Hill of Beans: Exploration

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Even after Sept. 11, President Bush still feels like a new president to me. So it’s odd that with the new year, we’re in campaign season once again. We’re well along, in fact—only four months from the analogous point in the 1988 cycle (May 8, 1987) when Gary Hart pulled out after revelations that he had gone yachting (if that’s the word) with the woman called, invariably, "29-year-old actress-model Donna Rice." And at that point, the race for the nomination seemed like it had been over for months.

North Carolina Sen. John Edwards’ decision last week to run for the Democratic nomination opened up the betting pools. Dick Gephardt was set to announce that he was launching an "exploratory committee" to study a presidential run. "Exploratory committee" remains the strangest term of art in American politics. What’s to explore? ("Let’s get a team of proctologists in here," Gephardt told reporters, "and see if they can find a presidential campaign lurking in my G.I. tract.") Joe Lieberman is ready to go. And Tom Daschle is only weeks away, at a maximum.

An Edwards adviser said last week, "Karl Rove’s worst nightmare is a centrist Southern Democrat who can turn some of Bush’s red states blue." Edwards, it’s true, is as yet the only Southerner in the race. But it’s hard to see how that gives him a better chance of beating Bush than any of the others. This calculation of using a Southern Democrat works when you’re running against a guy from the old Midwestern/New England Republican stock: Carter against Ford, or Clinton against Bush Sr. or Dole. The calculation assumes that regional loyalties will trump ideological ones. When the candidate is a conservative Southerner like Bush, it doesn’t work. (We can leave for another day the argument over whether Bush is a phony or real Southerner.) It didn’t even work last election, when Al Gore, with all the force of incumbency behind him, won the popular vote but couldn’t crack his own state or Bill Clinton’s.

The second key element to the Edwards run is that he is a trial lawyer, one who made his fortune peeling off fees from absurd injury suits. Trial lawyers have long been Democrats’ biggest donors. Increasingly they make up a growing share of Democratic candidates, and they can run a mightily financed campaign. Races with trial lawyers in them tend to run along formulaic lines. The Republicans say: Joe McShark made his pile suing McDonald’s for making its coffee too hot. Democrats reply: Trial lawyers are the only ones who can police Harvey Van Corporate’s polluting campaign donors. So generally campaigns are fought to a standstill.

But some Republicans are better than others at the rhetorical games in a trial-lawyer race. The Republican National Committee is not too hot at it. Last Friday, after Edwards’ announcement, the RNC was e-mailing around a flier reading, rather lamely: "WHO IS JOHN EDWARDS? An Unaccomplished Liberal In Moderate Clothing And A Friend To His Fellow Personal Injury Trial Lawyers." Bush and Rove, on the other hand, are among the best. Bush made opposition to trial lawyers’ excesses one of the pillars of his 1994 gubernatorial race. And actually following through on his promises to cap outrageous courtroom settlements was one of the few impressive achievements of his governorship. One Rove protege, Republican John Cornyn, launched his national political career by attacking the mind-boggling corruption with which Texas’ part of the federal tobacco settlement was administered. He filed suit against state Attorney General Dan Morales to protest the way the legal "work" on Texas’ $17.3 billion cut was rewarded with $3.3 billion in attorneys’ fees, to be split by five Democratically connected trial lawyers. That comes to over half a billion—with a million dollars apiece. The upshot of this battle? Cornyn was elected last November as the newest senator from Texas. Morales got blown out in the Democratic primary for governor almost a year ago and his career looks to be over.

It’s possible Edwards will be able to neutralize the trial-lawyer issue well enough to run competitively. But to say he constitutes Karl Rove’s worst nightmare is delusional.

The New Dwarves
If Edwards has one thing going for him, it is the extraordinary record of self-destruction that his primary rivals have already assembled. You can go down the list. There is Richard Gephardt, who will have trouble carrying his own rightward-drifting swing state of Missouri in a presidential election. There is Joe Lieberman, who seems to be the last person in America who doesn’t realize that the only asset in his political bank account—his reputation for "honesty," "integrity" and being a "different kind of politician"—was fatally squandered through his jaw-dropping deviousness during the Florida recount. There is Howard Dean, who believes that backing one of the left’s least popular planks (gay rights) can be "balanced out" by backing one of the right’s least popular planks (widespread handgun ownership) to result in a centrist program. There is Gen. Wesley Clark, now camped out in Iowa, who is distinguished from the mooshiest kind of liberal only by his having presided over the disgraceful Kosovo war, which—we can safely say—will be the last war the United States fights on the same side as Al Qaeda.

But the Democratic candidate who has applied himself most zealously to self-destruction has been Tom Daschle. Once he succeeded in blowing his majority in the Senate through lackluster issues management, Daschle had nothing to lose in speaking out forcefully on the Trent Lott case. He chose instead to protect Lott out of Senate collegiality.

Just in case there were two people left in the country after that who might inadvertently vote for him if he ran for president, Daschle devoted the month of December to demonstrating as concretely as possible that he had no idea what a presidential run involved. Discussing Al Gore’s decision to drop out of the race, he told CNBC, "I think he could have won. He won last time, in terms of the popular vote. Nothing has changed in my opinion, except that people have seen what a deplorable record this administration has on the economy. If the economy is the issue, the Democrats are going to win." If Daschle really thinks "nothing has changed" since George Bush’s election except a couple of matters of economic mismanagement, he is unfit to hold office of any kind.

Bad Shots

America Online has recently been running a poll of its subscribers that will result in the selection of the Best Sports Photo of 2002. It becomes clear as one scrolls through the pics that sometime in the last decade or so, we’ve had a revolution in the American idea of what constitutes a good sports photograph. Because these are not sports photos at all. What they are are photos of sports celebrities showing emotion. There is Serena Williams grimacing with a racquet in front of her after winning the women’s singles title at Wimbledon last summer. There is Troy Percival pumping his fists and jutting out his belly on the mound, after the Angels’ World Series triumph. There is Juan Dixon hugging Lonnie Baxter after Maryland’s defeat of Indiana in the NCAA finals.

Whatever happened to photos of Bill Mazeroski rounding third with all the rabble of Pittsburgh running behind him, Lynn Swann at full stride with a 50-yard bomb dropping into his outstretched fingertips, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar following a hook shot into the basket with his goggled eyes? In short, whatever happened to photos of things I can’t do on my living room couch? Because I can definitely pump my fist in the air and say, "All right! Yo! Woo-woo! Yeah! We won! Hey!"

AOL’s choice of photos is an indication that something deep is changing in the way we watch sports. It seems, in fact, like we no longer admire athletes for their athletics so much as we live through their emotions. The shift has made pro sports much more lucrative than they were two decades ago. Franchises now sell for dozens of times what they sold for in the 70s. Where does the value-added come from? If you wanted to be charitable about it, you could say that sports have come to fulfill the role that downmarket stage dramas did in the pre-television age. If you wanted to be uncharitable about it, you would say that all sports have profited by rejiggering themselves to resemble pro wrestling.

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