured Bill Clinton down from the pedestal he was trying to ascend as revered elder statesman and left him floundering in the muck of race-tinged innuendoes, issuing red-faced tirades that turned much of the public against him and earned him a scolding from party grandees.
If the convention arrives without a numerical winner, as still appears plausible, the loathing between the two candidates, and the polarization of their main backers, could lead to an ugly row. "Clinton and Obama have split the Democrats into rival tribes--blacks versus Latinos, young versus old, upscale versus downscale, Kennedys versus Clintons," Michael Barone tells us. The best case scenario for the Democrats at the start of the year was that Hillary would sweep to an unopposed coronation, leaving a unified party thrilled with its chance to make history. Now the best case is that Obama is able to sweep her away, seduce her most loyal followers, and emerge at the head of a more or less unified party, thrilled with its chance to make even more history. The worst-case scenario is a comeback in Texas and Ohio that allows her to go staggering on, slashing away every day at her rival, holding him below the number of delegates needed, and fighting to the bitter end at the August convention, at which point there will be blood on the furniture. How long will she last, and how low will she take this? This is a key thing we don't know.
3. Barack Obama: What goes up must come down, but the Obama balloon has so far defied gravity. Will it still be going up in November? If it falls, will there be a swift collapse, a slow deflation, or just a soft, gentle hissing? So far, his rise is beyond precedent: The two charismatic presidents of the postwar era, Reagan and Kennedy, were canonized in retrospect. Nobody seemed to pass out at their rallies, and they each had a great deal more substance behind them: Reagan, the two-term governor of one of the largest states in the union, and an established conservative spokesman; Kennedy, a 13-year member of the House and the Senate, with a long-standing interest in foreign affairs. The strongest Obama parallels come up in other primary campaigns, and then always with people who lost--with Clean Gene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy, who ran against each other in 1968 (until Bobby was murdered); with Gary Hart in 1984, who lost to the über-prosaic Walter F. Mondale; and with Howard Dean in the 2004 cycle, who lost to the very pedestrian John Kerry after the misfortune of being endorsed by Al Gore.
On the plus side for Obama is the fact that his ascent has gone on longer than all of the others; that his low-key appeal is in the style of Reagan and Kennedy, and more durable than the louder variety of charm; that his base is broader than that of most Democratic insurgents, as he links upscale whites to minority voters; and that he is feeding off of a seemingly bottomless urge for civility, after decades of partisan wars. On the minus side is the fact that he shows little substance--there isn't much mention of what he would change to--and that his call for bipartisanship in governing is at odds with his orthodox liberal record, giving no sign of what--if anything--he and the opposite party could compromise on. One sign of trouble is that he has never been seriously challenged by anyone to his right (Alan Keyes does not count). Another is the gap between his soaring and infinite promise and his less than original program.
In the end, Reagan and Kennedy were about winning the Cold War, which is how they defined themselves; and their most famous speeches concerned the advancement and value of liberty. Obama defines himself by his personality. "The message is becoming dangerously self-referential," writes Joe Klein, who notes that the Obama campaign is all too often about how terrific the Obama campaign has been. "Obama's people are so taken with their Messiah that they'll soon be selling flowers at airports and arranging mass weddings," writes David Brooks--who admires him. With Chris Matthews noting that he gets a "thrill up my leg" listening to Obama give one of his speeches, the whole thing verges on parody that may not go over well with Middle America. Middle America has been also ticked off by Michelle Obama, whose comment that she is "proud of her country" for the first time in her adult life because her husband "has done well" shows a trace of the insularity that lost 49 states for McGovern and Mondale, as well as a very tin ear. This is the sort of thing that results in small tears in the fabric, through which small currents of air may shortly be hissing. Thus could happen tomorrow, it could happen in August, it could happen in the first week of November, or it just might not happen. This is still one more thing we don't know.
4. Iraq: Iraq has been missing in action since last September, when things there began going better, and the visit to Capitol Hill by General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker did not turn out the way their Democratic hosts had planned. This means Iraq is now largely ignored: by the press, which has neither the heart nor the narrative skills to absorb this development; by the Democrats, who no longer see the war as something that cuts in their favor; and by those Republicans who were never too thrilled by the subject, and are still afraid it will all go wrong.
The rule has been bad news, followed by no news. But now that John McCain has emerged as the Republican nominee, this pattern may finally change. Mainstream coverage of Iraq since the surge started succeeding has consisted of silence punctuated with stories of soldier atrocities, Blackwater scandals, and the occasional suicide bomb. McCain, who said we were losing when we were losing, and backed a surge long before Bush did, may be the one man both willing and able to speak credibly of the American successes in Iraq; such as the fact that American soldiers have accomplished amazing things in Iraq over the past year; that al Qaeda is on the ropes; that Americans are embraced by Iraqis as allies and partners; that reconciliation among Iraq's warring factions is finally taking place. By placing Iraq front and center, McCain can accomplish two things: He can bring attention to the facts that no longer appear on the 6:30 news or the cover of Newsweek, which would happily showcase the bad news, if any. And, perhaps more important, he can slip these facts into a narrative framework that so far has been missing, and may be the thing needed to carry the day.
