O Captain, My Captain

Notes from the political sidelines.
March 8 2007 4:16 PM

O Captain, My Captain

For conservatives, no comic relief.

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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.

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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.

Call it the doctrine of Mutually Assured Distraction: Ultimately, it's in every candidate's enlightened self-interest to prevent the other candidates from steering the campaign away from the debate voters want about where to take the country. The Clinton and Obama campaigns don't want a never-ending firefight that leaves an opening for another candidate like Edwards. The Edwards campaign doesn't want to be left out as the third wheel in a two-candidate race. The rest of the field, already starved for money and attention, doesn't want to achieve Mike Gravel status as the finest presidential candidate voters can't name.

If the campaigns are smart, this past week won't produce a surge of infighting, but a rush to substance instead. Clinton and Richardson were right to object that Geffen's snarky comments were out of bounds. Obama is right to want to avoid another sideshow. Now the campaigns can fast forward to the main attraction—a battle of ideas about the future.

Presidential campaigns often take a long time to sort out the trivial from the profound. Ironically, this week's dustup may help accelerate the process of realizing what really matters, by highlighting what doesn't. Next January, no one in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina will care who won Hollywood or who lost David Geffen. Out there, the voters are already a step ahead—they don't even care about that now. ... 11:08 P.M. (link)

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Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2007

Do n't Try This at Home: Hell didn't freeze over last week, but the Potomac did. If the next George Washington wanted to skip a silver dollar across the Potomac, this past weekend would have been the time to do it.