I don’t know about you, but the closer we get to finding out who will be the GOP and Democratic presidential nominees, the edgier I become.
As the mud flies, all the candidates seem to be shrinking in stature. Yesterday’s glimmerings of statesmen are today’s campaign flimflam artists.
As candidates drop by the wayside, those remaining are less like beacons of hope than spotlights aimed uncomfortably right at the eye.
For months, conventional wisdom said the Democrat easily would win the White House in 2008. Not anymore. The spat between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton (not to mention her husband’s embarrassing inability to keep out of the fray) has many Democrats wondering openly if the lack of civility will harm the party in November.
At the same time, the newfound animosity among Mitt Romney, John McCain, Rudolph Giuliani and Mike Huckabee has Republicans fretting that if the party doesn’t unite soon, it will be too late.
Once again, it could come down to middle-of-the-road independent voters making up their minds at the last minute.
Meanwhile, the rest of us are standing on the sidelines, ineffectually flapping our hands in the air, moaning, “Can’t we all just get along and talk substance?”
Of course, it’s always like this, an orgy of intra-party squabbling and street fighting during primary season. And then everybody gets on board the party train. (Except for the Ralph Naders and Ross Perots.) But this year, our national problems are so humongous that we deluded ourselves into thinking our candidates would act like grown-ups from the get-go.
It was all supposed to be decided on Feb. 5, the mega-primary day when so many people in so many states pick a favorite that two winners would be inevitable. That’s looking less certain, as front-runner status changes state by state, the candidates grow wearier, money stops pouring into campaign coffers, the barbs get nastier and the push for delegates gets more desperate.
Hillary Clinton, who has had the magical allure of potentially being the first woman U.S. president, has stumbled badly, beginning with her gaffe in Philadelphia when she couldn’t decide if she did or didn’t want to give undocumented workers driver’s licenses. Now she seems trapped behind the shadow of her spouse. And her jibes at Obama seem snide. Her speeches seem too full of platitudes; her voice too shrill.
Obama, who has had the magical allure of potentially being the first black U.S. president, has permitted the Clintons’ sniping to put him off his stride. His message of unity is being lost; his frustration is palpable.
Romney seems more unreadable than ever. What does he believe? Asked if he favors a federal bailout for Florida homeowners’ hurricane insurance, he couldn’t say yes or no.
Giuliani’s old star power has become almost a memory, even as he panders to every Florida audience. (He’s happily willing to tax us all for Florida’s homeowners’ insurance.)
Huckabee, denier of evolutionary theory, has lost his Iowa sheen. His wonderful sense of humor has been overshadowed by his TV-preacher zealotry. And his subtle digs at his rivals show he’s not above political shenanigans; after all, the minister learned the game in Arkansas.
McCain, famous for being a maverick, has been intriguingly reborn. But his message of fiscal responsibility/national security, basically, has turned into agreement that President Bush has been right — about going to war in Iraq, about the surge, about the tax cuts, about a lot of things. He just would have handled the execution differently.
The past week has been full of bad news: Recession is looming, a stimulus package will fatten the deficit, home prices are sinking, tuna in sushi is full of mercury, downtown Washington’s levee could break and cause the city to flood, the weather is frightful, and it’s only January.
We’re looking for competence, charisma and character. Maybe when winter thaws, such traits won’t seem so elusive.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)