Although Perot’s popularity proved ephemeral, the yearnings he stirred up—for a more-or-less moderate, pragmatic straight shooter, light on pomposity and pabulum-spewing, heavy on authenticity—have hardly faded from the scene. You could see them in 1996 in the brief but tantalizing boomlet around an independent run by Colin Powell. You could see them in both 2000 and 2004, when millions of voters pined for John McCain to split from the Republican Party and seek the White House under his own steam.
The craving for candidates like these has only been heightened by the fare on offer in the past two national campaigns. Whatever qualities might be ascribed to Bush, centrism and pragmatism are not among them; on foreign policy, fiscal policy, and much else, he’s been the soul of immoderation, neither compassionate nor conservative, but instead a reckless, feckless radical. As for the Democrats, John Kerry demonstrated in 2004 a congenital incapacity for plain talk and a reliance on mindless market-testing—going so far, Joe Klein reports, as to focus-group his response to Abu Ghraib (in the end, he said nothing)—rivaled only by his inability to remove the proverbial stick from his tightly clenched Brahmin bottom.
Improbable as it might seem, 2008 augurs little better. It’s often noted that the coming campaign will be the first since 1928 in which neither the sitting president nor vice-president will be grasping for the ring—so, in theory, the race is wide open. But, in practice, it’s likely to be a battle between two formidable front-runners: Hillary Rodham Clinton and McCain.
The problem with Clinton, pace the right, isn’t that she’s a nuthouse sixties liberal. And, pace the left, it isn’t that she’s willing to betray her principles in order to get elected. The problem is that, even after watching her on the national stage for more than a decade, it’s impossible to ascertain if she has any principles at all that are independent of political calculation. Does she, in her heart of hearts, believe in the bill she co-sponsored to criminalize flag-burning? No one—including, I suspect, her closest confidants—really knows. Thus we have the template for the campaign that she will run: a campaign of perpetual triangulation, a maddening, wearisome game of hide-and-seek, executed with none of her husband’s finesse or his grander vision.
McCain, meanwhile, is playing a different game but one no less confounding. Where Clinton is triangulating to position herself for the general election, McCain is racing to the right to ensure his nomination—cozying up to Jerry Falwell (whom McCain denounced in 2000 as an “agent of intolerance”), cheerleading for Bush, endorsing the teaching of “intelligent design” in the public schools, supporting a constitutional amendment in Arizona to ban same-sex marriage. For the partisan androgynes who have long regarded McCain as a maverick, the genuine article, his maneuvers present a devil’s choice: Believe your eyes and accept that he’s actually a more conventional conservative than you thought—or believe your gut, assume that he doesn’t believe a word he’s saying, and accept that he’s a panderer, a standard-issue hack.
What of Rudy Giuliani? Certainly it’s true that our former mayor is polling as strongly as Clinton or McCain (and, in some surveys, more strongly than either). But Giuliani knows that once his stances on social issues (abortion, gay rights, gun control) are widely apprehended (and once the pictures of him dolled up in drag make their rounds on the Internet), his acclaim among GOP-primary voters may prove evanescent. So he travels the country, raising cash for raving rightists such as Senator Rick Santorum. In a speech to the Global Pastors Network—whose leaders believe that the apocalypse is just around the corner—he declares, “I appreciate what you are doing: saving people, telling them about Jesus Christ, and bringing them to God.”
Depressing? Sure—unless you happen to be fomenting a third party. Taken together, the machinations of Clinton, McCain, and Giuliani provide a vivid illustration of precisely why the Democratic and Republican duopoly has become so intolerable to so many: It has eaten away at the vital center, hindered new thinking, and made ever rarer the manifestation of conviction in politics. And it’s created a yawning vacuum to be filled by the candidate of our dreams.
The candidate is a prismatic figure. Glimpsed from one angle, he bears a resemblance to the m embers of a cadre of Washington politicians, current and retired, unusual for their independence, whatever one thinks of their individual positions. Joe Biden, Chuck Hagel, Gary Hart, and Warren Rudman have all demonstrated the requisite ideological ambidexterity. So have Barack Obama, vintage 2000 McCain, and, duh, Bill Clinton. And so have two transplanted New Yorkers and one true Gotham original: Bob Kerrey, Bill Weld, and the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, each of them heroically eccentric, iconoclastic, and ill-disposed to pat answers and knee-jerkery.