Can it be? Are Republicans being funnier on the presidential campaign trail than Democrats this time around?
True, we live in perilous times. All the more reason it’s imperative to have a chortle or two, a witticism now and then, even a staged joke as we stagger along with the candidates to the finish line.
So far it’s been sort of a grim race. A Gallup Poll commissioned by USA Today found that Americans are in the mood for more laughs in politics, with 83 percent saying a sense of humor is a good attribute even for the most serious presidential candidate.
Finally, in the Republicans’ sixth debate the other night (it just seemed like the 60th), Mitt Romney had some funny lines, masterfully riding over garrulous Chris Matthews to get them in. The former Massachusetts governor said the debate at Dearborn, Mich., reminded him of TV’s Law & Order. “It has a huge cast, the series seems to go on forever and Fred Thompson shows up at the end.”
Asked if he’s sorry he waited so long to throw his cowboy hat in the ring, Thompson in his first debate insisted he did not but added, “I gotta admit it was getting a little boring without me.”
When Rudy Giuliani wasn’t sparring with Romney, with each accusing the other of being a closet tax-raiser, he was jousting with Hillary Clinton, who was states away. “If we do Hillarycare,” he said, referring to her latest health care plan, “the Canadians will have nowhere to go for health care.” In an earlier debate, however, he had the best quip. Asked about his relations with Catholic bishops, he started to answer when a bolt of lightning took out his microphone. For a product of parochial schools, he said, “this is a very frightening thing.”
John McCain’s dry sense of humor has seemed lackluster compared with his exuberant, say-anything-for-a-laugh run in 2000. But he is finding his footing again, joking about his campaign’s lack of funding and staff troubles, “It’s always darkest before it’s totally black.” When Jay Leno asked him if he wasn’t really running to be vice president, McCain said he had spent five years in a Vietcong prison. “Why would I want to do that all over again?”
But, hands down, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is generally conceded to be the funniest Republican candidate. He never seems at a loss.
He’s running for president, he says, because, “My band didn’t make it on American Idol.” There are two things you’ll never hear in Arkansas, he says.
“Baby, we don’t need another thing at Wal-Mart this week” and “We don’t need another dog.”
Asked how long God took to create the world, Huckabee, who urges Baptists in his audiences when his band is playing to be more like Pentecostals and lift both feet off the floor, said, “I don’t know. I wasn’t there.”
So how about them Dems? Well, we have Hillary’s giggle and her tone-deaf approach to singing the “Star Spangled Banner,” a trait she shares with most Americans (but now memorialized to her chagrin on YouTube). Her speeches are almost always serious, but her best line (at least to women) came when she was asked what she prays for: “Oh Lord, why can’t you help me lose weight?”
Humor too often has been left at the door when Democrats gather together although on the stump they are a little looser. Sen. Barack Obama draws laughs when he describes how people mutilate his name. (Alabama. Yo Mama.) He told Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart “the only person more hyped than me is you.”
Sen. Joe Biden, known for his wordy answers, drew a laugh when asked a lengthy question about whether he would have the discipline to be on the world stage. “Yes,” said the candidate succinctly. John Edwards, still smarting over the uproar over his $400 haircut, told Jay Leno the reason he and his wife eat at Wendy’s on their anniversaries: “You can’t spend money on food when you’re spending money on haircuts.” Asked during a debate what he disliked most about Hillary Clinton, he stared at her bright jacket and said, “I’m not sure about that coat.” Sen. Chris Dodd, who at the age of 63 has two preschoolers, says he’s the only Democratic candidate who gets mail from AARP and diaper services.
Every politician is warned to be careful when using humor. Sarcasm seldom works. Self-deprecating humor almost always works. Mean humor at someone else’s expense is highly dangerous. Jokes that defuse a tense situation can be golden.
We’ve still got a long time before this race is over, for both Democrats and Republicans. A few more laughs, guys, might be the best strategy about now.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)hotmail.com.)