As spring gives way to summer and the long campaign wends its way toward the presidential Arm?ageddon of 2008, a sense of weariness (and wariness) has settled over the American electorate. We're in the political doldrums, stuck in a Sargasso Sea of shallow rhetoric, media hype and consultant spin. It's all supposed to produce a worthy successor to the incumbent lame duck quacking defiantly from his pond on Pennsylvania Avenue. Perhaps it will, but it's hard to visualize a happy ending through the current murk.
Part of the difficulty lies with the two major parties. At the moment, we don't so much have a vibrant two-party system as a dysfunctional one-party system, with contending factions equally beholden to the same interests. This was supposed to be the year of the resurgent Democrats, elected in 2006 to reverse the course of government policy on a whole range of issues, starting with the war in Iraq. So far, however, they're unwilling or unable to carry out their mandate with anything like the necessary commitment.
To be sure, Democrats have tried halfheartedly to slow funding for the war, but they're plainly reluctant to throw their bodies on the gears of the war-making machinery; symbolic opposition is deemed sufficient by the congressional majority party to see it through the next election. More to the point, a large segment of the Democratic leadership is in fundamental agreement with the underlying foreign-policy objectives of the Republicans. This was shown by the eagerness with which it embraced the Iraq Study Group Report, which is essentially a moderate-Republican document.
Tony Smith, writing in the Washington Post this past March, outlined the extent to which the Democrats' "neoliberal" shadow foreign-policy establishment closely mirrors the attitudes of the ruling GOP "neoconservative" policymakers. Smith, a Tufts University professor, convincingly defines the consensus Democratic approach to the world as a vision of Pax Americana based on global supremacy, a muscular foreign policy, and a predisposition to use force to promote "market democracy" and advance US interests; it rejects the tactics used in Iraq, but not the invasion itself, and it upholds the notion of US domination of the Middle East -- preferably by more subtle and intelligent means than the Bush neocons have used.
Prominent in advancing this Republican-lite foreign policy, argues Professor Smith, is the entire centrist wing of the Democratic party, which dominates intra-party discussions because a progressive alternative world view has not been articulated. That failure means a Democratic successor to George W. Bush, especially if it's Hillary Clinton, will basically offer a less bellicose continuation of Bush policies under another name.
A similar coalescing of Democratic and Republican policy positions has taken place on the issue of trade. Clearly, Democratic leaders did not absorb the message on economic globalization sent by the voters in November 2006. That communiqué was carried by a number of the party's new senators and representative elected to oppose corporate-led trade liberalization, whose voices have been muffled by a tone-deaf congressional leadership that has been in Washington too long.
The bipartisan compromise negotiated behind closed doors between White House officials and House Speaker Pelosi (with the assistance of House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel) is an attempt to institutionalize free trade by exchanging unenforceable labor and environmental standards for fast-track trade authority and continued approval of job-killing commercial pacts based on the NAFTA model, especially with the Hispanic nations of the Western Hemisphere. Corporate America is pleased, but the Democratic rank and file are justifiably disillusioned.
Since Congress quite obviously can't get out of its own way, anyone seeking real change must look to the 2008 presidential candidates for hope and inspiration. So far, the field as a whole is falling short. Considerable blame can be placed on the selection process, which up to now has consisted of "the money primary," the biased handicapping of the mainstream media, and a ridiculous schedule of endless superficial debates.
The money primary -- who gathers in the most campaign cash for each successive three-month period -- has been arbitrarily selected by the punditocracy as the first test. This not only gives a leg up to establishment candidates with big Rolodexes and drawers full of IOUs, it also eliminates lower-tier candidates who have not spent their lives courting the Big Money. Anyone accumulating less than $10 million per quarter, goes the conventional wisdom, is not a serious contender. As for those at the top, they can't risk a serious examination of controversial issues without jeopardizing their winnings. Cautious and careful carries the day. Pandering doesn't hurt either.
Enter the media, who, in a contest between risk-averse candidates, are taking it upon themselves to set the terms of the discussion and further winnow the field. Unfortunately, the media have a limited outlook and attention span; their ruling principle is that we are engaged in a human horse race measured by snap public-opinion polls. What's more, they can only accommodate an abbreviated number of candidacies. Two in each party seems to be the rule: the black guy versus the woman (Obama against Clinton) on the Democratic side, the tough guy versus the maverick (Giuliani against McCain) among the Republicans. Those are the story lines the media want to pursue; the other aspirants can go home.
So the potential voter in search of the best candidate is left with only the third leg of a very wobbly stool: the debates. Maybe they will provide the answer, but don't hold your breath. Modern "debates" (actually, the serial presentation of talking points) are probably the worst possible way to choose a president. Whether it's Republicans lamely holding forth on evolution or Democrats swearing piously to their religious faith, the debates amount to an exercise in silliness. They have little to do with governance and everything to do with "gotcha." They measure quick reaction times and bumpersticker responses, not thoughtfulness or reasoning ability.
Some candidates have a personal style adapted to this format, others don't. Regardless, the public, conditioned by the media, eagerly awaits the "You're no Jack Kennedy" moment, as if it means something. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, the iconic fathers of the American campaign debate, would not thrive in such a setting; Wolf Blitzer wouldn't give them time to finish their answers. There must be a better way. Maybe mud wrestling.
Wayne O'Leary lives in Orono, Maine.
From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2007
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