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Anatomy of a Freak Show


During the seventies and eighties, the Republicans (as Clinton appallingly attacked Obama for saying) were the “party of ideas.” But now, in this decadent late phase of GOP hegemony, that fervent ideological efflorescence is coming home to roost, since each big idea—laissez-faire economics, geopolitical belligerence, anti-cosmopolitanism—has its own zealous constituency with its own litmus tests.

Yet while the professional movement “conservatives” loathe McCain, among the actual GOP electorate he seems to be everyone’s second choice. So Balkanization might accidentally, by default, let the Republicans save themselves from defeat by forcing them to choose the one candidate who doesn’t pander to any one of the Balkanized party constituencies.

8. “Blue” and “red” just might be blending into a healthier purple muddle.
Every candidate with any prayer of being president is, for better and for worse, ideologically flexible. Although only Obama’s and McCain’s candidacies are about forging a fair-minded new trans-ideological consensus, all of them are somewhere in the broad center of American politics. Among the top Republicans, one is pro-choice and pro–gay rights, and another has been in the recent past; two of the three are reasonable on immigration; and one has opposed Bush’s tax cuts for the rich, refuses to condone torture of POWs, and takes climate change seriously. Neither Democrat has a circa-1970-pacifist bone in his or her body, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce rates both as more pro-business than a third of the Senate.

9. The election narrative is a Möbius strip.
Giuliani can never win; he’s the huge favorite; he’s nearly a goner. McCain’s the front-runner; he’s imploded; he’s the presumptive nominee. Obama is exciting; he has no traction; he’s unstoppable; he’s in tough shape. Huckabee’s a joke; he’s caught fire; he’s out of it. Clinton is inevitable; she’s over; she’s inevitable. And so on. Each of these statements has been the conventional wisdom, serially uttered with conviction. But is the status quo ante now finally and irrevocably reasserting itself? A year ago, McCain polled between 25 and 30 percent among Republicans, and was considered the likely nominee—but Romney also had a chance. Today, McCain is polling between 25 and 30 percent and is considered the likely nominee—but Romney may have a chance. A year ago, Clinton was the Democratic front-runner, polling as high as 41 percent—although Obama had a shot. Today, once again, she’s the favorite, with poll numbers averaging 41.7 percent—although Obama still has a shot. All the twists and turns notwithstanding, it seems that we’re in a closed loop, where at the end we find ourselves exactly where we started.

10. It’s about character—that is, cynicism and pandering and phoniness versus candor and complexity and nobility.
At this semifinals stage, the two parties’ four leading candidates are looking uncannily symmetrical. Each party has an uninspiring baby-boomer candidate for whom presidential politics is a family business; who will say or do pretty much whatever it takes to get or retain power; and whom independents tend to dislike. And each party has a charming, quixotic, bracingly honest candidate from outside the standard age demo; who has a good sense of humor and rarely says or does anything of which he should be ashamed; and about whom independents are overwhelmingly positive.

And so if I can vote for Obama in November, I will. If the choice is McCain vs. Clinton, I’m not absolutely certain I won’t vote for a Republican for president for the first time. And Clinton vs. Romney (or Giuliani)? Oy. Bloomberg, anyone?



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