At a time when, in previous presidential years, neither party yet knew who its nominees would be, both have already known that vital information for months, and the problem is how to get through the nearly four months remaining before Election Day without boring the country to death.
The next president will be either John McCain or Barack Obama. They may be able to generate a little excitement over their choices for vice president, but pretty much everything else we need to know about the two tickets, and their accompanying platforms, is already known. Neither candidate is likely to have any big surprise (like, say, a novel policy plank) up his sleeve, and the two campaigns will roll forward on tracks already clearly visible.
That means that any unexpected developments will come from outside and impact on the campaigns, rather than emerge from within them. McCain adviser Charles Black was spanked publicly for telling a reporter that a terrorist attack on the United States would benefit his tiger immensely, but it is the simple truth, recognized by every politician in the land. More broadly, the two campaigns will benefit (or suffer), in opposite proportions, depending on how the military situation develops in Iraq between now and November. Recently, it has been improving, and that has marginally benefited the Republicans. McCain has shared in the benefit because he has steadfastly supported our intervention in Iraq.
Conversely, any military setback we experience in Iraq between now and Election Day would be of huge help to the Democrats. Not long ago Senate majority leader Harry Reid declared that the war was "lost," and that our only choice was to pull out. Every Democratic leader seemed to have his own specific timetable by which he or she wanted to see us withdraw.
Such talk has died down lately as the military situation has improved, but it would revive in a hurry if the military prospects began to sour.
Domestically, neither camp seems eager to draw any sharp lines in the sand. The public seems to feel that the economy is in pretty poor shape, but in fact (aside from a few glaring instances, such as gasoline prices), the situation isn't all that bad -- as demonstrated by the Democrats' failure to call for any really dramatic measures to remedy it.
Just how likely is it that one or another of the terrorist groups will launch an attack on the United States between now and Election Day, and thereby exert a powerful impact on the political outcome? We may suppose they are sophisticated enough to realize that such an attack would simply benefit the Republicans, and therefore would avoid one. But this assumes that our terrorist foes see important differences, from their standpoint, between the Republicans and the Democrats. No doubt they would root for the Democrats if they believed a Democratic victory would result in a U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East. But this is far from certain, as we must assume the terrorists realize, so there is probably little temptation for them to try to play intramural American politics. Continued terrorist attacks on the Great Satan, without regard to its internal differences, may well seem the best course.
We would do well, therefore, to prepare for the possibility of further terrorist attacks on the United States this year, without regard to the political calendar. Certainly the American government will maintain its vigilance -- and we should not forget the absence of any major attack on this country since September 2001, for which our current defensive measures probably deserve considerable credit.
But living in the 21st century isn't going to be a bed of roses. As Trotsky said of the 20th, you have picked the wrong century to be living in.