Is there any evidence to doubt that electoral races are more about the cult of personality that surrounds each candidate than the substance of their policy proposals? Jack Kennedy looked good because Nixon came off as something caught between an out-of-work vice principal on a bender and a panhandling hobo with an organ grinder and tiny monkey clapping cymbals. Reagan looked great because he was the Marlboro Man who radiated Norman Rockwell nostalgia together with a Californian confidence and can-do attitude all avuncular smiles, while Jimmy Carter’s worried face and baggy eyes were the caricatured lampoon of spineless, ineffectual Democrat. “Dubya” masqueraded as the guy you’d get a beer with, while Gore was an unblinking robot with as much charisma as the Sears Roebuck wooden crate he came shipped in. And Obama against McCain, good lord! It was like Magic Johnson and Bruce Springsteen rolled up in one going against Archie and Edith Bunker behind the piano caterwauling “Those Were the Days.”
It’s kind of funny, in a purely poli-sci/sociological way (in real life it’s terrifying and frustrating as hell), how in matters of actual policy and platform we’re more concerned on the local level, when the office is state politics or city council, school or county board, even alderman, than we are on the national scene. Perhaps this is how it should be, as those candidates are closer to home, more accessible and less abstract. They’re still people doing everyday things, people you’d run into buying groceries – people you really would get a beer with at the neighborhood bar. This is not to say that the actual litany of ideas each candidate campaigns on is irrelevant. It does matter, of course. Ultimately though, all that is ancillary.
To take just one example, who really would vote for Herman Cain because they’re wooed and wowed by his 9-9-9 plan? It has nothing going for it than pure gimmick; no reputable economist recognizes the proposal as fiscally sound, because it’s plain and simple screw the poor and middle class, and high fives for the rich. No, people like him, Herman Cain – whoever he truly is – and treat his tax plan like you would a pet ferret which at first glance looks cute because it’s new and different, zippy and zany (til it scratches and bites you and pees down your neck).
That political campaigns are choosing the lesser of two evils has become so commonplace a practice as to be cliché. Not without commented regret, I often (but not always) find myself voting for someone in a general election not because I really like them, but because I really don’t like their opponent. But whereas general elections are typically black-and-white dichotomies, the primaries remain more colorful. In a primary you can still indulge in the delusion that a candidate is courting you personally; like dolled up belles at a costume ball, all the caucus reserves the right to be swooned by the outdated dalliances of democracy decked out by the etiquette and niceties, the cordials and cards, of antebellum gentleman callers; our honor is on the line, and if the candidate-suitor wants our vote, we demand to be treated right and shown a fine time, otherwise there are plenty other eligible bachelors knocking at the door… All this is old news once the primary is over and the general election a distant day in November that comes closer with each passing week. If your guy who asked you to dance advanced past the elimination round of the primaries in this veritable “American idol,” then you are in it til death do you part. And even if the primary season was the winter of your discontent and your guy sent to the scrap heap of long-forgotten names and campaigns, his rival and victor still is better than the opponent – the enemy-nemesis, the them to our us; so you pledge your fidelity more or less begrudgingly, ‘cause anybody is better than another four more years of him (or another one of them) in the oval office. And so a primary is still like voting for class president in high school, whereas the general election is more like the nerds vs. the jocks; it’s more ideologically worldview.
This might explain why a candidate can screw up royally, literally make a national spectacle of him- or herself, and still stand a perfectly viable chance of winning the nomination. As long as you don’t knock religion, you can pretty much say anything no matter how stupid, trivial, or plain untrue it is – or better yet, not say anything because you can’t remember whatever it is you’re supposed to feel passionately about – and it really won’t matter. The worst gaffe is but a temporary inconvenience, not an outright debacle, causing the campaign to back-pedal and at best eat a small plate of crow. Moreover, anyone who dares to ask the candidate about this or that faux pas will be accused of focusing on the past and not forward-looking, or part of some conspiracy against the campaign itself.
What are, after all, the qualifications to run for the highest office in the land (and arguably the most powerful position on planet Earth)? What’s that – did you say money? Because I’m pretty sure it’s money. Here in Wisconsin, a know-nothing nobody named Ron Johnson ousted the venerable Russ Feingold in the 2010 election for the office of U.S. Senate, a much-coveted position over which only two people from each state preside. What was his political background? Nothing. He made his millions in plastics – plastics! – and for this he gets a seat at the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Make sense to you?
