Campaign 2008 reminds me of something former New York Yankee and member of the baseball Hall of Fame, Yogi Berra once said: “It gets late early around here.” The jostling, pandering, fundraising and lying are well underway in both parties for the most wide-open presidential campaign in over a half-century. And it’s only February 2007.
Yet as we focus on individual candidates, their platforms, tactics and even how they look in a bathing suit, it’s instructive to contemplate what these campaigns say about our culture.
We yearn for candidates that lead because most tack to the prevailing winds. Candidates who pander too much are diminished and appear inauthentic. Conversely, candidates who are too far ahead of the curve, come across as out of touch, quixotic or simply too weird for the job.
Campaign 2000 illustrated how vapid America’s culture had become. Yes Al Gore was smart and capable but George Bush was more likable because he didn't come across as a "know it all." Gore was supposed to epitomize the self-aggrandizing politician while Bush talked straight. Gore was a man who needed to “reinvent” himself and Bush was a humble man comfortable in his own skin. So we put a plainspoken liar in the White House who opted to project an image of leadership through war.
Campaign 2004 illustrated a darker side of America’s culture as perception triumphed over reality. Bush who avoided serving in Vietnam represented strength, principled conviction, and toughness in a dangerous world. Vietnam War hero John Kerry was a vacillator who could not be trusted to protect Americans from terrorists.
Kerry was compelled to pander to a fear driven culture easily manipulated by a national security state and their enablers within the corporatist media. I cringed when Kerry boasted, “I’ve killed people in war … personally.” He was desperate to break through and did what it took. Hence, Kerry’s stature was easily diminished and once again a lesser man prevailed.
I realize one can quibble about the tactics of both Gore and Kerry in 2000 and 2004. Certainly, both candidates had their failings and made agonizing mistakes in their campaigns. As a volunteer in 2004 for example, I was infuriated at Kerry’s inability to respond to the Swift Boaters for Truth smear campaign. One woman I spoke to while phone banking during this period actually said to me, “It’s on TV so it must be true.”
Ultimately, failures in both campaigns can also be attributed to our culture at those moments in time. The character of those presidential contests was a reflection of our society. Similarly, 2008 will serve as a lens upon our society. One aspect of American culture I’ve often contemplated is our desire for Champagne at the price of beer. Perhaps it stems from our bargain-hunting consumer driven culture. In that regard I’m as guilty as anyone. Money is tight and I won’t overpay for pair of sneakers if I don’t have to.
Politicians reflect that aspect of our culture when they talk to us. We’re promised an empire without cost of blood or treasure and Americans buy in. Instead people die, taxpayers are ripped off and Americans are upset at being lied to. Would they I wonder have a moral problem with our military presence in Iraq if we were winning and the price of gas plummeted?
A country can’t be run on the cheap. Everything from healthcare, education, law enforcement, disaster planning and response, infrastructure development, a genuine energy policy and national security requires investment and a high caliber civil service. A generation of conservative rule has transformed our country into a backwards-19th century patronage mill and moneymaking machine for corporatist elites. We’ve seen the results: two mismanaged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina, 47 million Americans without health insurance, the decaying rot at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the systematic erosion of the middle class.
I want to believe our culture is poised for a tipping point of truth, justice and accountability. The outcome in the midterm elections gave me some hope because good people such as Virginia Senator James Webb and Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison were elected. On the state level some fine governors such as my home state’s Eliot Spitzer are now in power. But it’s the 2008 presidential campaign that will serve as the real barometer for what our country is truly about now.
Can somebody win telling it like it is? Is the country genuinely prepared to accept that universal healthcare is more important than tax cuts? Can Americans be inspired to conserve and sacrifice as we tackle global warming and seek to become independent of foreign oil? Are Americans finally capable of grasping that true leadership does not stem from a paternalistic figure projecting infallibility at the expense of accountability? Is 2008 the year the American people signal they understand you can’t have Champagne for the price of beer?
I’m not sold on John Edwards for president just yet. I need to see and here from him more. His record on Iraq does still trouble me and I wonder whether his apology for supporting the war was simply about political expediency. Nevertheless, the success of his campaign, at least rhetorically, appears to be the best bellwether for my questions. And the sickening exchange between the Clinton and Obama camps over Hollywood money makes me want to hear from Edwards more.
CORRECTION: In a crossposting on Daily Kos, a Kossack named "Beachmom" who also posted a comment here requested a link to my quoting John Kerry as saying, "I've killed people in war ... personally." I genuinely remember Kerry saying this during the 2004 campaign, repeating it and even reading about it. I recall cringing when he did so. Nonetheless, I can find no link on the Internet of Kerry saying those words. If the quote is not indexed in the major search engines then he obviously didn't say it. Perhaps I recall him saying something similar. Typically, I reference all quotes with links but in this instance relied on my memory only. Lesson learned. I am not above acknowledging my mistakes. I regret the error.