“I got those worried blues,
And I got those worried blues.
I got those worried blues.
I got those worried blues.
Lord, I’m a-goin’ where I never been before.”
–Bob Dylan, “Worried Blues”
Just when it all looked so rosy, when joyous delight was starting to stir up incredulous smiles, when giddy hosannas were being cried out to dumb luck and hard work, just when all this flushed ecstasy was on peak boil, it ended, crashing down around us like someone snuck in and sawed through the support beams. The numbers turned on us—once-friendly line graphs suddenly hostile, the traitors—and when a new bewildering reality became undeniable, this new path forward ghastly in its opaque terror, we sat down and wept.
It’s now clear that the state of polling after President Obama’s halting, regrettable performance in the Denver debate two weeks ago triggered not just a real shift in election odds but also catastrophic shockwaves throughout the Democratic psyche. Who could blame us? Our lead appeared unimpeachable amid all of Mitt Romney’s dough-brained fumblings and a raucous Democratic convention. But then that debate, and the waking nightmare it became—Obama rocked back by Romney’s effortless dissembling, one more chapter in the neverending story of Romney’s re-invention. The man who ran to the right during an already-ultra-right primary and claimed to be a “severely conservative” governor didn’t show. And the caricature America had heard about for months—the jobs-harvesting, robotic Wall Street financier—wasn’t there either. No, this Romney was a policy wonk technocrat with a plan, and he sounded solid. Obama, failing to adequately prepare for his opponent’s latest metamorphosis, looked into our living rooms and blinked.
Later, he told a radio host, “I think it’s fair to say I was just too polite, because, you know, it’s hard to sometimes just keep on saying, ‘what you’re saying isn’t true.’ It gets repetitive.” This only made a bad situation worse. Sure, it’s a damn shame that the Democrats are stuck in a Groundhog Day campaign where instead of hitting on Andie MacDowell we have to call Mitt Romney a fraud, but that’s partisan politics and that’s this campaign. And no one wants to hear their standard-bearer imply some lofty aversion to calling out a guy who not only lies to his face but is lying about our foundational political perspective. It’s no surprise that things snowballed—the immediate post-debate take of “Obama was off his game” somehow quickly became “Obama is a weak-willed wimp.” And suddenly, for the first time, we found ourselves peering into the abyss, slack-jawed and terrified—even though no agenda, record or other fundamental had changed. Of course it had been foolish for anyone to think the race was over before the debates. This awful thing began as a toss-up, became a toss-up again, and will remain a toss-up until the horn sounds. But there was no accounting for our shock when it dawned on us that our understanding about this campaign was false—that with an adulterer’s intrigue a seemingly fixed electorate had behind our back been a much more fluid group of voters all along.
So, in short, thank God for Tuesday. Someone sent that stale Obama back to the kitchen, and we finally got the man we had ordered. The president got in Romney’s face and—shaking off that passive hesitancy like a hit to the funny bone—lambasted his deceit. And that blustering aggro alpha-male posturing that worked so well for Romney in Denver seemed to come across in the town hall setting as bullying and mildly unbalanced. The volleyball spikes that had landed for aces suddenly seemed to be tetherball swats, swinging round and hitting Mitt in the back of the head. Romney bitched about not getting enough time, unveiling his peevish underbelly, and Obama’s newfound confidence in the crowd led Mittens into some dumb mistakes, like treading down a silly semantic path on Libya that ended with a real-life fact check from moderator Candy Crowley that left him looking small and inert. The challenger also somehow suggested that gun crime was driven by single parents and offered as an answer to gender pay equity that women once worked for him and he sometimes let them go home early to cook dinner. This race isn’t going to reset to those pre-Denver highs—there’s a tautological aspect to debates in that it’s hard to be seen as a loser once you’ve won one—but the ship has at least been righted, though it faces much narrower straits with 18 days to go and virtually no margin for error.
Today, that socially contagious garment-rending despair has only been mildly diluted, still hanging overhead in a gloomy mist of stomach-wrenching doubt. This is what Democrats do, really. Republicans put their hands over their ears and refute poll numbers among other truths, and Democrats sink into a depression—in other words: for the right, denial; for the left, despondency. No way does the professional right caterwaul and tear out their hair over a shoddy debate performance. But the post-Denver agony cut so deep on the left, it was almost as if the nation’s Democrats had quite simply given up the ghost. It tapped into some kind of sweeping hell of endless politico-misery, the embodiment of the observation by Hamlet’s uncle Claudius that sorrows don’t come as single spies, but in battalions. Yet the fact of the matter (and, yes, I’m aware this is coming from a guy who recently wrote a column defending his intrinsic pessimism) is that our blue funk period was to some extent on us. For over a year, the Obama campaign set out to define Romney as a soulless and meh-grade politician. And it worked! So when he took the stage, stood behind that lectern and wasn’t a sniveling Nathan Thurm type, the electorate applauded. Painting Romney with a thick brush was certainly no mistake, but, come on, we should’ve seen this coming.
That’s why the nervousness we feel is fine—or even perhaps desirable, as our polling-related near-death experience could very well be converted into energy. Campaigns are vital—even as they seem rife with meaninglessness—because election season is a time to decide who we are and what we stand for. Campaigns are the refreshers of civic purpose, the thrilling spectacle that gets us to give a shit again. If political life were merely the process of government, we’d tune out like bored students in a lecture hall. Campaigns introduce a histrionic and commercialized drama that catches a shrugging, fickle nation’s attention, and forces otherwise indifferent yahoos to pick a side in a very real fight about which view of the world is right. If anything is clear about who won in Denver, it’s that voters don’t want hesitant politesse; they want big ideas and big promises. Politics offers a mirror for the society it oversees, and we all badly want politics to be rational because we want the world to be rational. But every reminder that life is in fact uncertain and irrational—that the awkward, humorless doofball in wingtips is actually an above-average debater, say—sends a shock through our system. It’s yet another lesson that we can’t sit back and assume everything is coasting along. We can’t adopt an air of destined societal inevitability, mostly because that hardly ever exists.
Let’s look forward. We have a concluding debate on foreign policy, which will unlikely be as fun unless Bob Schieffer forces them to play the final round of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, and we get to see Romney lug a beacon around a floor-map of Africa, madly searching for Guinea-Bissau. No, this thing will probably stay tied, and we’ll probably stay wrapped in our fresh worry through November. And in the meantime, we’d be wise to channel our nervousness into action. You probably get the emails and you probably live near a local campaign office; you certainly don’t need reminders or guidance as far as that’s concerned. But let me just suggest that worrying—even this past fortnight of apocalyptic fear—doesn’t have to go to waste, like time spent in a rocking chair, full of motion but no movement. This brand-new journey to November 6, unclear and worrisome as it might be, still offers us the chance to save ourselves from the brute act of our oblivion. Our perspective on this campaign’s future has been warped, the stairway we face now winding, spilling, into uncertain and unknowable Escher space.