Campaign '96: Hurry Up & Wait

Psst: It's started. You, dear reader, may be merely trying to keep warm, but the fuse has been lit on the magisterial process by which We The People, through the sacred instruments of our hallowed political parties, winnow our presidential choice to two of our nation's finest, one of whom will in January become Leader Of The Free World, keeper of our nuclear launch codes and George Washington and Calvin Coolidge's latest successor.Heady stuff, and so important that this year, if you blink, you might miss it. Think about this: Not too many years ago, the parties took several months to select a candidate, months in which they were subject to public scrutiny and, while the process of choosing was not always perfect or perfectly democratic, sometimes gave us some sense of how the candidates and their ideas played with the people.Think about this: In 1968, Robert Kennedy made up his mind to run on March 16. Back then, that was still early enough to get into the arena, which featured a few well-spaced, highly visible primaries. Those times were so backward that candidates were sometimes asked what they would do about the great issues of the day, rather than whether they had sex or made a bad land deal 10 years before.Kennedy vaulted into the race by winning the Indiana primary May 7. On June 4, he scored a victory in California that gave him a reasonable shot at the nomination...had he not been murdered immediately afterward.Today, entering the race so late would be stone impossible. The current crop of candidates have been running (read: wheedling millions of dollars) for years. Think about this: if you get pregnant tonight, you just might take delivery on a new tax deduction before the election is held. But your rabbit may not even die before the nominees have been chosen. Mr. Bill is running unopposed and the Republicans, too, will likely have picked their nominee by the end of March. By then, 75 percent of the nominating delegates will have been chosen in an enormous clot of primary and "caucus" elections that began with Louisiana last Monday and finishes with California March 26. Once, the primary process provided some space to gauge how candidates and their ideas stood up under pressure. Now, apart from a verbal slip or a bimbo eruption, any reflection is next to impossible, thanks to the front-loaded logjam: 11 states vote March 5, for example; two more March 7; four March 9; eight March 12, etc.What this means is that those who falter early will find it hard to raise the millions needed to fund negative TV advertising and keep a national campaign going. Even more than real life, politics is a game where he who starts with the most cash wins. Canny old Bob Dole has been calling in favors owed since the Eisenhower administration, and spent at least $35 million in 1995 alone. Today, his main competition seems to be Steve Forbes, whose qualifications are 1) he isn't any of the other hacks and 2) he inherited tons of money from his father, the late publisher best known for the magazine named after himself.Whee. How does the average working stiff tell the candidates apart? Let me do it for you: Clinton is upfront, courageous and stands for everything. He'll give you his views and if you don't like them, why, he'll change them. He is also the only current candidate accused of asking a perfect stranger for a blow job.Dole, stands foursquare for nothing, except maybe the ethanol lobby. Forbes, the exciting dark horse, has excited Republicans everywhere by a proposal to raise taxes on the middle class and drastically cut taxes for the rich. Lamar Alexander wears a red flannel shirt sometimes, and Pat Buchanan is striving hard to prove fascist ideas still have appeal.There are several dozen other appalling candidates who aren't going anywhere, especially Phil Gramm, whose bizarre metaphor for the average voter is a character he calls Dicky Flatt, who at least will not be confused with Bill Clinton.We'll soon see how this all plays out, but here's what really worries me: Assume we know our choices by April Fool's Day. What if we later see signs that Dole, who is almost 73, and partially paralyzed, is in sharply deteriorating mental or physical health? What if Forbes sweeps a few thousand voters off their feet, corners the political market and only later is found to have something seriously wrong with him? Most of all, what about the average voters, who, by the time they start paying attention, may find their "choice" has been made for them, and they once more have two options who don't seem to offer what they want? What will happen when people struggling to work two jobs, buy a house, pay for their medication and send the kid to school finally give up on the notion that the system can be made to work for them?Do you see any sign that any of the Republican candidates ever think about this? Do you see any sign that Mr. Bill can do anything about this? Do you see any sign the "mainstream media" have a clue as to what this really means, or that their polls and computers and spiffy graphics provide a hint as to what's happening in America today? Film, as they say, maybe not by 11, but maybe sooner than all the candidates think.

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