For the election geeks who are waiting for this year’s campaign October surprise, give it up. Another tradition bites the dust. For those who don’t eat, sleep and breathe politics, first of all, congratulations — and in case you need it, an explanation: The October surprise was the predictable startling development or scandal, timed by one side or the other to explode into public view in the last days before the election. It would dominate the headlines and be all that the voters would be thinking of as they headed to the polls. My friend John Feehery, former press guy for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, knows about such things because he’s a student of politics, heaven help him. He writes in The Christian Science Monitor that both LBJ and Richard Nixon used the last-minute gambit to good effect. Since then, it has become a regular part of the last-minute routine.
Unfortunately, the October surprise may have become obsolete. Surprises just can’t wait anymore. They startle us every day of the year, certainly every month. The ISIL surprise hit about June, give or take. That’s when our intelligence operatives were suddenly amazed that a huge force, thousands of well-equipped and -financed brutal Sunni fanatics, had somehow assembled without raising meaningful alarms and were marauding whomever they wanted in Iraq and Syria, basically uncontested by Iraq government troops, who mostly turned tail and run. Surrrpriiise! Of course, the fecklessness of our allies in Iraq had somehow escaped their attention too.
That was just after Vladimir Putin astonished our befuddled national-security folks with his invasion of Crimea. Oh, the hand-wringing that has caused.
Of course, there are those sudden crises that can’t fairly be blamed on incompetence or someone’s cynical desire to promote a candidate or agenda. Obviously, the Ebola scourge that is still spreading is a case in point. The fact that we aren’t confident in the assurances that it isn’t contagious except by direct contact or that it can be contained here reflects a well-deserved skepticism about our various institutions, public and private, that has infected our society as a whole.
It’s much like the fence jumper who recently got inside the White House and has wreaked havoc with the Secret Service by exposing a lot of dirty laundry about an agency we wanted to believe was solidly heroic but apparently is as bumbling as the rest of us.
What’s really become a surprise is the discovery that someone or other is fulfilling the assignment he or she was paid to do. Even the finest political manipulator couldn’t have arranged for a Hurricane Sandy to spread her destruction in the days before the 2012 election. But it sure affected the results. The impression that the Obama administration was competently doing its job in the days after the storm and the fact that a Republican governor, Chris Christie, was saying so turned Mother Nature’s surprise into a cakewalk at the polls for Mr. Obama over Mitt Romney. On the other side of the ledger, the Bush administration’s economic collapse in 2008 just before the election and the confused reaction to it from GOP candidate John McCain most likely propelled Barack Obama into the White House the first time around.
So, we may be making too much of the contrived October surprise where some oh-so-clever operative creates a sensation that catapults a candidate to Election Day success. Let’s face it: Most of these significant moments simply happen. The guys who pull the strings in the races are just as likely to get tangled up as the rest of us. Any event that suddenly works in their favor is usually news to them. The truth is, there’s probably just one thing that we can believe in, and that’s a healthy disbelief. Which, by now, is no surprise.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.