Friday, Feb. 23, 2007
Gravel Pit:For the political press, this week's shootout between the Clinton and Obama campaigns was as intoxicating as a hunter's first whiff of gunpowder on Opening Day. The Hotline dubbed it "Slash Wednesday." The tabloids went Postal. The only way to make Roger Ailes happier would have been to let Maureen Dowd referee a Mark Penn/David Axelrod Jello-wrestling match on pay-per-view.
As a card-carrying Clintonite, I tend to agree with John Dickerson that Round 1 went to Clinton. But there's an easy way for everyone in the field to come away a winner: Don't bother having a Round 2.
Primary campaigns are by definition family feuds, so sparks are bound to fly, and it's hard not to take everything personally. I still haven't forgiven people for snide comments they made on behalf of rival campaigns two decades ago, even people I otherwise consider good friends from campaigns before or since. Moreover, a party's nomination is worth more if it's a real battle, not a love fest where real differences are swept under the carpet, only to resurface during the general election.
So, fights happen. But the key to a healthy, happy family or party is to make sure you spend your time on the fights that matter and get over the fights that don't.
The early days of a long campaign are almost always about fights that don't. For one thing, most of the family isn't around yet. Even in battleground states like New Hampshire and Iowa, most voters are watching American Idol, not Road to the White House. Candidates are mainly talking to each other, and trying to distinguish themselves in front of diehards in the party and the press.
A big field of musical chairs only heightens the competition to show measurable progress in areas that ultimately won't make the difference. Raising money won't be a problem for the Democratic front-runners, but insiders will obsess over their first quarter FEC reports, anyway. Endorsements, hires, and defections are even less important, but we'll pretend they're crucial for the next nine months, until real voters tune in and remind us that the only names that matter are the ones on the ballot.
The risk of a big field is that candidates will try too hard to win over those of us warped enough to obsess over their every current move, and lose sight of the far more sensible voters who won't make up their minds till the time comes. To measure the lasting import of Round 1, look at any newspaper from Nevada, where much of the shadow boxing took place. At a forum with the Democratic candidates, George Stephanopoulos raised the Geffen-Clinton-Obama flap. The national papers duly reported every word of that exchange—although they failed to point out that George would never mispronounce Geffen the way he did Nevada.
Yet in the Nevada papers, the Clinton-Obama feud didn't even come up. The Carson City paper, the Nevada Appeal,led with a mother who likes Edwards. Her son who favors Clinton "because she's a girl." The Las Vegas Sun quoted a woman who said she "could just kiss" Joe Biden—and did. The Reno Gazette-Journal actually found a debate viewer who liked Mike Gravel, although she had to refer to him as "the fellow who spoke last" because she didn't know his name.
Even as reporters have been privately hoping the fur will keep flying, commentators tsk-tsk about what will happen if the candidates keep this up for another 12 months. But the truth is, they can't, they shouldn't, and they won't, because the voters don't them want to.