Hard-core Democrats and hard-core Republicans should both face a tough truth: Both sides have been largely wrong about the presidential race all year.
Democrats have wishfully seized on every GOP circus-like moment — from Donald Trump to Todd Akin — in the hope that Republicans will seem so out of the mainstream that even a bad economy wouldn't keep Barack Obama from re-election.
And Republicans, if they are being honest, have secretly (and sometimes not-so-secretly) felt that Mitt Romney just doesn't have what it takes to win in November. There's the "too stiff" caucus, the "too rich" group, the "too craven" contingent.
And yet here we are, in the last of August and the first of September, and Romney is tied, if not a tiny bit ahead, in national polls. Despite his own weaknesses as a candidate and a wretched run for the Republican brand — a historical slide that began with the collapse of the Gingrich revolution in the late 1990s that accelerated with the wild spending spree of the George W. Bush years — Romney has a real chance to become the 45th president of the United States.
He has a moment to seize, and he has to do what he appears to dislike most — take a risk — in order to seize it. His place in the polls at the moment can be largely chalked up to external forces — chiefly, of course, the virtually nonexistent recovery and the uncertainty the business community feels over taxes and regulation under Obama.
The past tells us that externalities can put you in the game, but it takes a real leader to cross the goal line. In 1980, the weak economy and sense of national drift gave Ronald Reagan an opening, but he was even with President Carter or trailing through much of the fall. It was only in the last week of the campaign, in the Cleveland debate, that Reagan showed America (and the world) his special gift of speaking with conviction and charm that led voters to bury Carter in a landslide. Reagan had a moment to seize, and he seized it.
Eight years later, Michael Dukakis came out of the Atlanta convention with a huge lead. Sure, his miscues — the helmet in the tank and all of that — gave George H.W. Bush an opening, but Bush grabbed it with a powerful convention speech that showed Americans a steel and a passion for service that resonated. Bush had a moment to seize, and he seized it.
Now it's Romney's turn. It could be a speech or a moment on the trail or, most likely, a cumulative impression left in the debates. Romney's been given a great gift, something few men in American history have ever had: a real shot at the presidency. To close the deal he's going to have to convince Americans that he's not just a manager or a reassuring presence, but that he's got the wherewithal to make tough fiscal choices before the American Dream sustains irrevocable damage.
It's your moment, Mitt. Make the most of it. We're here and we're listening.
A guest columnist for POLITICO, Joe Scarborough hosts "Morning Joe" on MSNBC and represented Florida's 1st Congressional District in the House of Representatives from 1995 to 2001.
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