There are some inescapable axioms in presidential politics.
Americans seldom choose a candidate perceived as too far right or too far left. Voters frequently cast their ballots for the “lesser of two evils.” They generally are voting against rather than for and their first consideration always is economic even during an unpopular war. If the economy is booming, the party in power generally can count on retaining the White House.
There are, of course, exceptions to this last rule. Former Vice President Al Gore’s ridiculous mismanagement of his 2000 campaign following a period of almost unprecedented economic growth is among the most notable.
But most prominent of political truisms is the one that states that as much as we would like the quadrennial exercise in selecting a leader to be about the pertinent issues of the day, it mainly is the small things that decide a candidate’s fate.
Former Michigan Gov. George Romney lost the Republican nomination by misspeaking about being brainwashed about Vietnam. Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine was forced out of the race for the Democratic nomination after appearing to cry during a press conference. Front running Gary Hart of Colorado lost his chance at the Democratic nomination because of a silly challenge to the press. President Ford’s remark that he considered Poland a free country was key in his reelection loss to Jimmy Carter. Richard Nixon’s five o’clock shadow cost him a crucial debate with John Kennedy. Carter’s whining about a national malaise was a major factor in his defeat.
The list of those whose seemingly insignificant gaffes have undone campaigns is lengthy, stretching from the earliest days of the Republic. So there is no surprise that the “small stuff” has suddenly become increasingly relevant in the current campaign for the Democratic nomination.
As much as Sen. Barack Obama would like it not to be, this race could turn on questions about his patriotism as represented by his failure to wear a flag button in his lapel; his pastor’s anti-American diatribes; his wife’s stated disdain for her country (until he began to run for the Senate and then the presidency); his remarks in San Francisco about the values of small town Pennsylvanians that have led to charges of elitism and his associations with former violent Vietnam War protestors, even though they have been leading quiet, productive lives for decades.
At the same time, Sen. Hillary Clinton, who has moved quickly to take advantage of Obama’s vulnerability, has her own “I wish I hadn’t said that” problems, including the mistake that haunts her most — a false claim that she was under fire during a visit to Bosnia as first lady. She has admitted her misstatement and apologized several times, but the allegation of untruthfulness and untrustworthiness keeps rising from the incident, and her opponent is not about to let her forget it.
The two moderators of the recent Clinton-Obama debate, ABC’s Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, have been roundly criticized for pandering to the sensational and unfairly questioning Obama about such triviality — at least as he sees it — while doing far less to Clinton. Caught off guard, Obama quickly tried to make the two newsmen the issue following the debate. In reality, both men were doing their jobs, asking questions a growing number of voters see as important to determining the real character of those running for the nation’s highest office.
Would the moderators have done better to concentrate solely on health care, education, Iraq, immigration and so forth? Maybe. But the last half of the show given over to those problems produced little of interest and none of the lively sparks that marked the first half. Besides, the candidates are monotonously similar in their positions, all of which have been thoroughly argued during the last 15 months.
Obama seems not to understand that despite his almost rock star charisma, brilliance on his feet and boyish sincerity, few people know who he really is or much about him beyond the bare essentials. He has been on the public scene such a miniscule time that there is little information available to define his true character, certainly not enough to take a chance solely on the promise of change. Clinton on the other hand has been examined from all angles for the last 16 years. There are few mysteries there.
The little things then that may offer a clue to the real person, while they may seem irrelevant and unfair, in reality are extremely important at such a crucial time.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)