October Surprise. It’s defined by Safire’s Political Dictionary as a “last minute disruption before a November election; unexpected political stunt or revelation that could affect an election’s outcome.”
America was treated to a lame attempt to manufacture just such a stunt last night with the live re-release on Hannity of a speech the president gave in 2007, promoted all day with banners at the Drudge Report and housed on the Daily Caller website.
The speech—originally broadcast on Fox on June 5, 2007—caused a minor stir at the time, commemorated in this column by Roland Martin, but it had largely been forgotten in the wake of two presidential campaigns and almost four years of actions in the White House.
Let’s be honest: It is a naked attempt to reinsert race into the election, trying to stoke the fires too many folks on the far right have been fanning since Obama first ran for president—arguing that he is not a “metrosexual black Abe Lincoln” (in the immortal words of Fred Davis’s emotionally aligned super-PAC pitch to Joe Ricketts) but a Black Panther radical in disguise who secretly hates white people and America (which is why he’s always apologizing for it). The alternative is to “let America be America again”—by any means necessary.
In the prepartisan media days, there were two traditional ways of conjuring up an October surprise.
Campaigns certainly did their bit of dirty tricks, ranging from Nixon supporter Anna Chennault’s 1968 outreach to the North Vietnamese to convince them to back away from peace talks, to the Gore campaign’s preelection weekend leak that George W. Bush had an undisclosed DUI from back in his drinking days.
External events provide the other known unknown—the kind of a foreign or domestic disaster that suddenly refocuses the mind and reframes the debate.
That is the subject of this column. Because while attempts to one-up Mother Jones’s damaging “47 percent” video are preoccupying the right, there are plenty of real-world October surprises potentially looming with a look at the news. Here are five.
What did the White House know and when did they know it about terrorist involvement in the attack on our consulate in Benghazi? That’s the question The Daily Beast’s Eli Lake has been driving in a series of columns that have made it clear the administration wasn’t telling the whole truth in the wake of the 9/11 attacks that killed American Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others. Now it appears that the Republican-led House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will come back from its umpteenth recess for a politically timed hearing into the matter, led by the intensely partisan Congressman Darrell Issa. While those headlines will come at an unwelcome time for the administration, the larger challenge may be against the calendar. With the one-month mark of the attack approaching, Americans will understandably ask the president why the ambassador’s killers have not yet been brought to justice.
The Mideast Tinderbox
Beyond Libya, there is the rest of the region. Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad is still clinging onto power, slaughtering hundreds of citizens a day, mocking the verbal resolve of Western powers including the United States. Iran—one of Syria’s supporters—is still pursuing a nuclear weapon and has received a series of heated warnings from Israel, with the precedent of the Osirak attack on a Saddam-era reactor in its reserves. The timeline for a possible military intervention appears to have been pushed back to next year in the absence of a diplomatic breakthrough, but this region and this issue remains a huge X factor—no one knows the exact events it could unleash or how they might impact the election, but near-term instability would be the only certainty.
Economic implosion sank John McCain’s presidential bid, and four years later the PIGS of Europe are still angry and unstable. In recent days there have been riots in both Spain and Greece. The Aegean cradle of civilization has long been the most likely to default on its EU bailout package, which would cause a panic that would reach across the ocean and impact our economy overnight. “They have a new budget, but it’s pretty ugly—which is why you’re still seeing riots,” explains Newsweek columnist Megan McArdle. “Default is not likely—but at this point it’s a risk that at any month they could decide to get out. If Greece exits, it becomes conceivable that another country exits—and the ripple effect would move quickly.”
Last-minute Super-PAC Impact
This X factor isn’t exactly a secret, but the fact is that we don’t have a precedent for millions of dollars in negative advertising flooding into swing districts during the closing weeks of a campaign. To date, the hundreds of millions of dollars spent have not swung the polls toward Romney in contested states, despite a lopsided financial advantage for conservative super PACs. In addition, early voting dilutes the impact of last-minute attacks. But with little accountability and millions of dollars left in the bank, there is little reason not to get overwhelmingly ugly in the final days of the campaign, lest there be some angry billionaires asking where their money went.
October Jobs Report
This is the one October surprise you can set your clock to. On Friday, Nov. 2, four days before the election, the October jobs report will be released. An upward adjustment of the current 8.1 percent unemployment rate could be devastating for the Obama administration, while a reduction in unemployment would likewise provide a boost. There are signs of recent slowdowns in the jobs market, and a rough report will provide the last psychological imprint on the core issue of this election—the economy—before voters step into the ballot box to cast their vote.
Of course, a real October Surprise is just that—a surprise. It is, to use Donald Rumsfeld’s oddly endearing and enduring phrase, “an unknown unknown.” Terrorism, God forbid, is always one bad day away from being issue No. 1. Natural disasters also can spring upon us without warning. And of course, we still have troops fighting and dying in Afghanistan, amid an increase in green-on-blue attacks while our exit is planned.
Bottom line: There are ugly passions running through the land in these last weeks of the elections, and with the margins still relatively close, any jarring event can impact the outcome. Some will be orchestrated by hyperpartisans, but the real October surprises are likely to come from outside; external events that no one can control.