the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world
The Hoosierdome, to use its proper name, is a few blocks from where I live, and most of the people I see every day were hoping that the Indianapolis Colts, who play in the dome, would win the recent AFC championship game against the New England Patriots. I am not an enthusiast of North American football, nor is it particularly important to me that the local team win. I could not possibly care less whether the AFC or the NFC wins the National Football League title in the upcoming Super Bowl. The whole thing is a great waste of resources, not to mention human passion.
Considering, along those lines, the current contest for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States, I love politics, but detest the nominating process. I do not have a preferred candidate among Democrats, but I think it vital that the Democrat, whoever he is, defeat George Bush this fall. I do wish that more mental energy in the US went into politics than football, that more people were analyzing and reevaluating the Iowa caucuses than the AFC championship, that more people were concerned about the injustice of the electoral college than about the injustice of the college football championship. We are a sorry folk; but this is the political season, so in that spirit, let us pretend we are talking about some other folk.
I never wanted Howard Dean to win the nomination; my complaints are not grousing over Dean’s loss. But even Kerry supporters must look back on the Iowa caucuses and forward to the New Hampshire primary and admit that this process is ridiculous, especially on the Democratic side. Republicans are easier to understand. They vote Republican for two reasons, on the whole: a desire to use the government to regulate their neighbors’ behavior, and a desire to make their neighbors pay for it. Their nominees are usually anointed. By contrast, only the mythical Omniscience knows what Democrats want, or how they choose among themselves.
Some of what is happening, obviously, is bandwagoning, or ‘momentum’ as it is euphemistically termed. Kerry and Edwards surged in the last week before Iowa because, and mostly only because, they were surging. Gephardt was shunned as a loser in the same way that Kerry, for months, was shunned as a loser. Dean was the primary beneficiary of bandwagoning until Iowa. Now Kerry, who trailed Dean by thirty percent of the vote in New Hampshire polls just weeks ago, leads Dean by ten percent.
Many, especially elected officials who are shamelessly abandoning the Dean bandwagon not long after shamelessly climbing aboard, are attributing their withdrawal of support to the speech Dean gave after his loss in Iowa. One speech? Was it so different from what he has ever done? This is so transparently false that I am reluctant to counter it, but just so that it gets done: these hypocrites are merely hedging for the same job in the Kerry administration that they were hoping for in the Dean administration. They say: I was really turned off by that speech. They mean: I was really turned off by that third-place finish. That at least was predictable.
The big story now is electability, though it is hardly a new story, having been used by party conservatives to take the last three nominations. Two decorated war veterans, Kerry and Wes Clark, are claiming that their knowledge of foreign affairs, and their medals, will neutralize the issue of national security, when it is clear that any voter who believes that George Bush knows anything about foreign affairs is unreachable anyway. Two southerners, John Edwards and Clark again, are claiming that their geographical origin will neutralize the Republicans’ huge advantage in the South, when it is clear that no one even slightly left of center is going to win anything in the Bible Belt. Al Gore could not even carry Tennessee. The argument is pointless.
John Edwards is frequently compared to Jack Kennedy, in that he is young, good-looking, and energetically optimistic. He deserves to be compared with Kennedy in that he is totally unprepared and unqualified. President is not an entry-level position, and Edwards has even less experience than Kennedy. He spent much of his adult life not even voting. He has competed in exactly one election, for his current term in the United States Senate ― which itself should not be an entry-level position. He could have done much good by holding his seat in North Carolina for the Democrats. Instead, he is off on an ego trip, pretending that a career as a trial attorney is sufficient training to administer the executive branch and manage US foreign policy. It would be one thing if he were brilliant, had a wealth of innovative ideas, or had a radically-different conception of what the country should be like. At least then we could suppose that there were no one like him, but with superior experience. He is only smart, not brilliant, innovative, or radical. It is hard to see why we would choose him as leader or administrator over someone of equal talents but far greater experience, and Dick Gephardt was only one of innumerable alternatives.
