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Politics in the 21st Century, or What I Wouldn't Give for a Good Soundbite

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As a liberal Democrat, I entered this campaign season with more optimism than I've felt for a long, long time. There had to be a silver lining to the Republicans screwing this country up so bad, and there was. There was no possible way they could win this time around. Their base was shrinking while ours was growing, and the independents were strongly trending our way, too. And if the generic indicators weren't enough, we seemed to have an exceptionally strong field of candidates, while they had one of the sorriest groups to ever inflict itself on a democracy, a group running as if their goal was to make George Bush look intelligent and statesmanlike. We couldn't lose.

But now with the campaign in full swing, after observing the overhyped insanity of Iowa and New Hampshire, I find myself doubting again. The quality of our political discourse seems to continue its downward spiral, and shows no indication of getting better. The 2008 campaign looks like it's going to end up as a race between dumb and dumber.

First, let's look at the Democrats. The original field included Senators Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, two of the longest-serving and most distinguished Senators in recent history. Biden was first elected at the age of 29, and only the fact that he had a birthday before his swearing-in allowed him to even take office. Dodd entered the House right behind him and soon followed him to the Senate, plus he had shown an admirable commitment to public service and curiosity about the world by joining the Peace Corps right out of college. Few Senators not displaying symptoms of Alzheimer's have had the legislative experience of these two, and while I don't always agree with either of them, they clearly do their homework and have a firm grasp of the issues most important to them. Unfortunately, this makes it inevitable that they will seem a little deeper than Tim "Biff" Russert when they appear on Meet the Press, and no matter how low that bar gets, it simply can't be tolerated. So they're gone.

Then there's New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, formerly a long-serving Congressman, cabinet officer, and ambassador to the United Nations. Has anyone ever run for President with a more comprehensive resume than that, including executive, legislative, administrative, and diplomatic experience? Certainly not in my lifetime. But to the media, this means he's really running for vice president. Good luck, Bill.

My personal favorite all along has been Congressman Dennis Kucinich, and here I must digress for a moment to put in a word in defense of the much-maligned Democratic Congressional leadership of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. Hardly a day goes by that I don't see them excoriated by the netroots for failing to stand up to Bush, taking impeachment off the table, continuing to fund the war, and allowing our civil liberties to be trampled through the Patriot Act. Yet Kucinich has proposed articles of impeachment, opposed the war from day one and every subsequent funding proposal, and actually read and opposed the Patriot Act even during the post-9/11 hysteria. For this record of sound judgment and political courage, New Hampshire Democrats rewarded him with exactly 1% of the vote. If the Democratic base won't stand behind him for taking these stands, why would Pelosi and Reid think we would stand behind them if they did? Anyway, so much for the extreme left I keep reading has taken over the Democratic Party. Who? Me?

So there we are. Iowa and New Hampshire have played their historic roles of winnowing the field down to the three least qualified candidates -- the former one-term Senator (John Edwards), the not even one-term Senator (Barack Obama), and the barely one-term Senator (Hillary Clinton), none of whom has any particularly noteworthy accomplishment in the Senate, although all of whom have cast a number of highly dubious votes. To their credit, Obama showed better judgment before he entered the Senate, and Edwards has shown better judgment since he left. And Clinton has the added advantage of having watched someone else be President up close, although one could be forgiven for noting she could have saved us all a lot of trouble if she had been watching a little more closely, if you know what I mean.

But let's be fair. Obama and Edwards are both good-looking and have a certain charisma factor, while Clinton doesn't look bad for 60 and is closely associated with an administration that most Democrats look back on fondly, so maybe this isn't so irrational. But what really started to bother me was what I saw watching clips of various rallies last weekend.

This fall, I watched a number of re-enactments of the Lincoln-Douglas debates on C-Span. The format was one candidate spoke for an hour, followed by a 90-minute rebuttal, and then a half-hour re-rebuttal. Thousands of people rode wagons or horses or walked for hours to attend these events, where they nodded knowingly to quotes from Shakespeare or the Bible, all taken down verbatim by shorthand-scribbling reporters to be printed and read in newspapers across the country.

Can you imagine any of our present-day candidates speaking extemporaneously for an hour-and-a-half about anything? Of course you can't. And no TV network would want to show it if they could, and hardly any viewers would watch it if they did.

No, with the advent of television, our attention-spans shortened, and Walter and Chet and David had to fit everything we needed to know into a half-hour show, and thus was born the soundbite. As the years passed, the actual amount of news presented on the News shrank to about 10 minutes, and the segments and soundbites have shrunk accordingly. I remember reading about a scholarly study which tried to estimate the IQ's of our Presidents since 1960 by the vocabularies they used in unscripted moments, like debates. It showed a steadily downward trend. I can't remember the exact results, but I do remember Gerry Ford ranked toward the top. That pretty much tells you all you need to know.

But I never thought I'd see what I saw this weekend. Apparently, meaningful political communication must now be reduceable to a single word. Obama says the word "Change" so often he's becoming more annoying than a Head-On commercial. And how will we achieve it? "Hope." Clinton's word was "Experience," but that obviously didn't sell in Iowa, so in New Hampshire, she was greeted at her rallies by a sea of signs that said simply, "Ready," as in "Ready" for "Change," which she says she's made so often you'd think her career was spent in the check-out lane at Wal-Mart. Edwards would like to use "Change," but Obama already has it, so he's picked the word "Fight" to distinguish his route to "Change" from Obama's. For my part, I'm "Ready" to "Fight" for "Change," and I "Hope" it happens. But who do I vote for?

The Republicans are no better. Giuliani's "9/11" was the original one-word candidacy. McCain has adopted "Experience," which seems to be working better over there, and Huckabee has "Christ" -- rather audacious, but it seems effective, too. Romney no doubt has a word, but it's hard to tell what it is because he never uses the same one twice, and Thompson will have one as soon as he summons the energy.

I won't dwell on the Republicans too much. Huckabee, who believes God created the universe in six days about 6,000 years ago, is presented as the "grounded" candidate. 'Nuff said. The GOP's main contribution to the process at this point is its comedic value. I thoroughly enjoyed watching them all pile on Romney during one of the debates this weekend. Sorry Mitt, but that's what you get for joining a party whose unifying principle is being a bully. Even Thompson got in on the kickfest, not because it could save his so-called "campaign," but simply because, as a Republican, he thought it would be fun. At least this time they picked a deserving victim.

So I'd vote for any of the three top Democrats over any one of that group of losers, but which one? It can't be Clinton, not because I have so much against her personally or politically, but because I just think we should resemble a Banana Republic as little as possible. Call me a racist.

So Edwards or Obama? I like the fact that Edwards made a career out of sticking it to big, soulless corporations. I'm all for that. And he apparently did well for a lot of ordinary people in the process, but he seems to have done even better for himself. Don't get me wrong. I don't think you should have to make a huge material sacrifice to be a sincere liberal, but then again, the real heroes of our time -- Gandhi, Dr. King, Mandela -- they certainly did. It's not a bad sign.

Obama's main virtue is his soaring rhetoric, but that's just a result of his having spent a healthy amount of time in black churches, the one place in America where oratory is still a respected artform. White pundits seem mystified that Obama hasn't locked up the African-American vote, but it's just that while his speeches are inspiring to most white ears, it's only because they never hear good speeches. Black folks can hear that stuff every Sunday, from good people and utter charlatans alike, so they take a more skeptical "show me the money" approach.

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Gregg Gordon is a writer, musician, activist, and otherwise ne'er-do-well in Columbus, Ohio. "Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little." - Edmund Burke
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