Or take Herman Cain. What are his qualifications? He was the godfather of Godfather’s Pizza. In other words, another businessman. (For more on the relationship between business and running for public office, kindly see here.) Before Cain held the pizza reins, the Pillsbury Doughboy did, but in time the latter bought the franchise from the former.
But you know what’s even funnier than a masochistic asexual figurine made out of dough that giggles when poked? Free market capitalism using black market mob motifs to sell fast food to middle class Americans.
Whatever. To my dying day I maintain that there is no stupider ad campaign than Fruit of the Loom. Seriously – you’re gonna sell men’s underwear by dressing up adult males in preposterous fruit costumes? Fruits and briefs? I digress, I know – but come on, man!
Anyway, as far as throwing moolah around to buy ad time and hire staff goes, it’s nothing without one other key ingredient: ego. Indeed, money and ego are the twin engines to run for public office. (Though, really, it’s mostly money.) It should go without saying that, no matter how impeccable one’s intentions, you have to be pretty crazy to run for president of the United States. Crazy like DSM-IV personality disorder complex Axis II with delusions of grandiosity and egomania. The attraction to power notwithstanding, who’d actually want this job – especially if you’re not already in politics? The responsibility alone is ludicrous. And the scrutiny – the vetting especially should you advance to Tier 1 status during the primaries…I’m just saying I know I wouldn’t pass that litmus test (figuratively or literally). Sorry mom.
For all her tea party fervor and patriotic patois, Michele Bachman didn’t even know what state the battles at Concord and Lexington were fought in during the Revolutionary War. Whether it’s her preposterous assertion that the HPV vaccine for girls causes mental retardation or her parochial pabulum that some cultures are simply better than others, Bachman is to politics what quacks are to medicine; and if you are what you speak, she is a fraud. Look, Bachman is wholly unworthy of even the shortest length of time it takes between two points to point that out. What’s fascinating and frightening is the amount of press her candidacy has been given by the mainstream media.
Or there’s Rick Santorum. He lost his last election – tantamount to being fired from your job – but no matter; he’ll run instead for the next best gig: president of the United States of America. The man’s chutzpah is admirable. But it does trouble me that the man has built his political career around his obsession with gay men. After all, Santorum is the guy who infamously equated homoeroticism with bestiality – that there’s a slippery slope between allowing two dudes to marry, after which insatiable success at least one of those salacious dudes will be getting it on with their Bichon Frise. And surely the allure of man-on-dog action would spread to straight guys, too – just as pointing out that Elton John was the composer for The Lion King would entice boys to be gay, too. (To be “fair,” this was a Bachman claim.) Hmm… If the only thing preventing straight men from having sex with dogs is preventing gay men from marrying one another, then social conservatives have got a lot more to be worried about. And I personally would be worried about anyone who didn’t get goose bumps over “Rocketman” or “Tiny Dancer.” “The Bitch Is Back” and “Saturday Night’s Alright” – are you kidding me?!? If anything, listening to Elton John makes me wish I were gay.)
Who’s next – Rick Perry? Like we need another Republican governor from Texas. That alone should end the argument. Or that within minutes of his campaign finally becoming official he already found himself in hot water by alluding to Ben Bernanke being done “pretty ugly” by some lone star good ole boys if the Chairman of the Federal Reserve dared print more money between then (August 2011) and the election (November 2012), an act Perry audaciously rendered as “almost treasonous.” (You know, treason – the one and only crime mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, the punishment of which is nothing short of death.) Or his more recent momentary amnesia when during a televised debate he could not recall one of the three departments of the federal government he’d like to eliminate.
This is a man I would have no more confidence in feeding my cats while I went away for a week than connecting the right cables to jump start his mother’s car stranded in a lonely trucker’s wayside.
The last Texan governor we had for president couldn’t even pronounce the word “nuclear.” The current governor of Texas vying to be the next president can’t even remember the word “energy.” I’m fairly sure neither could spell “Fukushima.”
Speaking of foreign policy and memory lapses, there’s the incredible and just about incredulous gaffe by Herman Cain last week wherein his stumped silence over a pretty simple question concerning Obama’s handling of Libya was the kind you could drive a truck through – like one of those CAUTION: WIDE LOADS trucks carrying a whole house on it – an unbearably long, awkward, telling silence.
To say nothing of his 9-9-9 tax plan twaddle, the discombobulated incompetence of his campaign’s handling of the spate or sexual harassment allegations of late, or that his campaign may have received illegal funds from a tax-exempt charity started by his own Chief of Staff, Mark Block — the same Mark Block who paid $15,000 to the Wisconsin Elections Board for campaign financing violations in a state supreme court race in 1997 and was subsequently banned from working on any campaigns til 2004. (That’s the man you want running your campaign?
