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Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Pundits

Reading the hyperventilation about John McCain’s proposal to put off the first presidential debate until the bill to address the financial crisis is solved, both pro and con, leads me to a stark conclusion: This presidential campaign has driven the political class in the United States to the brink of psychosis.

Calm down a little and you can see that, no matter what McCain intended by his “suspension” of his campaign, what he is doing is relatively modest. He’s not going to have rallies for a few days and he’s not going to run television commercials, and he’s proposing that a debate scheduled a year ago before anyone could have imagined we would be in the midst of a political-legislative-fiscal earthquake be postponed — not cancelled but postponed.

The only people on earth who are actually damaged by such a postponement are the staff of Ole Miss, where it is to take place, and the Commission on Presidential Debates, which sat around for months trying to pick just the right dates. Otherwise, could it possibly matter that the first debate might take place not on September 26 but on October 2? And that the vice-presidential debate might have to move from October 2 to, say, October 7? And that the October 7 debate be moved to October 22? (Yes, there might be a baseball playoff game on October 22. So?)

Honestly, what exactly is the big deal? Presidential campaigns have never, ever been conducted in the way they are being conducted right now. They didn’t run at an open sprint without stopping for months and years on end. They used to have lulls even after the conventions.

For example, it used to be axiomatic that it made no sense to spend a huge amount of effort in the midst of the World Series, because voters simply wouldn’t be paying enough attention. That was before baseball ceased to matter all that much. (Imagine, now, that Super Bowl Week took place during a presidential campaign and you can get a better sense of what I’m talking about.)

This cannot possibly be a major issue. But it is being treated as though it is an unprecedented move, a desperation ploy, a brilliant political stroke, a game-changer, a Hail Mary pass — pick your cliche. Why?

Because just like the candidates themselves, the pundit class has been living with this race foremost in their minds since January 2007. That’s 20 months of pulse-taking, speech-watching, poll-studying, debate-sifting, strategy-analyzing intensity seven days a week. That really is unprecedented.

But rather than the length of the campaign affording us a certain degree of perspective, it has instead intensified the parochialism and narrow focus of the pundit class. Yesterday, Mike Allen of Politico declared, using evidence of a single poll outside the margin of error and a bunch of polls showing a tiny lead, that Barack Obama had broken the race wide open.

Wide open? Jimmy Carter was leading Gerald Ford by 30 points in September in 1976. That’s a wide open lead. a race he won by two points. In 1992, Bill Clinton was leading by 12 to 20 points in September, a race he won by 5. That’s wide open. And even in those wide-open situations, as we can see, wide open didn’t mean landslide.

Did McCain make a tough ad about Obama’s vote for sex education in Illinois? He did, but a) there have been many far worse and b) the ad was accurate in all but the claim that Obama had led the Illinois State Senate on the sex-ed bill. Nonetheless: THE WORST AND MOST DESPICABLE AD IN HISTORY, screamed several Mimis who have every reason to know better.

There are dozens of other examples. And while ideological preference for Obama is clearly at work in many of these cases, the truth is that the pundit class is punch-drunk — dizzy with exhaustion and excitement. There’s never a dull day. But after 20 months of it, people are losing their wits and their senses.



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