In presidential politics, the October Surprise is supposed to be a curveball you throw at your opposition, something that might sway wavering voters who do not have time before Election Day to recognize that they are being manipulated or hoodwinked.
Richard Nixon’s “peace is at hand” declaration on Oct. 26, 1972, prematurely announcing the impending end of fighting in Vietnam, gave rise to the term. In 1980, pundits speculated that President Jimmy Carter would order a second attempt to rescue the 53 hostages who had been taken prisoner at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran a year earlier; such a move would have erased both the hostage crisis and the stain of an earlier aborted recovery effort that killed eight servicemen. No second rescue materialized. Carter supporters later accused Ronald Reagan’s backers of encouraging the Iranians to keep the hostages until after the election (which the Iranians did), a sort of October Surprise in reverse.
Just a few days before the tightly contested 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, a television station in Portland, Maine, broke the story - eventually traced to a local lawyer who had been a delegate at the Democratic National Convention - that Bush was arrested for driving under the influence in Maine in 1976. Bush immediately acknowledged the facts, and the electorate yawned.
We might see an October surprise this year, but it promises to be a different kind: a surprise that neither candidate can initiate or control.
The economy was the planned script for this election. Mitt Romney was going to hammer President Obama on his failure to produce enough of a rebound from the recession to get Americans back to work. Romney would also attack the incumbent’s perceived vulnerability on other issues that make voters anxious, such as the nation’s $1 trillion annual budget gap, its accumulated $16 trillion debt, the approaching implementation of Obamacare and the financial future of Medicare and Social Security.
Obama was going to respond by attacking Romney’s character and credentials, by playing up his opponent’s wealth and alleged unfamiliarity with middle-class concerns, and by arguing that the economy is actually doing much better than Romney claims. His camp would also demonstrate that Obama’s White House produces some pretty good microbrews, which would probably disappear if the teetotaling Romney moved in.
Foreign policy was not supposed to be a major factor in this election cycle. The rest of the world, however, seems disinclined to follow the script.
The death of four Americans, including our ambassador to Libya, in Benghazi this week would ordinarily be bad news for an incumbent president. So would the images of young radicals scaling our embassy walls in Egypt and attempting to do the same in Yemen. It is much too reminiscent of the Carter years for Obama’s political comfort.
Romney misfired in his first response to the affair, however, by criticizing the administration not for what it did or did not do - fair game when American diplomats are again threatened, captured or harmed by mobs - but for what it said and when it said it. The problem is not, as Romney implied, that our president apologizes when a few misanthropic Americans produce literature that is deliberately and grossly offensive. The problem is that this administration shrinks from drawing a firm line against anything or anyone not named bin Laden or al-Qaida.
Which is why, to the extent we can try to guess where this year’s surprise might come from, the most obvious and most worrisome candidates are Israel and Iran.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes Iran is committed to obtaining nuclear weapons; that it would not hesitate to use them to kill millions of Israelis in the event of a future conflict; and that before long the Iranian program will be too far advanced and too well-defended for Israel to stop militarily. From Netanyahu’s perspective, the situation demands a pre-emptive strike, even if it might shut down vital oil lanes and plunge the region into a wider war. Israel, at least, would be likely to survive war with a non-nuclear Iran.
Israel can wait longer before launching a strike if it knows the United States, with more military heft to throw against Iranian defenses, would be certain to join it. So Netanyahu has been pressing the Obama administration to specifically identify the point at which it will resort to force if Iran does not limit its nuclear program.
But the administration has refused. Most recently, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Bloomberg last week that the United States is “not setting deadlines” for Iran. This triggered a diplomatic spat between Washington and Jerusalem that was not visibly calmed by an hour-long phone call between Obama and Netanyahu this week.
So there is a chance - not a likelihood, but a chance - of either an Israeli pre-emptive strike or an Iranian pre-pre-emptive strike (most likely through Iran’s proxy, Lebanon-based Hezbollah) before the election. How this might affect voting is anybody’s guess. But it is worth remembering that Jews are a large, though not monolithic, Democratic Party constituency, that Romney has supported Israel unequivocally, and that most American Jews have at least one Israeli relative.
It is not, and never has been, in America’s national interest to defend Israel right or wrong. It is unreasonable for Israel to expect unconditional U.S. support for an occupation of captured Arab lands that has extended 45 years since the Six-Day War. There is ample blame for both sides, but Israel has missed many opportunities to forge a more workable future with Palestinians and thus deprive Iran, whose support for Palestinian Arabs is mere window-dressing, of its favorite excuse for aggression.
Obama should have made clear to Israel long ago that the price for an American red line against Iran would be a genuine Israeli effort to restore enough land and autonomy to Palestinians to create lasting peace.
Israel might have taken such a deal if it had been offered. It might not have. Instead, we are watching Iran and Israel gradually conclude that they are being backed into corners from which they see no way out except through force.
It should come as no surprise if one of them decides to strike the first blow. Yet if that blow comes in the next few weeks, it will surely be this election’s October Surprise.