Anatomy of a Freak Show

Illustration by Ward Sutton

Trying to make sense of the election before this week’s primaries is presumptuous and possibly idiotic, a little like summing up the Civil War in late June 1863, just before Gettysburg. On the other hand, certain salient features of this manic, Rube Goldbergian process seem most visible now, in the middle of the flux and frenzy, before outcomes have hardened into ex post facto clarity.

1. The candidates are all freaks.
And I’m not even talking about Dennis Kucinich or Mike Gravel. Rather, we’ve never had an election where the serious contenders were such improbable outliers. All but one of those with any chance of being elected would be the first of their kind—the first female, African-American, Italian-American, Mormon, or ecclesiastic president. (And Bloomberg, of course, would be the first Jew.) For that matter, we’ve never elected a former prisoner of war (John McCain). This year, except for McCain, no candidate from the regular-mainstream-Wasp-guy pool that has produced 42 of our 43 presidents has a chance to win.

2. The two explosively contentious issues that were supposed to drive this election are so last year.
Last year, we knew with absolute certainty that 2008 was going to be all about Iraq and illegal immigration. But … not so much. Even before the fizzling economy became a crisis, the war had receded as an issue, in direct proportion to the diminution of killing in Iraq. So in a sense, the war now is shaping the election, but not at all in the way everyone imagined: The success of the surge has both mooted one of Barack Obama’s best issues—yes, Hillary Clinton owes George Bush—and revived McCain’s candidacy. On immigration, the most convincingly hard-line of the hard-liners, Tom Tancredo and Fred Thompson, are out of the running, while the one forthrightly soft-on-immigration Republican, McCain, may be the neo-nativist party’s most likely nominee.

3. On the one hand, a very few votes by ordinary citizens can change history …
In New Hampshire, if 4,000 people had voted for Obama instead of Clinton, she would now be doomed. And McCain would be on the ropes if just 7,500 of his people had voted for Romney in New Hampshire and for Huckabee in South Carolina.

4. … but serious candidacies are still overridingly about money.
Obama and Clinton are on top in part because they raised the most money. Huckabee is a goner because he’s raised so little. And more than anyone’s, Romney’s viability is a function of his personal fortune. Then there’s the prospect of Bloomberg, whose proto- or pseudo-candidacy is plausible purely because he’s worth $11.5 billion.

5. And speaking of money and freaks, it’s not just Romney and Bloomberg who are bizarrely rich.
Except for Obama and Huckabee, all of the semi-serious contenders (including Edwards) are Ultra High Net Worth individuals—ranging from Clinton (at least $10 million) to Romney (at least $200 million). In all of America there are barely a million UHNWs, and after applying the relevant disqualifiers to that group—too young to run, too old, too fat, too ugly, too sick, criminal records, scandals—one begins to understand just how minuscule our pool of plausible candidates really is. By my reckoning, any given UHNW is 100 times likelier than an American of average wealth to have a shot at the presidency.

6. Where is George Bush?
The 40th president is now a Christlike figure to the GOP, each candidate insisting that he is the true heir to their party’s lord and savior, Ronald Reagan—but no one calls himself a “Bush Republican.” The single notable defense of George W. Bush came from Romney, when he chastised Huckabee for uttering the inconvenient truth about the administration’s “bunker mentality.” What can any Republican true believer proudly say about this president? That he made the rich a lot richer? That he whistled past the climate-change graveyard? That Iraq is not as big a debacle now as it was for its first four years?

Yet in a funny way Bush is present in his Republican would-be successors. Like the president, Romney is a fit, good-looking Harvard MBA—although Bush’s business career was pathetic compared to Romney’s. Like the president, Huckabee is an Evangelical Christian who pitches himself as a compassionate conservative—although Bush’s religious faith strikes me as desperate and (as Jacob Weisberg suggests in his superb new book The Bush Tragedy) even calculated. Like the president, McCain was a jocular party boy who became a fighter pilot after college—although Bush avoided actual combat. And like the president, Giuliani has a giant chip on his shoulder.

In other words: (Romney + Huckabee)/3 + .01 McCain + Giuliani = Bush.

7. The important theme for Republicans is not “change,” but Balkanization.
If music consumers were required, like voters, to choose a single performer they all had to get behind, imagine the vicious battle that would erupt among listeners of, say, Timbaland, the Eagles, Toby Keith, and Alicia Keys. That’s what’s happening now to the Republicans. If Ronald Reagan was their charismatic Tito, suppressing the party’s tendency to Balkanize, George W. Bush was their Milosevic, an insecure bully presiding over the bloody dissolution of a union of convenience. Florida, where the top candidates looked to be virtually tied going into the primary, is a fair microcosm of the national GOP: Anti-tax obsessives have their candidate (Romney, maybe Giuliani), hawks have theirs (McCain, maybe Giuliani), and the creationists and homophobes theirs (Huckabee). And with McCain, even an endangered species—non-demagogic, fiscally prudent Republicans—has one last man standing.

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?


Anatomy of a Freak Show