This guy? That smile? Are you kidding me? Is this all a joke? Saturday Night Live could not do a better spoof. This ad is spectacularly appalling.) In spite of these imbroglios, Herman Cain remains a frontrunner for the candidacy! Where else but in politics could this happen?
I’m not often in the habit of quoting Peggy Noonan, conservative columnist for the Wall Street Journal, but she analyzed Cain’s contretemps with exquisite precision: “Mr. Cain’s famous version of the brain freeze this week wasn’t really that, a brain freeze. It was more like a public service. Because he was showing us a candidate for the presidency of the United States desperately trying to retrieve a soundbite and not even trying to hide the fact that he was trying to retrieve a soundbite. Because we’re kind of all in on the game, and it is a game, right?” She goes on to point out, “To know little and to be proud of knowing little is disrespectful of the democratic process, and of the moment we’re in.” (You can read her entire article here.)
Is this a game, is this a joke? It should be, because it’s a farce. And it’s a farce because this whole bread and circus minus the bread is happening in the first place since conservatives have yet to square away with the inevitability of the Republican primary: that the one-time pro choice, lifelong Mormon, and former governor of the state that mandated universal health insurance is going to (probably) be the ticket, that granite-chiseled, lantern-jawed polished politician, Mitt Romney. The dilemma is not difficult to appreciate: if anyone is a grandstanding blowhard who says whatever the wind says to say — and whose mere voice alone just reeks of air-brushed talking points and turn-to-the-camera sales pitch, it’s Mitt.
Me, I’d vote for Huntsman if I were a Republican, but I’m a quixotic sucker for hopeless causes — mostly because they’re the ones worth fighting for.
* * *
Time to tip my hat to two of my favorite writers, cantankerous sages both, David Mamet and H.L. Mencken, respectively:
“We Americans delight in self-deception. We seem, in fact, to insist upon it, in our foreign policy, in our tax code, in our traffic laws, in education, in politics, time and again confusing an advertisement with a promise.”
“A national political campaign is better than the best circus ever heard of, with a mass baptism and a couple of hangings thrown in.”
The campaign trail is essentially a long job interview. In real life, without direct or even commensurate experience I wouldn’t even be given the courtesy of a rejection letter, much less an actual interview. But even if I had – say, if only because I was the only applicant for the job – and I flat out fumbled my answers during my interview in as terribly embarrassing manners as some of these candidates, still I wouldn’t be offered the position, even if no one else had applied. BECAUSE I AM UNQUALIFIED, period.
I don’t care that these people are under inordinate amounts of stress; I have no sympathy for megalomaniacal narcissists suffering from some kind of sycophantic Atlas complex. As naïve as this will sound, I expect anyone running for presidency to be as good as a surgeon taking board exams, a grand master at chess, a record-breaking triathlete. I’m sorry, but anything short of this simply will not do. And for God’s sake, these people are falling – and failing – far, far short of even a passing grade, much less excelling at their trade. Becoming president of the United States should be hard; it should be the hardest damn job there is to have! Is there comfort that, at least hypothetically, anybody could become president? Sure, sort of – insofar as nepotism and monarchy are involved, or insofar as a sun-washed optimism of the common man is concerned. (If Sousa is too trite, cue Copeland’s “Fanfare.”) But when any Tom, Dick, or Harry can run just because they’re as flush with cash as they are full of themselves, then I start feeling a little itchy and fidgety, cringe and try to brace myself for what vanity’s fair of electoral demagoguery democracy has in store this time.
Conservative or progressive, we voters are so rancorous about defeating the other side that what’s actually good for the country (or state) is flippantly dismissed. Better to win with a loser than lose to a better, albeit ideologically different leader. It’s this kind of homecoming histrionics that makes each entrenched voter a basic handmaiden for the Republican and Democratic parties. They pander, we clap. It’s pathetic.
If most of us are guilty of fawning for frauds, of authenticating the come-on of that great con game of political elections — “confusing an advertisement with a promise” — then I am incorrigible for expecting something more, plausibly something better. I am but a young curmudgeon. As such I recognize without yet totally accepting that our national character truly is self-deception, and has been for a long damn time. Acquiescing to cynicism while warding off the cries of nihilistic disengagement, that’s about all the realism I can take. Perhaps the punchline of the joke is when you feel betrayed by your own outrage because it has become both abundant and redundant. What else is there but the laugh — to hell and back.
“The boulevard is not that bad…”