Grand Old Pessimism: Oh, No! We’re Gonna Win!

Republicans expect things to get worse. Which is why Romney will lose, right?

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illustration by timothy goodman for time

Seventy-two hours after the first presidential debate, in which it’s universally recognized that Mitt Romney cleaned Barack Obama’s clock, I started to panic. The polls began to tighten, battleground states started to seem a lot less battlegroundish, and Republicans allowed themselves to think the unthinkable: We may actually win this thing.

This, of course, isn’t supposed to happen. In debates, Republicans are supposed to fumble around looking uncomfortable and out of touch. We’re supposed to smile awkwardly and get tangled in the rich man’s lingo: capital-gains-tax reductions, carried interest, the problems with the minimum wage, that sort of stuff. For 30 years, Republicans have watched every debate with our hearts in our throats; we’re behind our man all the way, but we always know he’s going to say something weird and off-putting, and we’re going to have to do a lot of damage control afterward.

It’s a new feeling, then, for Republicans to watch a presidential campaign come to a close without that nauseating pool of dread in our stomachs. And it’s a new feeling, at least for some of us, to watch a race that seemed doomed a few months ago—a race, let’s be honest, in which our party nominated a smart and good man but one who is also a zillionaire Mormon former governor of Massachusetts who says things like “Good gracious” when he’s peeved—tighten until it’s not unthinkable that we could, you know, actually win this thing.
These are all new feelings, and Republicans hate new feelings. Giddy optimism, to us, is just a Jedi mind trick. Surging polls? The banana peels we’ll all slip on when Obama ekes out slim but decisive victories in seven states. Obama’s buying ads in Michigan? Another head fake to keep Romneyland off balance. We can’t help but feel energized and excited by Romney’s momentum, but we wouldn’t be Republicans if we didn’t worry, deep down, that we’re being punked.

It’s the chief irony of the GOP that its greatest hero, Ronald Reagan, always looked at the glass as half full, while the keystone principle of conservatives is that things are inexorably getting worse. Reagan managed to thread that particular needle, but for the rest of us, optimism is a lost cause. “Things go bad” is our motto, and the best we can do is to try to beat back the tide. Our leaders will be stilted and clumsy and barely able to slow the drift toward full-on European-style socialism—and that’s the good news. That’s if they actually win an election. What we expect them to do is lose.

That’s certainly where most of us were throughout September, when the Romney operation improvised its way through a series of lackluster weeks—explaining away the famous “47%” video, dispatching the income-tax-return business—and frittered away any possible postconvention momentum. And then suddenly Romney delivered the single best performance by a presidential candidate in a debate in 40 years at the moment his opponent delivered the single worst performance in 40 years. It’s precisely the kind of unexpected high-wire act that drives conservatives batty. We don’t like surprises like that. That sort of thing just inspires hope—and hope, well, that just leads to unrealistic expectations and crushing disappointment. We’re looking at national polls the way Wile E. Coyote looks at an unopened package from the Acme Corp.: This is going to be great!

So why not nip all this “Romney might actually win” stuff in the bud? Which is why, for the past week, most of my Republican friends have been reminding one another that doom really is just around the corner, that the polls are misleading, that Obama’s get-out-the-vote machine is impossible to beat, that the left-wing media will protect their candidate, that the current voter demographics favor the opposition—and no matter what, Do not get optimistic. Do not allow yourself to hope.

“Ohio is neck and neck,” a Republican friend texted me the other day, “and O pulling out of North Carolina.”

It was true, but he nevertheless felt compelled to follow up with this deflationary text: “We’re still prob. gonna lose.”

But what if we don’t? “What haps then?” I texted my friend. The iPhone went silent for a moment. Then it chirped a reply: “That wd be awful! Romney as prez will raise taxes 4 sure. O vs. Rep. Congress won’t b able 2.”

This was a very good—and characteristically Republican—point: things have a way of getting worse, even when they seem like they’re about to get better. Here’s hoping we can cope with our disillusionment when we win.

Long is a contributing editor at National Review and the editor of