Through 2006 and into the fall of 2007, the media were working the theme of Iraq-as-Vietnam, in which a dim Texas president, in over his head, founders in a quagmire while ignoring the advice of the press and the establishment--a theme that was dropped as it became inconveniently far from the truth, when the dim Texas president (backed by McCain and Joe Lieberman), bucked the press and the establishment to come up at last with a successful military strategy, a story the press and establishment for obvious reasons are not eager to tell. A presidential campaign with its national megaphone is the one venue left with the power to blast through the media's silence; the press can ignore or downplay things being done on the other side of the planet, but not speeches made by a national candidate, before a large audience, day after day for eight months.
Democrats say opinion on Iraq and the war has been set in concrete, and can no longer be altered. McCain's best bet is that Americans dislike the war less than the idea of losing it, and that they will be responsive to good news. Polls show public opinion is highly ambivalent about Iraq, and not quite as one-sided as Democrats think. A Gallup poll released February 18 shows that 60 percent of the public still feels that the war was not worth it. But only 18 percent want to withdraw the troops now, as Hillary and Obama seem to be promising, while 39 percent support McCain's position (stay in Iraq until things get better), and 37 percent want a timetable for a phased withdrawal. Forty-three percent think the surge has improved things, while 35 percent say it has not made a difference, and 21 percent--nearly all Democrats--believe it has made things there worse. (The number of people who think the surge has been working has doubled since July of last year.) Other polls show that 28 percent think a Republican president would handle Iraq better, 34 percent say a Democrat, while 20 percent think both parties would handle it equally poorly or well. On the other hand, McCain himself has a 20-plus point lead over Obama and Hillary in handling terror, and a 14-point lead over both Obama and Hillary in being able to handle Iraq. In other words, this nominee has a singular lead over both of the Democrats in addressing Iraq, and the next appearance before Congress of General David Petraeus could give him his opening, just as the success of the surge over the winter brought him back from his political near-death experience. Can he bring it off? It may be too late, but some months ago no one believed that the surge would work, or that McCain would be viable. This is one more thing we do not know.
5. The economy. This is something over which none of the candidates has any control, a wild card that will probably hurt Republicans, the incumbent party in the White House, should things really head south. On the other hand, judging by past experience, the mailing of stimulus checks in May will probably be a sign that the worst is already behind us. How will it look by late October? And if it's bad, whose plans will appear more credible? That's one more thing we don't know.
6. The unforeseen unforeseen (with a nod to Donald Rumsfeld): Beyond the things we expect to be unexpected are the true unpredictables, the things that can change or blow up without warning, such as last week's Times attack on McCain. Mitt Romney remade himself as a social conservative, planning to run on the right uncontested, while John McCain and Rudy Giuliani fought over the same pool of votes. Instead, he split votes with Mike Huckabee, whom he never saw coming. "Romney the buttoned down businessman had planned for every contingency except one," writes Tom Bevan of Real Clear Politics. "The exceptionally gifted speaker with the Mayberry charm proved to be the kryptonite to Romney's well oiled, deep pocketed, campaign." Kryptonite, did you say? Ask Hillary Clinton, now floored and flailing, against the one threat she never foresaw. She had planned for years--perhaps since Yale Law School--to emerge as the undisputed queen bee of her party, and, when attractive centrists like Evan Bayh and Mark Warner bowed out early, the game looked over. The last thing she expected was Barack Obama, who came at her at once from the left, right, and center, who could trump her gender card with his race one, and whose youth and genial nature seemed to immunize him from the Clintons' favorite modes of attack.
And so we can say now with deep and utter assurance that John McCain and his critics will make up completely, make up part way, or snipe at each other from here to November; that Obama and Clinton will make up, if not kiss, or battle each other and fracture their party; that Obama will burn out or melt down or else ride a wave to the White House; that Iraq will help the Democrats, help the Republicans, or become a non-issue; that the economy will improve, collapse, or stumble along in a middling manner; and that stunning and unforeseen developments will or will not occur. Please bear in mind that all of these things are as likely to happen as all of the others, and that until some of them do, no one will have a clue what will happen. Please make no bets until things become clearer. These are the Things We Don't Know.
Noemie Emery, a WEEKLY STANDARD contributing editor, is author most recently of Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families.