On Monday, December 1, Barack Obama, who had kicked off his campaign a year earlier touting his opposition to the war in Iraq, introduced his national security team to the public. As secretary of state there was Hillary Clinton, his opponent in the primaries who had voted for the war in Iraq; as national security adviser James Jones, a friend and supporter of John McCain's who had also backed the war in Iraq; and as secretary of defense Robert Gates, a carry-over appointed by George W. Bush, whose administration Obama and all of his party (except for Joe Lieberman) had spent the past four years running against.
On Tuesday, December 2, Saxby Chambliss, who had beaten Democrat Jim Martin by 3 points on Election Day but failed to reach the 50 percent-plus-one-vote level required by Georgia law, won his run-off election by 15 points, an impressive gain in just four weeks. These two incidents are connected, and each helps to explain why the other one happened: Chambliss's spread and the Obama selections both are the signs of a swing back to "normal" (or to "normal while in a recession") after a brief intense move around the election caused by the first wave of the crash and the bailout that swung the public mood to the left. Two public swings in the month of September help to explain just what happened--and why the mandate for Obama may not be as big as it seemed.
Hard as it is now to remember, in the first weeks of September, McCain had been forging ahead. He led in most of the national polls, led in the swing states, was winning independents, women, and Hillary voters, and extending his range into enemy country, turning some blue states pale pink. In a deep hole since the 2006 midterms, the generic numbers for the Republican party had even begun to edge up. A Gallup poll released on September 11 showed the Republicans with a 4-point lead in the generic ballot. And then came September 15.
Let us revisit those thrilling two weeks in September, when the financial world as we know it seemed to vanish completely, and the Republican party shot out both its feet. September 15 was the day Lehman Brothers failed, leading to a cascading financial implosion and the announcement three days later by Treasury secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke that unless the government bought up $700 billion of failed financial instruments, credit would freeze up throughout the nation, and indeed the world. With experts forecasting disaster, McCain left the trail and went back to Washington to help move the bailout through Congress, where most of his party was firmly opposed. After five days of haggling, the bill reached the floor of the House on September 29, where it failed by 12 votes. Republicans were blamed for the failure, and for the subsequent collapse of the market. (They did not help themselves by going on television to complain that Nancy Pelosi had injured their feelings with a red-meat, partisan speech.) A revised bill was passed four days later, but it looked too late and too little. McCain now looked weak, and his party feckless. And the election was one month away.
The results of this two week misadventure-plus-meltdown quickly showed up in the polls. On September 29, Gallup noted that Obama had moved to a 48 percent lead and a 5-point advantage. Scott Rasmussen, the most accurate pollster of the 2008 season, has said the race was decided in the two weeks in September when the financial markets melted down. The crash, combined with the fight over the bailout, eroded what was left of voters' crumbling faith in Republican governance. McCain lost 9 points in those days, going from a 3-point lead in some polls to the 6- to 7-point deficit that he would lose by. The election was lost in effect by September 29, and nothing that was said or done after that changed its course.
McCain's lead, of course, was unstable and shallow, or it would never have vanished so quickly, and the fact that he trailed through most of the year showed that his center-right and pro-war agenda had not won over the country at large. But the complementary fact that he stayed for so long within the margin of error showed that it had not been wholly rejected, and the fact that Obama's lead briefly vanished showed similar cracks on his side. What this suggests is that there were a large number of voters in the middle who were only lightly attached to each party and candidate. Michael Barone cites a series of Associated Press/Yahoo polls that tracked 2,000 voters between November 2007 and 2008, and showed that "17 percent of those who ultimately voted for Obama said they were for McCain in at least one of the ten tracking polls, while 11 percent of eventual McCain voters said they backed Obama," at one point in the year.
Many of these no doubt were the people who switched to McCain when the conventions were over, and then, after the financial crash and Republicans' stunning display of incompetence, turned back to Obama again. In other words, a sizable chunk of the people who gave a victory to Obama and his left-of-center agenda on November 4 were willing only weeks earlier to give a hearing to the center-right, more pro-war agenda of the McCain-Palin ticket, and then were pushed back into the Democrats' column by a sequence of extreme events. Without these events, the Democrats still might have won, but it would have been closer and the congressional results might have looked very different. Norm Coleman would probably not now be in a recount in Minnesota, and Saxby Chambliss would no doubt never have been in a run-off at all.
Obama's win was an impressive one and marked a genuine willingness to try more liberal government. But it is also likely that his win on Election Day was enhanced and inflated, less by the appeal of his agenda and party than by conditions not of his making, and by circumstances beyond his control.
Barack Obama did not get where he is now by being an idiot, and he knows much better than many of his backers how he was elected. He knows how slim was the margin by which he won over Hillary Clinton, who ran at the end as a liberal hawk; and he knows that the people who were willing in the first weeks of September to vote for McCain did not vote for either a far-left economic agenda or for a lost war in Iraq.
He knows, too, that the country's governing center lies in the space between himself and his two former rivals, and not, as some think, off to one side. This is why Saxby Chambliss improved on his lead, why Obama refused to be drawn into the run-off in Georgia, and why, after campaigning against the whole Clinton-Bush era, he is bringing back some of its people and policies, adopting the Clinton economic team and some of the Bush guidelines for the war on terror, and giving the prize spots in his national security roster to George Bush's defense secretary, John McCain's ally, and Bill Clinton's wife. Peculiar conditions padded his lead, but he has to govern the country as it exists now and in the future, and not as it was in that brief span between September 15 and the fourth of November that is now in the rearview mirror and quickly fading into the past.
Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.