No candidate for president from either party since Herbert Hoover in 1932 has faced a bleaker situation than John McCain, so why is this man considered an even bet to win?
Hoover and his Republican forebears, Calvin Coolidge and Warren G. Harding, had only led the economy over a cliff. George W. Bush and the party to which McCain pledges his fealty have done that in far more identifiable ways than Hoover did, and they also misled the country in one war and into a second ruinous one, corrupted the nation's oldest ideals, savaged its reputation and its storied honor around the world and destroyed the last shred of public confidence in the essential goodness of democratic government.
Except for torture, McCain supports all the policies that put the country in those straits, and he does so at least as cheerily as Bush does. Yet he stands pretty close to even with either Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. Hillary Clinton in the polls.
The portents of electoral disaster for McCain and his party are everywhere. Republicans hold 22 of the 34 Senate seats up for election this year, and in both the Senate and House of Representatives droves of Republicans are quitting to spend more time with their families. The party has had trouble rounding up breathing bodies to run even in strong Republican precincts. In Arkansas, which is considered a red state, it couldn't raise even a crank to run against a freshman senator or for three of the four congressional seats. Democrats are sure to build their already comfortable margin in the House of Representatives and pick up four to six seats in the Senate, which will put them near a workable majority.
The latest Pew polls reflect the lowest standing for the Republican Party among voters since before Ronald Reagan. Only 27 percent of voters think of themselves as Republicans and only about a fourth of independents say they lean a little toward Republicans. That is an aggregate decline for the party of 10 percentage points since its peak in 1995 and again in early 2002, soon after 9/11.
How does it get any better for McCain? The owner of a SUV filling up at one of the cheapest stations in town Monday cursed when the meter rolled past $100. What will he say when gasoline hits $4 a gallon, as it probably will before the Republican Convention? As for the war that McCain seems to count on as his gravy issue, not even the four-star Pollyanna who is paid to hype the war could find much to be optimistic about in the time frame that McCain needs.
A huge majority of Americans now believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. Nearly half of Americans in a poll in late 2007 said they do not make enough money to make ends meet. Nearly all of those who were satisfied with their current situation identified themselves as Republicans or leaning that way.
The grimmest omen for McCain may be the lopsided numbers who voted in the Democratic rather than Republican primaries. In only three states have Republicans outpolled Democrats by narrow margins.
So what could account for this enigma, a weak candidate from a beleaguered party who is privately loathed by a large segment of his colleagues but who looks like an even bet to win? Not dynamism. McCain lost all the Republican debates, on style points though not on substance, to every one of the challengers. A man who needs a Teleprompter to deliver routine greetings to his own supporters is not going to set the world afire.
The easy answer and maybe the correct one is that McCain is the only white man standing. A son of the Jim Crow South cannot be alone in detecting bigotry in the demographics of the votes for both Obama and Clinton in the South and the industrial heartland. Frank Rich of The New York Times said people mistakenly believe the nation has not progressed since 1988. We can hope he is right.
But there is something else in the polling demographics that may be just as accountable. While the gap between Democrats and Republicans in voter preference has widened decisively, it is altogether owing to the Republican slump. Democrats hardly stand any better than ever.
And one of the sharpest declines has been general public confidence is in government and elected officials, political party notwithstanding. The rank incompetence of the Bush government from top to bottom and from war strategy to disaster relief has done that to the country. Only a third of voters believe that government officials of any stripe care a whit about what happens to them.
If anybody is going to screw things up, the others are saying, why not let it be an old white guy? That's my best theory.