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If McCain Loses

So, here I am, doing what I keep thinking people shouldn’t do at this stage: Offering a premature post-mortem on the election. If you don’t want to indulge in this sort of thing, please read no further.

Everyone is arguing about the little things that may be leading to Obama’s victory and McCain’s demise. The question of negativity, the bad timing of physical and economic hurricaines, the questions of age and experience, and who’s really a Washington insider or an outsider. In a close election, every one of these can plausibly claim title to having decided the outcome.

But there is one big thing that has set apart Obama from McCain, which I suggest is the real issue above all issues, and has been since the conventions. Obama has succeeded in giving a coherent narrative, a vision which, whether true or false, gives his supporters clarity as to why they are voting for him. McCain has not.

Barack Obama says: I represent a better, clearer, more inspiring, more liberal, alternative to the failures of the last administration. I may not have experience, but I am wicked smart, and know how to learn, to surround myself with wise people, and I offer hope for the future. Give me a shot — it sure can’t be worse than what we’ve had.

John McCain says: I’ve been around long enough to understand the dangers we face. I have a better track record than my opponent. I have courage and know what it means to suffer. I’m in nobody’s pocket. And everybody knows I’m not going to make the mistakes that George Bush made. That one, on the other hand, is such an unknown that we should all be terrified of him. He might even raise our taxes.

When Obama picked Joe Biden as his running mate, he was not undercutting his grand narrative, but affirming it. Biden is just the kind of experienced adviser that Obama is claiming he is surrounding himself with.

When McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate, he utterly confounded his message. As a good friend of mine likes to say, it’s like a fancy French restaurant suddenly starts offering hamburgers to appeal to the fast-food crowd. Maybe the burgers are great, but you’ve made a mess of your central concept, and in the long run, nobody will believe you’re a fancy French restaurant any more, and you’ll lose both your French-eating and your hamburger-eating customers to competition. Maybe we know who Palin is, maybe we don’t. But in picking her, we don’t really know who John McCain is any more.

Americans may not understand the ins and outs of policy, or know exactly how to balance the competing factors of character, consistency, inspiration, and wisdom in choosing a leader. But they love a good story. Right now, just days before the votes are cast, Obama’s offering a much more compelling story than McCain.