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Dispatch from the North Country: Of Hamsters New, Hope In Blue, and 'Change' Out the Wazoo

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Anybody up for some change?

That’s the operative word in American politics this week. Of course, change can mean a whole lot of different things. Loose change. Chump change. Change of heart. Quick change artist. Change of underwear.

And, really, it’s not at all clear what it means in this context – or more importantly, if it really means anything at all. It’s more than a little probable that a whole bunch of grossly over-priced Bob Shrum types looked at what happened in Iowa and arrived at the same brilliant conclusion that any alert eighth-grader could have provided for the price of a skateboard rather than a McLean McMansion. Namely, that the American public is unhappy, and is looking for something different. You don’t need a graduate education or a consulting license to figure that one out.

So, "change" it is. By one count, the word was spoken no less than 140 times during the back-to-back debates the elephants and donkeys did in New Hampshire Saturday night. And Dennis Kucinich wasn’t even participating! Which, of course, really begs the question of what could possibly be meant by America’s new mantra du jour, especially since Kucinich is one of the few candidates really threatening the sclerotic American political system with anything actually approaching real variation from the corporate program. Therefore, of course, he had to be shown to the door by the same people who were talking about ‘change’ the entire way as they escorted him to the exit, stage left.

No doubt what actually happened is that Hillary had an existential experience in Iowa last week in the form of a little come-to-Jesus dialogue with caucusgoers who definitely didn’t get the royal memo over the previous months. Can’t you just see her storming across her hotel suite in a fury, shouting about how "Obama can’t win! I’m supposed to win!" No suffering soul rotting for millennia in the inner-most circle of hell could have been less happy than Clinton campaign advisers last week, as they scrambled for furniture to hide under while surface-to-air missiles careened about the room. She bared her teeth at one point during the Democratic debate, and you just knew that if this political robot was off her game enough to let that slide on national television then Hurricane Hillary must have been a definite category six behind closed doors, and the scale only goes up to five. They say that politics makes strange bedfellows, and that was surely proved this week as everybody left of the Pentagon and everybody right of the Unitarian Church joined in rejoicing at offing the queen’s head, even if it only lasted five days.

So no doubt her brilliant brain-trust told her to dump the whole vote-for-me-I’m-experienced thing (You mean like your 1993 healthcare debacle, Hill? Or your vote on the Iraq war? Is that kind of the experience we can trust?) and don the agent-of-change pantsuit instead. Meanwhile, you could equally imagine the frustration of the Edwards people who’ve been talking the talk of some serious change for a very long time now, only to be eclipsed by Mr. Platitude, Chuck Berry’s very own brown-eyed handsome man, then later a gal who makes the status quo in quicksand look positively dynamic. If Hillary was screaming "I’m supposed to be the winner", you could imagine Edwards ranting in frustration about how he was supposed to ride the change thing to victory.

It’s only gonna get worse for Edwards, and probably Obama too. Hillary gave a great speech the other night after winning New Hampshire. Great, that is, if she were Edwards. Like Kerry did to Dean in 2004, the foundering establishment candidate is stealing the working message from the challenger and will ride it – with all the authenticity of a call girl whispering in your ear that she loves you – to the nomination and then, not unlikely, the same fate Kerry brought on himself in the big race. It’s gonna be hard enough for Hillary to go up against someone like McCain, but if she tries to pawn herself off as some lefty populist change-agent, forget it. Only the Democratic Party could succeed in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory so effectively in a can’t-miss year. The only possible good news in that scenario is that a Republican president would have only two choices over his term in office. One would be to anger 70 percent of the country by governing as a Republican, and the other would be to anger the remaining 30 percent who form his base by not governing as a Republican. Assuming he could avoid impeachment for four years, Americans would be bound to finally learn their lesson by 2012. I’ll be long gone for New Zealand or somewhere by then, so I hope someone will write me to tell me all about it.

Speaking of whom, watching all the Democrats trying to look like the future is merely amusing when compared to the visage of a panel full of Republican presidential candidates clamoring to out-change each other with their laughable rhetoric. Hasn’t anyone told them that they have had effective – if not official, if not total – control of the government for three decades, and most especially the last one? Haven’t they heard of this guy named George Bush who’s been sitting in the White House for quite some time now, getting just about everything he wants, whenever he wants it, ranging from wars of choice to the absolute shredding of a certain document about which he once declared "It’s just a goddam piece of paper". You know the one in question, but as confirmed originalists, perhaps conservatives are confused about his meaning since, technically, it’s parchment, not paper (a more modern implement, and we certainly can’t have that). It was remarkable the degree to which they could talk about change without acknowledging the massive elephant in the room (pun intended), nor the four-letter word currently occupying the White House. One need not be a confirmed cynic to appreciate that the GOP candidates’ belief that this absurdity worthy of a Dali painting could be a winning strategy for wooing the electorate is a scary comment indeed about the health of American democracy. Even if they’re only partly correct (and very right)!

I’ve just returned from taking two buses ("New" and "Hamster") chock full of students up through the snowy landscapes of New England to observe America’s political process up close over the three days preceding the primary. As a politics junkie and a professional observer of human behavior, it was a blast. We had a great time. As a concerned citizen, on the other hand, it was a bag that was a whole lot more mixed.

