Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Primary #2

Well, Hillary's won in New Hampshire, and the media's having a rip-roaring time being as shocked all over again, as shocked as they were when Barack won Iowa.

(I'm no closer to deciding whom to root for, and thus my rooting energies are going to have to be redirected into general commentary.)

Now the real fun begins, though. Both candidates are going to have to come up with something new, and I have no idea how people are going to react. I'm now all out of predictions. All bets are off. Let's go!

Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Actual Debates

OK, you know it's a bad sign when a set of presidential debates leaves me wanting to vote for Mitt Romney.

The Republicans argued real issues. When there was mudslinging, it was about real differences in their policies. It was so different from every political debate I've seen.

But the Dems were boring as hell and tired-looking and negative to boot. Change, change, change--it's become what we called in grad school an "empty signifier."

Perhaps the reason is that the Democrats are so closely aligned on the issues that there's no policy for them to debate. They argue about personality--leadership values, flip-flopping, who's more negative--because they have nothing else to argue about.

Which I suppose speaks well of the unity of the democratic party, or something. But couldn't they have hashed out some new ideas if their old ones were so similar? Ugh. It just left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

But perhaps part of the problem can be blamed on Gibson, who asked the Democrats lame questions. You ask the Republicans how to solve immigration but then you ask Democrats what's the one thing they can take back? You ask only about their campaigns, not about the actual issues?

The Candidates' Debate

Somewhere between the hours of seven p.m. Thursday night and nine a.m. Friday morning, election fever hit Massachusetts. As the polls were closing and the percentage of precincts reporting rocketed and campaign ads began showing in Boston for the first time and as reporters gave their analysis while simultaneously zooming over en masse to even-colder New Hampshire in the pre-dawn hours to catch up with the candidates who were miraculously already there, neighboring Massachusetts got excited. I have friends going up to New Hampshire this weekend to campaign, to attend a rally, to hear a speech.

Lots of people appear to be shocked by Huckabee's and Obama's victories. I have to say I'm not.*

Huckabee has fascinated me over the past few weeks because his campaign managed to do what very few can. He had a) a different message, and b) he stuck to his message with not even a whiff of flip-flopping. There are a heck of a lot of people in this country who wanted to hear that message: "I'm a Christian leader, not ashamed of it, and by the way I'm more like you than like your boss." He had some brilliant lines over the past few weeks that managed to characterize his opponents negatively without ever attacking them: "The Republican establishment will never nominate me, because I have such a hick last name." "You want to elect someone who reminds you of your co-worker, not of the guy who fired you." If you're a good, Christian, middle-class person, this is your candidate. He has a nice smile, a slightly crooked tooth that's cute but reminds you of his humble origins, and a kind demeanor toward all. While his liberalism-is-a-scourge** rhetoric has kept me out of all danger of falling for him, I have to say that for anyone who didn't have that compunction he seemed like the perfect package.

But much as Huckabee was never going to win in New Hampshire, he's doubly not going to win now. The moment the Iowa caucuses were over (well, really, before they were over, if you count The Tonight Show), Huckabee changed his message. He's repeated so many times since then that he's not changing his message that you'd know he must be even if it weren't obvious. But it is: he's dropped the Christian thing almost entirely and is now talking only about taxes. There goes his Christian base (it might take them a little while, but they'll be disappointed about it soon enough). And his tax ideas are crazy. There goes his economically-based following. A consumption tax sounds quite in line with his fight for the middle- and lower-income classes, but seriously? A 23% sales tax would kill our retail economy, which, let's be honest, isn't doing so hot on its own right now. You really want a country where nobody buys Macs or cars or anything expensive, just so everyone can save? Save for what? You can't buy anything. Please! All this to say that I will be awfully surprised if New Hampshire hearts Huckabee.

So Huckabee's out, McCain is trying to get in, Romney's trying to survive, Giuliani is so 2007. There we go with the Republicans.

Now for Dems! We all knew Barack was surging, though even I was surprised by the margin between him and Hil on Thursday night.

I'm still trying to decide between these two. For personality and ultimate message, I'm all for Barack. Unity, unity, unity, respect for other nations, and a breath of fresh air in Washington. But I'm also skeptical, along with a lot of folks, about the lack-of-experience thing. And at the end of the day, it's fascinating to find that the Times candidate-comparison chart reveals that they have practically the same line on every issue, except that Hil explicitly stated that she'd get Congress's approval before engaging the military in Iran, and she wants to require health care for all while Barack only wants to require it for the kids. Could it be that she's more cautious about using the military than Barack? Could it be that he's softer on health care than she? Because those are pretty huge things for me.

On the other hand, this difference points to much of my (and the country's?) frustration with politics. Clearly Hillary said the Congress bit for show--meaning not that she wouldn't do it, but that it is admittedly what everyone wants to hear. Barack, by loving the children the most, becomes more lovable. How calculated, I conclude. So how much can we really learn about a candidate by comparing their campaign statements line-by-line? Nobody can know what they're really going to do.

Anyway, somebody please convince me one way or the other on Barack or Hillary, using policy and issue arguments and not just who's a shinier speaker and who has been in Washington before. I want to be as excited about the primaries as my friends going to New Hampshire, but I've got some decisions to make first.

* I am surprised, however, by how hypey everyone's being about it. Even David Brooks has gone off the deep end, calling the twin underdogs' victories a "political earthquake." Yes, David, people in America want change. But that was only Iowa! Let's hear what a few more people have to say before deciding that we've all opened to a new chapter in American political history. Maybe I'm just being pessimistic, hedging my bets, but I don't think it's that easy.

** I don't know how he defines it--he didn't in the speech--but I define liberalism as valuing differences and being educated about them.