Almost four decades ago, when the environmentalist movement was just being birthed, The Washington Post’s editorial page icon Meg Greenfield put it into perspective by observing that in her formative years, the only time anyone ever mentioned the word “environment” was after someone else had uttered the word “heredity.”
Soon, America’s thirst for quick-and-easy controversies led us to the eternal quaffological debate between “Less Filling” v. “Tastes Great.” Which was just a hop away from today’s Great Debate _ which is being pitched to us as the essential choice we must make in picking the next leader of the free world: Experience v. Change.
Our world has come down to that, we are being told. Our next president can be either a political careerist with Experience or a political agent of Change.
But never both, we are being led to believe. We cannot be the products of both our heredity and our environment. We cannot quaff less filling and still get great taste. We cannot have a leader who has been around long enough to know actually what he or she is doing and who can also change the system that has brought us to the brink of discombobulation — global and domestic.
Sen. Hillary Clinton implores us to understand the imperative of experience — and that she has the experience to make the wise decisions at home and abroad. Mainly because she was at the vortex of her husband’s presidency as his confidential adviser. Also, she has been a senator for seven years.
“Stand for change,” declares Sen. Barack Obama. Experience? Well, he has been a senator for 10 years; but purists may want you know that seven of those years were as a state senator in Illinois and only three were in Washington’s big show.
Then there is former one-term senator John Edwards, the former trial lawyer for people who were shafted by special interests who were not trial lawyers, campaigning as an Un-Hillary who would be all about Change.
Back in the Democratic pack, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson have campaigned as candidates of Experience, for a change. (A good strategy if the opponent were George W. Bush.)
Meanwhile, the Republicans have been running mean-while campaigns — increasingly mean in their attacks on each other, while claiming they were the real victims of unfair attacks by their opponents. What they have in common is that they are all about Experience. At least the parts of it that might appeal to their new voter pool.
Mitt Romney, whose experience was in making himself electable in a Massachusetts mainstream, is now a hardliner paddling in the old GOP evangelical waters. John McCain, whose experience was as a Grand Old Party insurgent, is now a straight-talking mainstreamer — personally uncharted waters for that naval academy graduate. Mike Huckabee was initially covered by an incurious media that giggled at his comic relief in debates and dismissed the possibility that he could win a GOP contest by running as evangelist-in-chief. Now his obvious lack of international experience reminds us all of a shameful and fearful specter we haven’t seen in politics since George W. Bush was president. Which brings us to the bizarre campaign of the GOP’s longtime national frontrunner, Rudy Giuliani — he is struggling to stay viable until February, when the campaign reaches a state that may like him (perhaps Florida).
All of the above causes us to focus upon the January presidential event that could be the most significant of 2008. It will take place not in Iowa or New Hampshire, but in Oklahoma _ on Jan. 7. A dozen of the most influential Democratic and Republican officeholders past and present will meet there with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg with one goal that transcends Experience vs. Change. Namely: End the poisonous political gridlock that, as this column has often noted, has turned Washington into Hate City.
Democrats including former senators Sam Nunn (Ga.) and David Boren (Okla.) and Republicans including Sen. Chuck Hagel (Nebr.) and former party chairman Bill Brock are in lead roles in this effort. Their goal: Convince presidential candidates to detail plans to form a government of national unity. Or watch Bloomberg pump his own billions into an independent presidential run.
Long after the bandwagons have left Iowa and New Hampshire, we in the punditocracy may look back to the heartland summit at the University of Oklahoma as the event that made all of the strategy blueprints of all of the other 2008 presidential candidates worth the paper they are written on _ but not one penny more.
Americans have experienced enough of politics as usual to know they want change.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)