On the bright side of the ledger is the retail politics for which Iowa and New Hampshire are famous. As the Monkees used to sing, "I’m a Believer" – though with caveats. So, I’m a qualified believer, let’s say (not exactly a good hook for a song). These up-close-and-personal processes are decent enough approximations of the kind of accountability that is so desperately needed in American politics that one is tempted to believe that if we only had more of them we could produce a better caliber of government in this country. But then you realize that, despite Iowa and New Hampshire, we still wind up with Clintons and Bushes in the White House. And you realize that a minuscule proportion of an already small population actually came out to decide the fate of the Free World during Iowa’s caucus night (though turnout in New Hampshire was encouragingly high – or, more properly, less discouragingly low than normal.)

There are other caveats as well. I have to admit that not a single candidate said or did a single thing that I didn’t already expect from them after months and years of imbibing them via the wholesale media. I also have to say that the citizens in New Hampshire let me down a bit by failing to grill the candidates. They expressed concerns, to be sure, and they anxiously listened for responses to their sometimes sophisticated policy questions. But no candidate in any venue I saw ever had to break a sweat.

Part of the problem was undoubtedly timing. If you go to New Hampshire during the three days before the primary, and if you do it in 2008, as opposed to 1968, you’re not really in retail-ville anymore. It’s not exactly wholesale politics, either, since you are seeing real live people (even the heavily programmed Hillary gave every appearance of actually being one), as opposed to purely television commercials, and you can shake their hands if you choose to, and maybe get your question asked. But by this time the venues are on the order of packed high school gyms, no longer your neighbor’s living room. So it’s not retail, but it’s not exactly wholesale either. I’m not sure where that leaves us. "Resale"? I hope not.

We jammed across southern New Hampshire as fast as we could, trying to pack as many events into three days as possible. That wasn’t easy, for a variety of reasons. One was the aforementioned debates (with another GOP one the next night), which was a cheap shot by the candidates, I must say. We had come a long way to see them and then they all congregated at one time in a single room which we were not allowed to enter. Rude. Or maybe they were hiding from us. The other big problem was that every venue was too small and every candidate (with more or less one exception) was running late, and usually very late (we waited two hours beyond the scheduled starting time to see Obama). The combination of these factors means that you have to get there early in order to win the privilege of getting admitted to a room where you then have the additional privilege of sitting and waiting. A one-hour event can therefore wipe-out four hours of your day, not including transit time, if you’re not careful.

Still, we got our licks in. Over the course of the long weekend we saw Clinton, Edwards, Gravel, Hunter, Kucinich, McCain, Obama and Richardson, and sundry other characters not necessarily running for president. (At one point I was mistaken for a somewhat lesser known candidate, who goes by the name of Vermin Supreme. That wasn’t exactly what I had had in mind for my fifteen minutes of fame in this lifetime, but I guess you take the cards life deals you.) Would we would have seen Mitt Smarmy too, but the smug little jerk had the audacity to actually be on time for his event (just like the punctuality obsessed George W. Bush). Where did he think he was campaigning, anyhow? Germany? By the time we would have gotten there from the previous late event, he was already gone. Serves him right in the end. Maybe if he had been late like he was supposed to have been he would have done better than second place. Oh well. As I told my students, if punctuality is your top criterion for selected a president, now you know your man. Look what it got us the last time.

One (quite remarkable, to my mind) reflection from the weekend concerns the degree to which ten people observing one event can come away with twelve different opinions. It’s a little disconcerting to me that anyone could find the Bill Richardson we had both just observed to be a compelling candidate, not least because during the debate he was literally describing what should be America’s policy toward the Soviet Union. That little slip of the tongue was acceptable as late as, say, 1995, given force of habit after 45 years of Cold War. But in 2008 (especially after living through presidential idiocy in 2001, 2002...) I’m gonna go ahead and hold out for a bit more mental acuity in the White House if it’s okay with the rest of y’all. Some people thought Ol’ Bill was the cat’s meow, though, while I couldn’t figure out what the hell he was doing in the race. Now, of course, he’s not. One theory is that he was bucking for the VP slot, but that seems absurd to me after seeing him in action. Until you remember that this is the Democratic Party we’re talking about, the same folks who’ve turned self-destruction into an art form. Anyhow, this sort of thing happened time after time, where we observers came away from the same event with completely different opinions.

Perhaps, in at least some cases, it was because the candidates present a variety of characteristics upon which to glom on to, according to whatever inclination floats your boat. Mike Gravel was the paradigmatic case. There he was courageously speaking truth to power on a variety of issues and challenging people to think revolutionary thoughts like the concept that America is not necessarily a better country than all the others (can you imagine?!). But, he also could come across as way over the top, sometimes doing both simultaneously. Hey Mike, the medium is the message, so you might want to consider turning it down from 11 just a notch, say to 10.8 or so. And I have to admit that even a semi-fan like me is gonna have problems with a statement like this whopper: "And I’ll bring peace to the Middle East! Don’t ask me for the details, just trust me that I know how to do it!" Um, will that be before, during or after you leap tall buildings in a single bound and run faster than a speeding bullet, dude?

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David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.  He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (dmg@regressiveantidote.net), (more...)
 
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