Mugger: Historical Blindness

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Despite the near hysteria in the media, as ever fixating on Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton’s gaffe of the moment, it’s a great year to be a Democrat. In fact, the script for the 2008 presidential election had its first draft three years ago, after the Bush administration’s bungling of Hurricane Katrina—you’d think, reading a lot of the online and print commentary, that President Bush and his staff actually willed the catastrophic storm, when it was really an example of egregious and lackluster response—and was furthered by the ’06 midterm elections. And now, as the economy quickly retreats into a down cycle, which will certainly continue well past November, it’s still very difficult to see just how John McCain can defeat Obama.

Yes, there’s the argument, peddled by Clinton and her surrogates, that Obama—given his supposed “elitism” and association with Rev. Jeremiah Wright—can’t win battleground states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and Michigan, but that’s hogwash. It’s true that Obama will suffer from (to be charitable) subconscious racism among blocs of older white voters (who’d never admit as much to a pollster), but his extraordinary appeal to Americans under the age of 40 and proven ability to rally African Americans in massive numbers makes that an electoral wash.

I’m not betting a nickel on this election—which pisses me off, since casual wagers are a lot of fun—abstaining as in ’96 when unlucky Bob Dole, finally in the national limelight, was politically dead on arrival.

Several weeks ago, writing in The New York Review of Books, Elizabeth Drew (mercifully confined to that forgotten ghetto after far too many years of filing endless and dated “Letter From Washington” dispatches for The New Yorker) made the absurd statement that the continuing battle between Obama and Clinton is “dividing friends and families like no other [election] I’ve seen.”

I don’t mean to pick on a woman who’s advancing in years, but is Drew’s memory so faulty that she doesn’t recall the extremely contentious intra-party disputes 40 years ago pitting the supporters of Sens. Gene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy against each other? I do, and the rancor of that year makes it seem like Obama and Clinton are merely squabbling on a play date. I was a teenager at the time and licked stamps for McCarthy at the local headquarters. I was outraged when Kennedy, after rebuffing for months the pleas of Allard Lowenstein to challenge LBJ, opportunistically announced his candidacy just days after the Minnesotan nearly defeated the incumbent in the New Hampshire primary. Typical Kennedy style, was the sentiment in the McCarthy camp. One of my brothers, in college then, quickly switched over to RFK, and we debated heatedly and in anger right up to the day when Kennedy met his tragic and senseless demise in Los Angeles.

More recently, the weird outcome of the 2000 election made it impossible for Bush and Gore partisans to bring up politics at the dinner table, water cooler or at parties, for fear of fracturing friendships, so pronounced was, to use the phrase of the month, the bitterness. Some of us learned the hard way—I’ve just now repaired the damage among several acquaintances for whom my support for Bush was just beyond the pale. One unseasonably warm day, in Tribeca’s Washington Market Park, a buddy and I nearly came to blows about the Supreme Court’s nod in favor of Bush, and it was only the intervention of our wives,, and the sight of our kids playing nearby, that cooled things down. (Lucky for me, since I’d have been squashed like a bug.) Now, we keep in touch by email or phone nearly every day;, but we keep the topics confined to our mutual Red Sox obsession, current films and the various difficulties of trying to co-exist with teenagers in our respective dwellings.

The current division between Democrats is another example of the myopic mind-set of liberal reporters, columnists, editorialists and television commentators, who, while perhaps engaging in political scuffles within their incestuous world, imagine that the entirety of the nation feels the same way. That’s simply not true: When the nomination is settled, Democrats, desperate to regain the White House, will back their candidate with a vigor and enthusiasm not seen for decades. In my small office in north Baltimore, where I’m the lone person supporting McCain, there’s fascination, and some disgust, about the prolonged primary. But although all five of my colleagues are for Obama, not one of them has even considered the possibility of voting for McCain should Clinton improbably and undoubtedly sleazily wrest the nomination from their preferred candidate.

They can’t wait to vote against the Republicans in November. It could be that the Times’ Paul Krugman will stay at home on Election Day—his persistent animus aimed at Obama is one of this year’s great media mysteries, although my suspicion is that his investment in the short-lived campaign of John Edwards is the explanation—but surely he’d be an anomaly.

Far too much nonsense has been written about the Philadelphia debate and the alleged incompetence of ABC’s Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos asking “gotcha” questions instead of engaging the competitors in serious policy issues. I suppose Clinton is more centrist than Obama, although her motives, like her husband’s, are always suspect; but after what must be a record fro presidential debates, how many times can the inquisitors query the contenders on how they’d govern more effectively , and equitably, than Bush?

Nancy Franklin, in the April 28 New Yorker, after moaning about the “death march” between Obama and Clinton—talk about hyperbole!—was at least sensible enough to conclude her television critique by writing: “They were flawed and they were impressive, and to me they both looked like winners.” Franklin prefers Clinton, echoing a common Boomer sentiment, saying, “When you’ve been a feminist all your life, and hoping since kindergarten that a woman would be president in your lifetime, and you’re now a certain age, and now, Oh, my God, here is that woman, it’s easy to get a little grandiose.” (For the record, I don’t recall any girls in kindergarten ever talking about politics.) Yet she also lapses into New York-Boston speak, claiming, “I know hardly anyone who hasn’t also been made a little crazy [by the primary fight].”

Most Democrats across the country, I’m certain, aren’t as consumed by the current political drama; it’s a source of interest, obviously, but less important than paying bills, helping their kids with homework, tending to gardens, figuring out student loans, attending sporting events and trying to stay healthy. When the time comes, they’ll vote for the Democrat, celebrate after a likely victory, and get on with their lives.

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