I have not found this on-line yet. It is in today's Observer.
I'm writing from California, where, despite lively ballot disputes on the State and local level, the Presidential election is mainly a rumor, fed by cable news. Poor souls, we only see the barrage of television ads that now constitute the bulk of a modern Presidential campaign when they're excerpted on the news broadcasts--which they increasingly are. In one of this campaign's novel twists, many adverts are now made only to be "released" to the Internet in the hope of garnering free news coverage. America is leading the way into the world of virtual commercials.
Back in the 1950s, fear-mongering cultural critics foresaw a dystopian future in which political leaders would be "sold like soap". They were risibly wrong. Soap advertising rarely stoops to the "In the last nine years, Glisten users have suffered hundreds of mysterious tumors, and yet Mr. Glisten doesn't seem to care" level, the level on which American political advertising, with its creepy background music, grotesque slo-mo footage and fear-inducing voice-over announcers, lives. We have come to the point where selling politicians like soap would be a big step up.
California is on the outside looking in because this state is overwhelmingly pro-Kerry. The polls--pardon me, it's the last time I'll mention them--say so. And so we suffer our lack of inundation, due to this odd confluence of a political antique and the latest technology. The antique is our Electoral College, which distributes votes for President state-by-state, and its accompanying state legislation which, with a couple of exceptions, apportions those votes on a winner-take-all basis. The latest technology, gleaned from advertising, dictates that you focus only on likely prospects. In California, long since relegated to the Kerry column, there are none. A California Bush voter is, in effect, a wasted Bush voter (except for the President's rumored desire to, this time, win the popular vote). So for us, as for you, this excruciating year has been, aside from the fund-raising, mainly a spectator sport.
The local daily newspaper printed an opinion piece last Sunday about the man whom a recent book identified as "Bush's Brain", the White House political swami Karl Rove. In the piece, liberal writer Neal Gabler offers the most dire interpretation of Rove's baleful influence on American politics--even calling him, at one point, Machiavellian. Well, excuse the hell out of me. I thought this was a contest about life-and-death issues, the war, global warming, the future of the United States as the world's most conventionally powerful nation--you know, stuff like that. If you really wanted to win such a momentous campaign, gosh, maybe you'd even like the operation to be run by someone Machievellian. After all, if the toilet stops up, I call the plumber.
Liberals, of the Hollywood variety particularly, evince the most exquisite dismay at the ruthless and unethical behavior of people like Rove. Then they go back to chuckling indulgently at the less ethical, and less explicable, behavior of the often-feral agents and producers in their own midst. At least Karl Rove has the good manners not to behave like a spoiled three-year-old who's been kept up two hours past his bedtime.
Democrats generally revel in the conceit that they're smarter than their opponents, while Republicans assure themselves they're more moral than the other guys. There's your "polarization" right there, along with a fact rarely mentioned by the political yakking class: America is in its twelfth year of a crisis of legitimacy. I know, that's a phrase usually associated with quasi-democracies on the wrong side of the Equator, but both Bill Clinton (who, due to the presence in the race of Ross Perot, didn't win a majority) and G. W. Bush (because of, you know, whatever) have been the objects of opposition fury only explicable by the conviction that they were usurpers.
Now, Bush is not the idiot liberals--and Europeans--like to think. He's got a kind of reptilian cunning, and Karl Rove taps right into that political lizard brain. Combine with fervid Methodism of the dispensationalist variety, and you've got ruthless certainty. Bush also has excellent speech writers, and he knows how to stick to the script (except in the debates, where he flailed in search of a credible persona). Arrayed on the other side is a U.S. Senator (the country hasn't sent a Senator to the White House since John F. Kennedy, a Catholic from Boston with the same initials). Kerry's way of vaulting over the threshhold issue--are you tough enough? --has been to proffer his Vietnam resume. When it was savaged by the "Swift Boats for Truth" ads, he spent the first three weeks of August not defending his own military record. When asked about this strategy, Kerry said that he wanted to respond to the ads, but his advisors wouldn't let him. And liberals smugly cluck at the Americans who can't quite buy him as a reassuring tower of strength.
During that fateful month, Kerry told a questioner at a Grand Canyon photo-op that, knowing what he knows now, he would still have cast his vote in the Senate to authorize the President to use force against Iraq. His partisans swoon over the cortical nuances of that position, but at that moment, the man who, as a youth, both fought in Vietnam and then returned to protest what he saw as a mistaken war, was caught in Bush's trap: He was stuck pledging nothing more than to do a better job of winning this mistaken war.
The Senator also has his own political savant, a seven-time loser (in Presidential campaigns) named Robert Shrum. His signature is a sort of throwback populism--Al Gore's "the people versus the powerful", or John Kerry's "fighting for the middle class". In a recent New York Times Magazine article, Shrum was asked why the Kerry campaign was ignoring the centerpiece of his Senate career--a tough and thorough investigation that led to the closing down of BCCI, an international bank with drug cartel and--how's this for relevance?--terrorism connections. Shrum's answer: it's too complex for "them". Populism in action. So, Kerry's Senatorial life is a self-defined black hole. Fortunately for him, there are no Machiavellians around to define it in more sinister terms.
Bill Clinton has been brought in to--this year's campaign cliche, ripped from the pages of the car dealer's training manual--"make the sale" for Kerry. Arnold Schwarzenegger is doing similar last-minute work for Bush. How do you like your testosterone: straight, or mixed with steroids?
Watching the campaign on the sub-textual level, which (given the English-as-a-second-language proclivities of the incumbent and the Senatorial prolixity of the challenger) may be the appropriate method, one can excuse the still-undecided for thinking this election boils down to a simple question: After the funeral, whom would you rather hang out with, the preacher or the mortician?
For me, it's also a simple question. Bush has run a disastrous war. Kerry has run a feckless campaign. Next Tuesday, the American people can punish only one of them.