Saturday, March 29, 2008

It's Silly Season!

Campaigns ought to end the way trials do: as soon as the prosecution and defense rest, we hand the whole thing over to the jury, regardless of whether two, twenty, or two hundred days have passed. At some point, candidates should simply admit that they've run out of arguments and then immediately let the voters decide. Instead, we must wait for some arbitrary date on the calendar before we pass out the ballots, and politicians, like local anchors on a slow news day, must find some way to fill the allotted time.

As a result, every highly publicized campaign eventually reaches Silly Season, that moment after all plausible arguments have been made and all serious charges have been leveled. Unfortunately, presidential primaries bring out the worst in politicians because the actual policy differences between them are usually so slight. Our electoral system almost guarantees truly distinctive characters—Dennis Kucinich, say, or Ron Paul—an early appointment with oblivion, leaving us with choices between people like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, whose real differences are difficult to identify.

Seriously: name any issue in the current Democratic contest and describe in ten words or less how Clinton's views differ from those of Obama. You probably can't do it, at least not in ten words. You would need entire paragraphs to sort out what Al Haig used to call nuance-al distinctions between these two mainstream liberals. They're both pro choice and anti-war. They favor a similarly timid approach to reforming health care, they each want to cut taxes for the middle class, and neither one is willing to take sides in the immigration debate, except to suggest that we must simultaneously close our borders, step up enforcement, and help those who are here illegally to obtain citizenship, so long as they pay a gratuitous fine and write "I will not sneak into your country" 500 times on a blackboard (haven't these people heard of Power Point?).

Given few policy differences to work with, the campaigns quickly moved into a discussion of two factors that bear at least some relationship to voters' choices: experience and electability. Hillary Clinton claimed that eight years as her husband's consigliore qualify her to inherit the family franchise. Barack Obama responded that only he can inspire and mobilize enough new voters to secure a solid victory over the Republicans in November. Clinton defended her high negatives and suggested that her opponent was unseasoned. Obama repeatedly hammered his colleague for her vote authorizing President Bush's war with Iraq. Obama pledged to change things; Clinton promised to change things back.

All of these are reasonable bases for decision making, though they do force voters to speculate over issues about which they have little expertise. Other than actually being president, what truly prepares a person to sit in the Oval Office? Hell if I know. Without knowing what will happen between now and September, how can we really tell which contender has the better chance of beating John McCain in the general election? The last time Democrats worried about electability, they saddled themselves with John Kerry. The last time the country decided that executive experience was a singular qualification for the presidency, they sort-of elected George W. Bush.

Regardless, the debates between Clinton and Obama on the issues of qualifications and viability were played out weeks ago. By now, we all know that Barack Obama went into the United States Senate directly from junior high school and that Hillary Clinton has spoken with every significant foreign leader since Archduke Ferdinand. We are painfully aware that Senator Clinton's negative ratings stand at 102% (deep down, she even hates herself), and that Senator Obama will not only bring a generation of nipple-pierced slackers to polls, his charisma and eloquence will even raise the dead from their graves to support the Democratic ticket in 2008 (the man does hail from Chicago, after all). Clinton is more experienced and Obama is more electable; we get it.

This would, therefore, be an excellent time to take this case to the jury. But that's not the way our system works. Instead, we still must hear from Pennsylvania, Oregon, and about ten other states that couldn't rouse their legislators to move their primaries to Super Tuesday along with everyone else. To make matters worse, the Democratic race is—despite what Obama's supporters desperately want you to believe—a virtual tie. Obama's delegate lead gives him a strong edge, of course, but a Clinton sweep of most or all of the remaining races would make it hard to deny her the nomination without hanging a big sign on the front gate of the White House reading, "No Girlz Allowed". Obamamaniacs may bemoan the power of the Super Delegates, but their candidate, as well as Clinton, will nevertheless need some of their Super Votes in order to leave Denver as the Democratic standard bearer.

So we continue to continue, forcing us into an extended version of Silly Season. Issues recede, and minutia presides. Clinton works to remind voters that while she's sure her opponent loves his country at least as much as—oh, say—Jane Fonda, his former pastor said some rather incendiary things that now make Obama radioactive. The Obama campaign pounces on a trivial Clinton exaggeration about taking sniper fire in Bosnia and blows it up into the biggest political lie since Dick Nixon was reunited with Checkers. Serious pundits talk grimly of how all of these monumental gaffes threaten the Democrats' chances of beating a man who can't even distinguish between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims, a far more serious lapse than Hillary's Tales from the Combat Zone.

It will not get better any time soon. Thanks indirectly to Margaret Soltan (a link that led to a link), I found this "record of exaggerations and misstatements" by Barack Obama on Apparently, according to his rival, Senator Obama once claimed to have "put Illinois on a path to universal [health] coverage" when in fact he had only sponsored a bill to create a task force! Quite damaging, though I suppose, to borrow from Hillary's husband, it depends on what your definition of "path" is. Technically, when you merge onto the San Bernardino Freeway in Los Angeles, you have put your car on a path to New Orleans, that path being Interstate 10. So Obama wasn't necessarily lying, even if it's likely that his scheme to insure all Illinoisans will break down, as I once did, somewhere outside Lordsburg, New Mexico. (Oh, calm down. Unlike President Bush, I only torture analogies.)

Another charge hurled by the Clinton campaign involves Obama's use of the title "law professor" when he is, in fact, only a Senior Lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School. Says the website: "In academia, there is a vast difference between the two titles. Details matter. In academia, there's a significant difference: professors have tenure while lecturers do not."

Well, actually in academia, there are three levels of professors, only two of which usually enjoy tenure, but why get bogged down in details that don't, uh, matter. Besides, in academia, grownups with Ph.D.s routinely complain because their colleagues were given slightly bigger offices, so perhaps we're not the best group to use when making a point. In any event, the U of C now says that Obama is within his rights to call himself a professor, since all instructors are addressed as Professor even when they're not professors. Or something like that.

Finally, and this is my personal favorite, the Clinton campaign catches Senator Obama lying about his own conception. Evidently, Obama once told an audience that his parents were able to unite only as a result of Dr. King's march from Selma to Montgomery, which, it turns out, occurred several years after the senator's birth. If a man cannot speak truthfully about his own fetus-hood, how can we possibly trust him with THE BUTTON. (Hillary's disadvantage here is that we have video directly contradicting her story of sniper fire in Bosnia; we do not, Praise the Lord, have film of Barack Obama's conception.)

So I guess I really have no bigger point to make today. Just that it's Silly Season. We'll be over it soon, and all the cable TV gasbags can stop wringing their hands. It happens every four years. It's really no big deal.

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