I admit it. I was wrong. I don’t like it. I don’t like this whole mess one bit. This presidential campaign has already disappointed me. A lot.
Last time I addressed the presidential nomination process, I called it “exhilarating.” And though I did hesitate to use the word at the time, I decided it was good enough. Now I’m certain that was never the right word for this process. I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that when I wrote “exhilarating,” the “conventional wisdom” stated firmly that Barack Obama and John McCain were going to win their respective nominating contests. And at the time, the two men were both saying the right things.
Fast forward two weeks. We have continuous semantic sparring between Mr. Obama and Mr. and Mrs. Clinton about truly petty concerns, perhaps most notable is Mr. Obama’s unimpeachable statement that Mr. Reagan changed the country. The discussion is nearly as far divorced from the candidate’s real words as the earlier confrontation about what Mrs. Clinton had to say about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lydon Johnson.
Both of these disputes are purely superficial. It’s true that the Civil Rights Act couldn’t have passed without hard work by white politician like Mr. Johnson. It’s also true that Mr. Reagan’s vision inspired and transformed the country. The fact that either of these statements gave rise to all the confrontation and vitriol it did is a testament to our broken political discourse. To our collective inability to, to borrow Mr. Obama’s words, disagree without being disagreeable.
Who is to blame for all of this? There’s little question that NBC, who held the Democratic debate eight days ago, intentionally tried to create a fight over Mrs. Clinton’s Johnson comments. But there’s also no question that the candidates willingly bickered and sniped during Monday’s debate on CNN. To varying degrees we could easily blame “the media,” the candidates, and voters.
The Republican contest has seem much less mired in semantics, but that’s probably because the leading candidates all have distinctly different views. Mike Huckabee is certainly less economically conservative–and more willing to pander to Confederate flag fans–than Mr. McCain. Mr. Guilliani’s certainly more socially liberal than either Huckabee or McCain. And whatever Mr. Romney stands for today, you can be certain that it’s not the same as anyone, even his former self.
In a sad way, the fights among Democrats are a clear symptom of how much the candidates–and the party as a whole–agree upon. Unable to have a meaningful fight about anything but their health care plans, the media and the candidates have had to look for smaller points to harp on. Mr. Obama’s had to repeatedly insinuate that he’s being double teamed because Mrs. Clinton can’t handle him alone. And Mrs. Clinton has drudged up some scandalous-sounding issues about one Mr. Rezko.
Though I still agree that this process is good, I’m no longer enamored with it. It’s this type of knock-down drag-out everywhere-you-look conflict that turns so many people off of politics. And if I’ve learned nothing else in the past two weeks, I now know better why people say they hate this beast.