POISONED BY THE PROCESS?
Back in 2000, I was watching the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries unfold and I had a wonderful dream. "What if," I thought, "John McCain and Bill Bradley won their respective nominations?" It was a long shot, but I couldn't help but dream. After all, Bradley and McCain were said to like each other, and both had agreed to certain spending limits and to running something other than the typical presidential campaign.
Instead, we got Bush and Gore and one of the most depressing election cycles ever... until 2004, of course.
But I kept thinking back to that dream matchup. If only two principled people could come together and have a real, thoughtful debate about the future of our country, then America would be the real winner.
In the last eight years, I've grown older and more crotchety. But I'll admit my foolish dream of 2000 was revived this year when McCain and Obama won their parties nominations. Here were two intelligent, principled people who want to lead our nation. Now we can have that awesome presidential campaign I'd always dreamed of. Untethered by the divisive politics of the past rooted in the culture wars of the 1960s, this campaign would be about the future and about how American can live up to the promise laid out in its founding documents.
The election is less than a month away, and I'm now willing to admit that I'm a complete idiot for ever thinking this election would ever be anything other than the depressing slog it has become.
McCain has Palin out saying that Obama is making herbal tea for the Talaban. Obama is preparing to run ads linking McCain to the Keating Five scandal and the Savings and Loan collapse of the late 80s. It's pretty much conventional wisdom that the campaign will become increasingly negative over the next four weeks.
So how did we get here? How did we start with two people who seem basically decent and end up with the exact brand of dispiriting bickering both promised to stop?
One idea is that the bubble of the campaign is so complete that candidates slowly lose touch with reality as the rest of us know it. Once these candidates get Secret Service protection, they're pretty much isolated from everyone except immediate family, campaign advisers, and crowds of security screened adoring fans. How can that not warp your view of the world? The campaign also allows candidates little time to do much other than campaign. Obama was mocked by some for saying he wished he had more time to think during the campaign, but there may be something to that.
Another factor may be the the permanent campaign infrastructure in Washington. Drifting around DC are political hacks who drift from campaign to campaign over the course of their careers. They're hired guns who supposedly have the know how to help a candidate win. But they also have their own agendas. Many get kickbacks for big television ad buys, and all are certain they know the way for victory in November. I'm told by someone who should know that there are some decent political operatives out there, but from what I can see, they tend to be sleazy lot. In seems like they've got the same depressing playbook, and they just plug new candidates into the formula (if I might mix my metaphors).
But there is, perhaps, another more depressing reason why the campaign is taking a dismal turn. Perhaps the very act of running for president is harmful to one's soul. When I was in Washington, a reporter who had covered many presidential campaigns said nobody can become president unless they want it more than anything in the world. Maybe all that desire whithers the spirit.
If that's the case, then I guess it's time to take a cue from "The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy." In that world, anyone who had the desire to rule the galaxy was disqualified from having the job. And right about now, that doesn't sound like such a bad idea.