Democrats are gloating that George W. Bush moved so far to the right during his primary struggle that he won’t have time to move back to the center by November. “He’s going to do his damnedest,” writes pro-Democrat historian Sean Wilentz in Salon, “… but will it wash? The damage has been done.”
This argument–and it’s everywhere; Wilentz is just a handy example–reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of one way politics seems to have changed in the past decade, a change discussed earlier in this space. Call it the Feiler Faster Thesis, after the guy I stole the idea from (though it may all be anticipated in James Gleick’s book Faster, which I’m not a fast enough reader to have read). The basic idea is this: The news cycle is much faster these days, thanks to 24-hour cable, the Web, a metastasized pundit caste constantly searching for new angles, etc. As a result, politics is able to move much faster, too, as our democracy learns to process more information in a shorter period and to process it comfortably at this faster pace. Charges and countercharges fly faster, candidates’ fortunes rise and fall faster, etc.
An implication of this thesis, discussed earlier, is that the compressed primary schedule ain’t that bad; voters were able to take the measure of McCain and Bush, for example, even when they had only a few days (instead of weeks) to look them over. The Feiler Faster Thesis (FFT) also explains why “momentum” isn’t what it used to be: McCain can lose in South Carolina and still come back and win in Michigan a few days later, because he’s able to react to the loss and get a counter-message out in a few hours. Give McCain a few more days and the public is already starting to get tired of his victim act. Likewise, Bush’s ups and downs reflect the more volatile status of candidates in this fast new world.
It also follows, if you buy the FFT, that Wilentz is wrong: Bush has plenty of time to reposition himself for the general election. His strategists will deploy the cliché that from March to November is “an eternity in politics.” (Look at how Bush Sr. went from Gulf War hero to general-election loser! Look at how Clinton came back from the brink of disgrace! Look at how Gore went from being a stiff to unstoppable!) But if the Feiler Faster Thesis is correct, from now to November isn’t an eternity anymore. It’s more like five eternities. Bush probably has time to move to the center, move back to the right, feint at protectionism, convert to Catholicism, divorce his wife, admit he dropped acid, denounce vivisection, embrace Lenora Fulani, enroll in Bob Jones University, then tearfully apologize for all of the above on Meet the Press and still move back to the vital center again before November. OK, I’m exaggerating. But you get the point. We have no more idea what the public image of Bush will be in November than we have of what Chicago will look like in the year 2100.
The most frequent objection I’ve heard to the FFT is that it seems to assume that ordinary voters pay as close attention to the up-and-down birdsong of politics as political reporters do. No it doesn’t! The recent elections in California suggested to me how the FFT might apply even when voters only really pay attention to a race at the last minute.
Actually, that last bit is the key. Voters only really pay attention at the last minute. This was evident this year in the battle for several California propositions, in which the entire campaign effectively started the Thursday before the election. Of course, in relatively placid, prosperous times, when people have better things to do than worry about elections, it stands to reason they’ll pay less attention than before to drawn-out political campaigns and that they’ll wait to focus on their civic duty until they absolutely have to decide. Couple this with the general time-crunch of a two-earner, sped-up, FedExed, kanban society in which practically everything is done at the last minute.
So we have a situation where the voters in, say, South Carolina make a decision based on a last-minute snapshot of the candidates, while the voters in Michigan haven’t focused yet. Thanks to Faster Politics, by the time Michiganders vote three days later, the campaign snapshot they see has changed markedly. McCain is a wounded victim fighting back; Bush is complacent; South Carolina is ancient history!
It doesn’t matter, then, that voters don’t pay close, constant attention to campaigns. What matters is that the state of the campaign changes so rapidly that it’s impossible to predict what it will be multiple eternities hence–when the voters do finally give the campaign its allotted minute and a half of concentrated thought. (Not that this will be a more uninformed choice than in previous eras–just that, unlike in previous eras, it might be a different choice from the one voters would have made a week earlier. Or a week before that.)
Bush may or may not succeed in making the electorate’s last-minute snapshot of him a nice, compassionate-centrist portrait that gets him elected president. But if he fails, it won’t be because he didn’t have enough time.