It’s a Mad, Mad World

Like a lot of other people, I started out thinking the Republicans in New Jersey had a point. Why should a party have the right to pull a fourth-quarter switcheroo after noticing that its candidate had about as much chance of winning an election as Ken Lay? Wouldn’t I be fuming if the Republicans had tried such a stunt?

Then I remembered: They had! Doug Forrester, the same Doug Forrester seen lately carping about the Democratic change of quarterback, made it onto the primary ballot the same way Frank Lautenberg did – he, too, was a fill-in candidate who missed the filing deadline back in April, and his lawyer relied at the time on precisely the same arguments he fought against two weeks ago. And last week, we were treated to the spectacle of the GOP playing tit-for-tat in Montana, where their Senate candidate withdrew from the race after the deadline. Apparently, he was prepared to lose to Democrat Max Baucus by twenty points, but not if it meant Montanans would think of him for all time as a gay hair-dresser.

But I confess – ultimately, my Jersey change of heart wasn’t based on the law. Editorialists have to go through the masquerade of propping up their political opinions on the matchsticks of the pertinent legalisms. The rest of us are free to say openly what everyone knows anyway, and what a certain quintet of Supreme Court justices showed us two years ago: Your interpretation of the law depends on which party you want to see win.

Let’s face it: What’s at stake in New Jersey is bigger than the legitimacy of more-or-less arbitrary election-law filing deadlines. New Jersey – and to some extent Montana, although Baucus still seems likely to win as of now – is the most intense expression of what this midterm election is really about. It’s not terrorism; it’s not the economy; it’s not the pending war abroad. Rather, it’s about the ongoing war here at home, about what sort of country this is. It’s the 2000 election, Part B.

It’s about anger, basically.

Liberals are angry over: Florida, still (nope, not over it; have no plans to be). The cocktail of fiscal corruption and incompetence that this White House serves us. The flimsy lies hiding the real motives for going into Iraq (look up a September 29 column by Jay Bookman of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution). The sheer gall of virtually everything they do, like the recent misappropriation of John Kennedy (see Fred Kaplan’s terrific piece in Slate, posted last week).

Conservatives: Bolshie, Darwin-loving socialists. Revenuers and regulators. The Clintons. And, of course, the liberal media (which they denounce via the television network they own that is devoted to retailing their beefs incessantly).

You’ve been reading a lot about anxiety over the economy and soul-searching on war, but you haven’t read much about anger. It doesn’t show up in polls, at least directly, because pollsters don’t ask questions designed to tap into it. And if it doesn’t show up in polls, the media can’t be bothered. It gets squeezed out of the narrative by things like the lopsided pro-war vote in the Senate, which is supposed to mean that America is united behind the president and itching to fight. Evidence to the contrary is ignored or relegated to the lower paragraphs. Jim Leach, a moderate Republican congressman who’s locked in the race of his life, came out against the war resolution, clearly betting that this position would help him at the polls at home. In Iowa.

These days, you have to be an awfully intrepid news-digger to notice these examples of resistance to the consensus. What you get out of Washington, and New York, is a bunch of dishwater clichés about what will play in Peoria. Even those are wrong. Here’s the Peoria Journal-Star, which endorsed George Bush in 2000, from October 6: “The president must tell the American people why toppling Saddam is worth the sacrifice of their lives and the lives of those they love. He has not said so yet.”

America is disunited. And the red and the blue Americans hate pretty much everything the other side stands for. This election is about which side channels it better. Too much can be made of midterm elections. They sometimes turn on a few thousand votes in a handful of congressional districts where voters have paid less attention to Saddam Hussein than to the candidates’ bridgework. But on the wings of such minute fluctuations do revolts arrive: The Republicans took the House in 1994 because their base turned out about 3 percent higher than usual, and a small shift in the other direction sent Newt Gingrich to his doom four years later.

The experts, you’ll recall, completely muffed that election, in which voters were supposed to “punish” the Democrats because the morals squad couldn’t slap the cuffs on Clinton. The opposite happened. I’m not making any predictions, but the more the experts natter about the pickle the Democrats are in over Iraq and Bush’s poll ratings, the more it starts to smell like 1998 to me.

Jersey will help tell the tale. There’s irony here on two counts. First, Lautenberg: While pretty liberal, he has never been a partisan field marshal. He was known for banning smoking on domestic flights. Always popular, but not exactly beloved, he never won his elections by huge margins. But Democratic voters aren’t motivated by who he is. “He’s more appealing as a symbol of Democrats’ desire for revenge than he ever was as plain old Frank Lautenberg,” quips the political consultant Philip Friedman.

The second irony is that New Jersey is usually un-partisan. It’s Democratic at the presidential level and hasn’t had a Republican senator in some time, but the governor’s chair changes hands often, and the congressional delegation is split down the middle. Independent voters outnumber Democrats and Republicans combined.

But this election, the usual rules are worthless. Lautenberg is a partisan figure now whether he wants to be or not – as, of course, is Forrester, who is proudly right-wing. And Jersey, suddenly, is a partisan state, whose Senate race is more about the country, or the two countries, than it is about the state.

This is all right. The war, the one at home, should be waged out in the open. Rank-and-file Democrats get this, even if their elected counterparts in Washington, intimidated by shallow poll readings and vice-presidential trash talk, do not.

Under normal circumstances, I would have consulted my friend Jim Chapin in preparing this column. I’m sure he knew who won every Senate and gubernatorial race in New Jersey over the past century, and why. Jim died, unexpectedly and tragically, on September 30 of a heart attack at age 60. It was his fate to be best known as Harry Chapin’s brother, which he didn’t mind – after Harry was killed in 1981, Jim took over his brother’s organization that fought world hunger and ran it for two decades. But his friends cherished his gentle, generous, eccentric personality – “of no known category,” as Fred Siegel aptly put it to me at Jim’s funeral – and his stunningly encyclopedic knowledge of politics, history, and much else, which he was always eager to share. His widow, Diana, would like those interested to send donations to the Queens Public Library in Jim’s name to establish a collection of books on politics and history for young people.

It’s a Mad, Mad World