Wes Clark is running for the Democratic nomination because it is the only one that is open this year. His liberal credentials are non-existent. He simply repeats the positions he has learned by rote, and trusts Democrats to swoon over the prospect of running an actual battlefield commander against Flight W. Suit. Clark’s shtick that he is not a politician was only ever true in the sense that he is not a good politician. He certainly panders like a politician, dodges the truth like a politician, and has limitless ambition and ego like a politician. Unfortunately, he does not have the talents that come from actual political experience. And he began his political career by saying that he’d be proud to be a Democrat ― but only if, presumably, the party would nominate him for president of the United States. Even Pat Buchanan would join the Democratic Party with such an inducement.
Joe Lieberman’s entire campaign is built around electability, which is a complete delusion. He believes himself electable because of his cultural conservatism (which renders him almost unnominable); but he would surely be challenged from the left in a general election, and cannot win the votes of cultural conservatives to compensate, because they are predominantly Christian, and he is a Jew. A Jew like Chuck Schumer, for instance, could win the nomination and the election, under good circumstances. But few voters would elect a pious Jew, either because they are not pious or because they are not Jewish. The promise of Lieberman’s religiosity is predicated on the idea of ‘Judeo-Christianity’, which is usually a Christian term for “Christianity, without the anti-Semitism ― no, seriously”. The thought of pietistic Christians voting for a pietistic Jew is only slightly less ridiculous than of them voting for a pietistic مسلم Muslim, हिन्दू Hindū, or Wiccan, as if all religions were interchangeable to the hyperreligious, when it is they, of course, who are most particular.
John Kerry, golden boy of electability for the moment, has not really improved significantly over the plodding Dukakis understudy he once was. I admit to being baffled by the sudden turnaround in his fortunes. I am, though, greatly disturbed by the pundit-popular theory that he is being rewarded for his tax message, which is roughly: “George Bush created huge deficits by lowering taxes for you and for other people, and I’ll solve the problem by raising taxes just on other people, not you.” I appreciate a good slam-the-rich strategy as much as anyone, but I cannot believe that anyone would fall for it. No, wait, I can.
The electability argument is targeted, we must assume, not so much at Al Sharpton or Dennis Kucinich, whose electability speaks for itself, but rather at Howard Dean. Dean, to be sure, is volatile and mercurial, and raises questions about his ability to perform calmly and rationally in times of pressure and crisis. But that is an argument about who would be the best governor, not the best candidate. To assume that Dean, who is interesting, compelling, combative, and engenders true belief in listeners, is less electable than a dull, conventional, packaged candidate who might actually be a better choice in the end, is to demonstrate an unwarranted faith in the judgement of the voters.
The influence that Iowa and New Hampshire voters have over the nominations of their parties is insane, as even voters in Iowa and New Hampshire know. The arguments they make in favor of their power, arguments echoed by every politician who wants to run for president or wants to be associated with one who does (which is to say, every politician), are hollow and silly. The real reason for these voters’ precedence is that no one can afford to cross them. If they are not appeased every four years with months and months of hand-holding and disproportionate pork, they will become petulant and end some politician’s career. The idea is that this kind of “retail” democracy is good for the country, that the rest of us benefit by having Iowa and New Hampshire vet our presidential candidates in exchange for special consideration of these voters’ interests. But after Monday, it should be apparent that our ethanol subsidies are not being well spent.
After well more than a year of examination, Iowa waited to the last minute and changed its mind with head-spinning drama. New Hampshire quickly followed, raising the question of whether it ever knew its own mind to begin with. By Tuesday, it may well change its mind again. An open mind is good. But such a sudden, massive shift of public opinion is not open-minded; it is fickle. The people of these small, undistinguished provinces have appointed themselves as a search committee for the most important job in the world. After months of recommending one candidate, they have spastically decided to recommend another, who turns out to be the previous favorite. They no longer support Howard Dean. They now support John Kerry, and this time, they insist, they mean it. And they are also, no doubt, in full support of New England’s football team ― so long as it keeps winning. But they are fair-weather fans; they are sunshine Patriots. Politics of this kind may be good spectator sport, but it is not good governance, and if we continue to be led by its practitioners, then we, too, do not know what the hell we are doing.
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