We all want what’s best (for ourselves)

We’re about eight months from electing a president, and between now and then, we’ll all be subjected to dozens of polls. In most, the results will shift, willy-nilly, five to 10 points in one direction or another.

So here’s my question:

Who are those people who keep changing their minds?

By this time, you probably have a good idea for whom you’ll vote. You may mourn the departure of Mitt Romney or John Edwards, but nobody’s thinking, “Well, now that Fred Thompson’s gone, I just can’t decide whether I like the liberal black guy or the commie ex-First Lady.”

I may be an extreme example, because my tolerance for the modern brand of conservatives has eroded to zero. Still, I can’t imagine a scenario under which I’d vote for John McCain. I have doubts about Clinton, and I’m still trying to figure out whether Barack Obama is the second coming of John Kennedy or just another LBJ, but I’ll take either over the continuation of Bushian policies McCain offers.

I mention that not to sway anyone’s vote, but to make a point: By this time, nobody who’s paying attention can be undecided. Ads like Hillary’s cheesy but effective 3 a.m. phone call spot should have no impact. We’ve seen what there is to see, and it’s unlikely anything will change. McCain isn’t suddenly going to admit Iraq was a bad idea from the jump, and Clinton won’t announce that, whoops, we actually can’t afford universal health care. The candidates are what they are.

So who are those people still changing their minds? After all this time and all these hundreds of millions of dollars, who’s moving that needle?

More to the point, can these Cops watchers and People Magazine readers be trusted to help the rest of us elect a president? Maybe their attention spans are too short for that.

I remember a poll during the Clinton presidency, taken after Chelsea was photographed playing Frisbee in a halter-top. It was a modest enough outfit, something I wouldn’t have minded my daughter wearing to a family picnic, but— well, Middle America, you know? There was a minor stir over the first daughter showing so much skin. Clinton’s rating that week dropped almost five points, and polltakers said there was no obvious reason beyond that photograph. (Six years later, the Bush twins would flaunt their low-rent Paris Hilton act almost unnoticed by the same people who’d bashed Chelsea, but that was different. I don’t know how, exactly, but apparently it must have been.)

The election of a president clearly is a matter of enormous importance. (Parenthetical thought, as you can tell from the parentheses: I have a little internal trouble reconciling that statement with the fact that for seven years, George W. Bush has held the job.) It should be decided not on a whim and not on a single issue, even one as grandiose but nebulous as “character” or “preserving America’s honor.” (Parenthetical thought No. 2: Our national honor and $3.50 will get you a latte at Starbucks, and every major elected official I can think of who’s campaigned on character in recent years has turned out to be a slimeball. The phrase “doth protest too much” comes inevitably to mind.)

It’s fashionable to say, “We all want what’s best for the country,” but I think that gives us too much credit. Mostly, we want what’s best for ourselves, and mostly we define that narrowly. If you haven’t figured even that out, do us a favor: Either start paying attention or plan to stay home in November.