Explaining This Election to Italy

On October 15, I found myself depressed by the wide spread – 10 points to 13 points – in the polling of registered voters, favoring Barack Obama over John McCain. Then the next day some of the most reliable of the many polls were carried out, prior to the October 16 night-time presidential debate. These were polls of the best kind: not just of “registered” voters but of “likely” voters (people who have a history of voting regularly, and give other indications of serious plans to vote). Both Gallup and Rasmussen polls showed that in this universe the margin between the two candidates had narrowed to 2 points or 4 points. In other words, a virtual tie. What a shock! Then in the presidential debate that night, which observers mostly rated either a tie or a close win for Obama (he is so fluent, so verbal, so calm, so mellifluous), practically everyone agreed that McCain made his best showing of the three debates. He kept Obama on the defensive from beginning to end. Obama rebutted well, in that clever and calm way of his. But differences kept continually being sharpened. McCain kept using the example of “Joe the plumber” who had accosted Obama in a receiving line in Ohio (all caught on videotape) about the high taxes Obama promised to place on individuals and small businesses that took in more than $250,000 per year.

Joe said he was trying to buy a plumbing business himself, hiring others to work with him, and needed to earn at least that much to succeed in paying all his helpers. If Obama levied the high tax on him, he said, there was no way he could buy the business on his own. Why punish me? he asked Obama. Why deprive my co-workers of their jobs? Why punish them and me as though we were “rich”?

The videotape shows Obama saying that he wanted that tax money to go to people earning less than that -- and then saying that “spreading the wealth around” is good for everyone. That sentiment shocked much of the country, and McCain let all 57 million viewers of the debate dwell on that point. He mentioned “Joe the plumber” nine times in the next forty-five minutes.

Americans hate “class warfare.” They hate the confiscation of income earned by the successful, in order to hand it to those who have not earned it. (They cherish the idea of helping the poor, but not of coercively taking from those who work hardest to give their hard-earned gains away indiscriminately.) Americans consider that kind of equality a “wicked principle,” which undermines personal responsibility and initiative and creativity, and vastly increases the power – and the corruption – of the State.

Thus it looks now as if the last fifteen days of the campaign might be focused around the question of high taxes on some, and “giveaways” to others. A promise of high taxes on a few violates the American sense of justice right down to its roots. There is plenty of opportunity in America, and it is wrong to give special rewards to people who do not earn them, unless through no fault of their own they are ill, or weak, or too young, or too old. Able-bodied people should be treated equally, and win rewards by their own efforts.

“Joe the plumber” has become for a few days the best-known voter in America. Everyone is talking about him, and about the differences between the Obama and the McCain senses of justice. Obama’s seems European, McCain’s seems like classic America. This difference alone, if McCain can make it stick for fifteen days, may be worth at least five percentage points in the final election.

Of course, everything is stacked in favor of a Democratic victory this year. The sudden economic drop in the mortgage sector (caused largely by Government action), poisoning all the most common financial instruments, and the resulting panic helps the Democrats. Weariness with eight years of a Republican presidency – just as with the eight years of the Clinton presidency – also calls for a change of political direction.

On the other hand, the smell of victory in Iraq (the rapid drop in violence and the return of economic and civic vitality) takes that weapon away from Obama. The sudden drop in oil prices (from $140 per barrel to under $70) takes away that Obama complaint, too.

Never forget that American Independence was founded upon a rebellion against unfair taxes imposed by the British King. Americans ever since have regarded high taxes as the royal road to excessive State power and corruption. They prefer their personal independence.

Balanced judgment still insists that Obama is likely to win, and maybe even win by a high electoral vote total. But the signs of a stunning upset are beginning to gather in the night air. McCain is a fighter. (He is also a national hero whose five-and-a-half years of undergoing torture and near-starvation in a Vietnamese hell-hole of a prison are legendary.)

Once again, McCain has had to pilot his campaign through flak to the left and to the right, just as he did when he flew his fighter-bomber over Vietnam. Once again he is maneuvering for precise aim before firing his best shots. He is trying now to lock in on the targets of high taxes and big government spending, and to get there just before Election Day on November 4.

It just might be a very close race, after all, right up to the end. Europeans, I am sure, will be thoroughly stunned if McCain wins. But (some of us think) that would be a perfectly American ending.

To be sure, the election of Obama would also be a great victory for America, not least in helping to heal its long failings and struggles concerning race. It would be wonderful to see a black man as President.

On the other side, it is a form of racism to elect a man solely for his color. What matters most are the principles a man stands for, the policies he ties his fate to, his character, and the wisdom of those who surround him in his awesome task.

The election of 2008 will be a watershed.

Prepared for Liberal, October 16, 2008