THE vibe in Missouri right now feels different than the usual “it’s too early to think about politics” malaise. Four years ago, we were up in arms from the get-go. I’d tramp over to my parents’ house like a Union picket and unload on my Republican father — a very quiet man — as I watched the war reports on CNN. The eight or so blocks that separated our houses sprouted a Hooverville of yard signs. Now I can jog an hour and not see one “Support the Troops” magnetic ribbon or a blue “War Is Not the Answer!” plea. Instead, our quiet neighborhoods remind me of de Chirico paintings: empty, well manicured, but with some unnamed anxiety hovering outside the frame.
SO Sunday the Times kicks off a series of campaign reports tapping into our nation's Strategic Novelist Reserve: writers in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Missouri--which makes your average Hoosier feel like he's ducked a round of birdshot--and San Francisco, sitting out on the Bay like some cultural counterweight. This, of course, raised a couple of questions immediately: 1) Does the Times Op-Ed section in fact have access to accurate maps of the interior? and 2) Why aren't these people on the Op-Ed pages every day, and Maureen Dowd and David Brooks out writing novels about, I dunno, a young trombonist's economic coming-of-age in the heady "Reagan Spring" of 1981, or a middle-aged woman who decides to get something down there pierced. Not necessarily respectively.
Whitney Terrell, quoted above, turns in a fine meditation on the war which, at 650 words, clocks in at roughly what MoDo spends on slumber-party invective three times a week (she once called Willard Mitt "puffy-coiffed", which certainly raises the question of whether she's ever actually bothered to look at him or if "puffy" is New York slang for "steel belted"; at any rate, she wrote an entire column about The Speech Sunday which never once referred to him as Governor Underpants or The Breederator, which suggests to this writer that Romney too closely resembles the CEO of a family-owned publishing empire for her to feel comfortable taking a swing. And I say that simply because I read that entire tree-killing column, and I'll be damned if I'm not gonna get anything out of it, however slight). Terrell closes with an anecdote from his teaching gig:
Meanwhile, my students at the University of Missouri-Kansas City — most of whom define themselves as “middle of the road” — nod vigorously when I ask if the war is an important issue. But when it comes to candidates, things get murky.
“Anyone for Hillary?” I asked the other night, before we started class.
Out of 21 students, I got one unenthusiastic half wave.
“Giuliani? Edwards? Anybody?” I went on, feeling like the teacher in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”
Finally, as if to put me out of my misery, a young woman in the back row raised her hand. Like many people here, she had a relative — a brother — who had just returned from Iraq. “I want the war to be over,” she said, “but at the same time, I don’t want to feel like everything he did over there was just a waste.”
Had any of the candidates convinced her that they know what to do?
“Not yet,” she said.
Of course this is the week the respective primary races "tightened", either as the unlikely result of voters, who have had the good sense to ignore this shit up to this point, finally deciding to pay attention or, as seems reasonable, pundits and the pollsters who work for them deciding that horsemeat can sizzle as well as a steak. Obama Surges in Wake of Hillary Missteps! It's 7 points in New Hampshire. It was 10 points last time, a "surge" of, roughly, the fucking margin of error. (Bubububut it was 23 points last Arbor Day! Which shows how useless such polls are.) Iowa's always been close. South Carolina is interesting, but the real story there is that Homeboy Edwards fails to move as the wire approaches. The Democratic race has always been headed for a shootout of Hillary Clinton vs. Dislike for Hillary Clinton, and the Junior Senator from Illinois has been its designated Other almost as long. I don't doubt that Obama has closed; I don't doubt that he can win. I'll just believe it when it occurs, not when the Times and ABC and CBS and CNN tell me he's about to.
Huckabee may be a slightly different matter, but there's certainly reason to doubt the Christian Right Awakens! storyline. As an example, this tidbit from Rassmussen:
40% of Voters Don’t Know Which Republican Gave Speech on Faith and Religion
Monday, December 10, 2007
While pundits and analysts have pored over the details of Mitt Romney’s speech last week, nearly half the nation’s voters could not identify which Republican had given a major speech on faith and religion. A Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that 60% were able to identify Romney as that candidate. That figure includes 66% of Republicans nationwide, but just 52% of Evangelical Christian voters....
It’s interesting to note that Evangelical Christians are somewhat less likely than the population at large to know of Romney’s faith. Among Evangelical Christians, 65% were able to identify Romney as the Mormon.
And I'd be happy to supply an alternative, if admittedly partial, explanation:
Their other candidates suck.
Of course this comes on the heels of wall-to-wall anticipation of Mitt's JFK Moment, followed by endless jibber-jabbering analysis of whether Romney had indeed measured up to the slain 35th President or more closely resembled Washington's Farewell to the Troops. Remember, these are the same people who spent months chronicling the seismic groundswell that resulted in Fred Thompson entering the race.
As all such matters will, eventually and usually too late, this leads to somebody on the Op-Ed pages of the nation's Newspaper of Record explaining that the pundits got it wrong. I believe they draw straws for the privilege. Frank Rich:
Having failed to anticipate so much else, including the Barack Obama polling surge of days earlier, the press pack has proved an unreliable guide to election 2008. What the Beltway calls unthinkable today keeps turning out to be front-page news tomorrow.
Frank, I'm pretty sure I saw you running with them...
What really may be going on here is a mirror image of the phenomenon that has upended Hillary Clinton’s “inevitability” among Democrats. Like Senator Obama, Mr. Huckabee is the youngest in his party’s field. (At 52, he’s also younger than every Democratic contender except Mr. Obama, who is 46.) Both men have a history of speaking across party and racial lines. Both men possess that rarest of commodities in American public life: wit. Most important, both men aspire (not always successfully) to avoid the hyper-partisanship of the Clinton-Bush era.
Though their views on issues are often antithetical, Mr. Huckabee and Mr. Obama may be united in catching the wave of an emerging zeitgeist that is larger than either party’s ideology. An exhausted and disillusioned public may be ready for a replay of the New Frontier pitch of 1960.
On the one hand, we'd be better served by hearing more honest if poorly-thought-out confusion from creative writing students, and less of the Zeitgeist as explained by people who a scant three paragraphs ago were explaining that they, as a class, had gotten everything wrong to this point. On the other, it might be nice if they saw their mission as requiring they take the Zeitgeist out back and break a couple of its ribs on occasion, when deserved (say, now, for example) instead of orally servicing it time and again in the hopes of getting a new car out of the deal. Not always successfully? Huckabee's a circuit-ridin' preacher. Some backwoods populism thrown in the mix doesn't make him The Promised Uniter. As for Obama, just give me one partisan issue he's proposed a solution to, and I'll tell you how many days he'll spend in the Oval Office before the first Limbaugh attack hits.
Meanwhile, 2/3 of the public has decided it would rather believe in Iranian nukes than waste all that perfectly good irrational fear and hatred. Meaning, I guess, that it's time to look for Fred Dumbo Thompson atop next Friday's Zeitgeist survey.