I have become an excellent tea-leaf reader this spring. As I watch college graduates cross the stage on commencement day — teetering in new heels, arms outstretched to grasp their hard-earned diplomas — I study the terror in their eyes.
And as I watch two party nominees stride onto their stages — theme songs blaring, and huge American flags hung behind them — I study the ambition in their eyes.
On college campuses and on the campaign trail, the principals think they have a plan, but also know it could easily be knocked off course by events almost entirely out of their control. If you are a graduating senior this spring, that might include the dreaded prospect of moving back home, burdened with student loan debt. If you are President Obama, that could mean moving back home to Chicago.
But will this be a sober standoff over economic stress and solutions? Or are we just as likely to spend the rest of this year consumed with the latest utterances of Jeremiah Wright and Donald Trump?
This election has been plagued with distractions that, for a day or a week at a time, have conspired to knock two ordinarily well-disciplined candidates off course.
Do not believe for a moment that the candidates’ camps in Boston or Chicago do not have grand plans. They do. And they include public maps of winnable states, secret maps of winnable states, extraordinary micro-targeting strategies and meticulous grassroots mobilization plans. But because each fears that the other will raise more money, deep pockets will always be welcome.
Welcome Sheldon Adelson and Donald Trump. Welcome Anna Wintour and Sarah Jessica Parker. Elitism has its privileges. No one will turn down the cash as long as the Supreme Court says it’s legal, so the celebrity mud-throwing is largely beside the point. So too, mostly, is the endless handwringing about vice presidential picks. Each candidate knows voters mostly view the No. 2 as a reflection on the No. 1.
But this campaign is this close. And on an almost weekly basis, every well-laid plan has been threatened by the unexpected and uncontrollable. The trouble is, no one knows what will matter and what won’t, so they have to respond to everything.
Senior Romney adviser Ed Gillespie, a veteran of many GOP campaign war rooms, calls these distractions “shiny objects.”
“I have not worked in a campaign with more shiny objects than his one,” he told a small group of reporters this week. “It’s pretty remarkable to me the kind of things that flare up and people start chasing. We’ve disciplined ourselves on the Romney campaign to, as best we can, not chase the rabbits or get distracted by the shiny objects.”
This is actually kind of virtuous, as far as it goes. Romney has largely managed to avoid the muck of the discredited birther debate, but doesn’t mind sharing the stage with some of the folks who keep it alive.
The Democrats, of course, are no less likely to take a sharp poke when they can. When asked this week about whether the president was vulnerable to Republican charges that he was spending too much time hobnobbing with celebrities – earning the Rush Limbaugh label “Barack Kardashian” – White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters traveling on Air Force One (to one of those glittery parties),”Two words: Donald Trump. Next question.”
It’s not that the campaigns don’t know how to avoid potential potholes when they see them. Neither President Obama nor Romney was particularly interested, for instance, in tying himself too closely to the outcome of Wisconsin’s failed, partisan effort to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
“I don’t know if at the end of the day, it helped or hurt or made any difference at all,” Gillespie said Wednesday morning as the margin of victory became clear. “They are tea leaves, but at the end of the day, the election yesterday was about Governor Walker, his agenda, his reforms, the union efforts to overturn them and about Wisconsin.”
On this particular morning at least, Carney and Gillespie were on the same page. “I certainly wouldn’t read much into yesterday’s result,” the White House press secretary said, “beyond its effect on who’s occupying the governor’s seat in Wisconsin.”
But President Obama signaled this week that he is more than aware of the potential that his first four years in office will be boiled down to the dregs of the tea leaves.
“What they’re going to do is they’re going to say, ‘well, you know what, you’re still not satisfied and it’s Obama’s fault,'” he told supporters at a California fundraising event. “That’s the essence of their campaign. It’s very easy to put on a bumper sticker — ‘It’s Obama’s Fault.'”
His supporters laughed. President Obama looked stern. He ought to in a year when bright and shiny objects rule.
Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.