By the time it's over, this presidential campaign may set some kind of record for the sheer quantity of silliness, trivia, and stupidity. Sometimes, a tire gauge is just a tire gauge. But not this time.
By the time it's over, this presidential campaign may set some kind of record for the sheer quantity of silliness, trivia, and stupidity with which the news media becomes temporarily consumed. From flag pins to Britney and Paris to the latest round of feigned outrage at a campaign surrogate's statement, it's enough to make you pine for the days when candidates argued fervently about the fate of Quemoy and Matsu. But before we throw up our hands in despair, we should note that even the dumbest of campaign controversies can be quite revealing of the symbolic undercurrents that flow beneath our politics.
When Barack Obama announces his pick for vice president, one set of questions will be asked, in various forms, over and over: Does this candidate adequately address Obama's weaknesses? Does he or she compensate for the nominee's relatively brief time on the national scene? Does the VP pick make some potential attacks on Obama harder?
It's a lot to ask of some senator or governor -- maybe too much. But the day of the running-mate announcement could be truly revolutionary, if Obama has the courage to offer to the public more than just a running mate.
For years, Democrats have marveled at Republicans' ability to create compelling visuals. When Ronald Reagan's advisers began treating his every appearance as a tableau that required careful attention to lighting, perspective, and composition, it was revolutionary. The series of attack ads George H.W. Bush used to eviscerate Michael Dukakis were so intricately structured and layered with symbolism that entire dissertations have been written about them. George W. Bush's team continued the visual artistry with a careful eye toward placing its lead actor in manly costumes and heroic poses (take this remarkable bit of framing). Democrats, it seemed, could never keep up.
But the idea that every move the GOP makes is choreographed by a bunch of moneymen who are only interested in keeping their own taxes low by whatever means necessary doesn't square with reality. For one thing, the GOP's big-money donors don't all want the same thing: Some of them want low income taxes, some of them want low corporate taxes, some of them (though not all that many, I suspect) want government programs slashed, some of them want deregulation, some of them want regulation, some of them want pro-business judges appointed, some of them want subsidies for their industries, etc. etc.
In eulogizing the recently departed Jesse Helms, many praised the former senator from North Carolina for always standing up for what he believed in. He certainly did -- Helms never apologized for his racist beliefs, and there is little evidence he ever renounced them. Just why anyone should be admired for advocating despicable ideas unapologetically is less than clear, but, if nothing else, no one could mistake Helms for anything but what he was.