as these things usually do
an essay exploring the tone of the 2004 american political campaign
AS THESE THINGS USUALLY DO
Summer of 2004 may ultimately be reviewed by political scientist and historians as complicated, somewhat crazed, and comically challenged. It is a time of war with no front. It is a time of sadness and concern for many families. It is a time of warnings about un-attended baggage, and a greasy film of tension covers our new behavior patterns.
It was into this season that the Democrats recently gathered in Boston to lick and heal their wounds of their mutual muggings and gritty exchanges of the winter primary season. Then and there they searched for a nominee based on the "electability" factor, their mantra being "anybody but Bush". Far from the Island's fog horns and crickets, far from the porches where vacationing chldren are hosed of sand, and even further from Falluja, and the be-headings, and Abu Ghraib, this middle and upper-middle class crowd wiggled and winged their way toward the nomination and promotion of their ticket, "homeboy" John Forbes Kerry and John Edwards of North Carolina, posterboy of the 'new south'. There was the standard kind of name calling and fault finding that exist is such a house, but it wasn't as bad as it could have been. They were way too busy creating their own 'guy'.
You see, most of the Kerry camp is on loan. Mary Beth Cahill, his campaign manager, is , in real life, Chief of Staff to the senior Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Steph Cutter, his media flack is a Kennedy staffer. They are Kennedy 'guys'. John Sasso, a senior advisor, is a Dukakis "guy". As is Charlie Baker and Jack Corrigan and a host of other operatives driving the bus. In actuallity, in that sly and slippery world of campaigns and politics, their are no Kerry 'guys'. He's had no use for them. Kerry has never had to 'get down' before. Even in his tough race with former Governor William Weld, he and Weld conducted a rather gentleman's fight. This is different.
When queried on differences between Kerry positions and the party platform, delegates and party regulars grew anxious. Conventions are supposed to be worked up pieces of art. This one, even with its bunting, bobbing placards, and balloons, was awkward. There was Nobel Laureate and former President Jimmy Carter rising and calling for, "the centrality of human rights in our daily lives and global affairs". At other times William Jefferson Clinton appeared tempted to descend from the podium to work the crowd. For a minute, absent from meet-and-greet cliches, Clinton quoted scripture and articulated a policy vision of 'restored' fiscal responsibility, affordable health care, jobs creation, and winning the war against terrorists. Teresa Heinz, spouse of the party's nominee addressed the gathering in five different languages, acknowledging and honoring, "the women of the world, whose wise voices for much too long have been excluded and discounted." And a young, "skinny kid with a funny name", Barack Obama, a United States Senate candidate from Illinois, elaborated an alluring vision of "the true genius of America, a faith in the simple dreams of its people, the insistence on small miracles."
The record of the convention will bear out the history of 2nd hand defense of a candidate. When asked about the passion of the candidate, the commitment of both party and electorate, responses rang hollow. "The passion is in the people", said filmmaker Spike Lee. Yet he didn't hesitate to add, "People are very passionate in their dislike of George Bush." Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr. when asked a similar question responded, "I do not think it's anybody but Bush, I think it's an alternative to Bush." Hardly a ringing endorsement for Mr. Kerry. For the most part, the delegates in their colorful garb would have applauded "Three Blind Mice", as a heart trope. It will take more than that to unseat an incumbent with an established base.
In truth, it is hard to separate the good citizens of the Democrats from their Republican counter parts in their different operations center...they want to win. The fine line of 'how' policy is implemented may well be more significant than 'the' policy itself. Both camps seem to agree on a posture toward Cuba. Both fumble on Africa. And economics, for all of us who struggled through Samuelson, recall it's a science, not an art. The world according to those "regulars" at the Fleet Center, as well as those soon to gather at Madison Square Garden is not necessarily the same of those seeking a deeper probe of policy and posture, not a dreampolitik.
With the arrival of Labor Day, with both conventions behind them, the campaigns will re-invigorate their name calling and personal assaults. Issue-vaporizing will occur and the high minded theories and concepts tabled in the party platforms are likely to sail into the horizon of close-up, macho mauling. This would be unfortunate for the electorate. It would deny the genre the eloquence it deserves, particularly in troubled times.
Recently I had a conversation with legendary newsman Ted Kopple, in which he shared his perspective of politics in the republic following Labor Day in an election year. "You know, both sides bring out their position and their issues and toss them around for a while. Then things change", he said. "I expect it can get awfully nasty, as these things usually do".
Accusations made in the autumn may leave us longing for the spring grass rather than the next election cycle. It may leave some wondering on the feasibility of election by lottery and if it would better suit our higher nature. 100 million eligible American voters did not vote in 2000. Maybe, just maybe, somebody needs to hold on the nasty.
jeffery mcnary is a writer living on martha's vineyard. He is also executive producer of 'Snapshot 2004' a work in process documenting the 2004 election cycle.
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