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I'm OK, You're OK, We're Screwed

The first time I voted for President was in 1988; I cast my absentee ballot for Michael Dukakis, and watched him go down to bitter defeat. There were many, many reasons for that defeat, but the moment I remember thinking “he’s going to lose” was not the famous photograph of the Duke of Brookline in a tank but a back page in one of the newsmagazines, Time or Newsweek I think, but quite possibly the Sunday Magazine of either the New York Times or the Philadelphia Inquirer. I remember that it was on glossy paper, so it must have been a magazine of some kind, and I think there was one of those half-tone blue-gray backgrounds that I associate with the newsweeklies more than with the ones that go along with the Sunday paper.

The page was a side-by-side column, written by supporters of the two (major-party) candidates, and I don’t remember who the writers were. The journal (whichever it was) had asked for a note written as if from the future, near the end of their preferred candidate’s first term. The Democrat wrote a gentle note saying, in effect, that it’s been a tough four years, and we’ve all had to make sacrifices, but we are starting to see some real results, and if we continue to work hard, we are going to really lick the serious problems in this country. The Republican said, in effect, that he knows you aren’t really listening, and he doesn’t blame you, because you’ve had it really good for the last four years, and it’s just going to keep getting better.

Oh, there were policy things in there. The Republican, for instance, mentioned how nice it was to have more of your tax money back. The Democrat, I believe, talked about the reduced number of homeless on the streets. But the policies weren’t important. The overwhelming effect was simple, and had less to do with the policy proposals than the basic description of the universe. Republicans: US Rules! Democrats: US is fucked! Republicans: Take a break! Democrats: Buckle down!

I looked up from the paper and thought “That’s it. It’s over. We lose.”

Now, I can’t honestly claim that the bulk of the voting population saw anything even remotely like this article, or that they even noticed the difference in worldviews. Maybe the real tipping point in the election really was the photo of the tank. Or (as I have also claimed) that the Democrats ran against a popular President, rather than his unpopular Vice-President (who was the actual candidate). But to me, in my rather hazy memory, it’s a symbol.

In the four presidential elections since then, and in the handful of other races I’ve paid close attention to, I’ve been on the lookout for how that different perception of the world comes into play. In the 1992 election, Bill Clinton avoided the buckle down! taint, and for all that he ran on Change!, he didn’t (I think) give off the impression that he that we were all screwed. In 1996, Bob Dole was the one giving off the smell of screwed-ness, and it didn’t work for him at all against the triumphant incumbent. In 2000, strangely, Al Gore took up the fight of the People against the Powerful, and won a very close election against a challenger who said that things were pretty good. In 2004, Our Only President (not, strange to say, the victor of the previous election) emphasized the hard work that he had been doing, and seemed to me to be saying that we were, if not screwed, at least beleaguered. And he won that one, by a whisker.

This year, I read the whole field as saying the same thing: We’re screwed, and we need to buckle down, and maybe after my first term things will begin to turn around. This is not just the Democrats, who may be expected to gripe, having been altogether out of power until just recently, and who will be challenging the incumbent party of an extraordinarily unpopular President. It’s Republicans, too. Senator Brownback says “Our land needs healing. Our people need hope. Our world needs help.” Governor Romney says “If there ever was a time when innovation and transformation were needed in government, it is now. We have lost faith in government, not in just one party, not in just one house, but in government.”

Twenty years ago, it was obvious to me that this country and its voters did not want to hear that we were screwed, that we needed to spend a long time working very hard to fix our serious and significant problems. We wanted to hear that things were great. I know, not all of us. Some of us voted for the Duke. Not enough.

Now, are things different? Is it obvious that we’ve got a lot of work to do? I don’t just mean in Iraq (where an irresponsible candidate could intimate that all we need to do is pack up our troubles in an old kit bag and head home). Do we know that it’s time to buckle down on global warming? Do we know that it’s time to buckle down on our infrastructure? Do we know that it’s time to buckle down on income inequality? Do we know that it’s time to buckle down on health care? Or will we vote for someone who will tell us that it’s all right, that we can elect a President who will soothe us and take care of things, and tell us that we really are all right, and that things really are getting better and better, every day and in every way?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

I think the candidates' messages are going to differ mostly on what work _exactly_ to do and how to do it. The closest to "we really are all right" that a candidate can get is "stay the course," and the electorate gave a pretty strong signal in the 2006 elections that they were not happy with staying the course.

Unless Al Gore runs, I doubt any of the serious candidates are going to level with the American people about just how much work we've got to do, but I expect the Democrats to be much more honest than the Republicans, 'cause the tools of the Money party aren't going to call for the thing that is going to make it truly possible to get work done -- raising taxes on the wealthy to restore to the American people at least some of what the filthy rich have looted during the Bush kleptocracy.

Thus, the Republican candidates will want to _appear_ serious about change so that they can keep the White House and thereby _prevent_ change, wheras the Democrats (or some of them, anyway) are _actually_ serious about it.


I wonder, though, if some candidate can frame a campaign by saying "It'll be OK, Senator Null will get rid of the bad man. Don't worry, the bad, bad man is gone, now, it'll be OK."

That is, the undeniable fact that Our Only President and his cabal of incompetents and fools have been disastrous for our country (and the world, but I am speaking here of our domestic election) may well lead people to believe that getting rid of them will be enough. Getting rid of them is the first step, sure, but do we want to know about that? Or will enough of us be willing to believe whatever we need to believe to avoid responsibility?

Thanks,
-V.


I don't know the answer to that question, but I think it will be answered, for all intents and purposes, in the Democratic primary. The next president is going to be a Democrat, as the Republican candidate is going to be held responsible for the misdeeds of the Bush administration.

Senator Clinton seems to be preparing to run on a "they were bad men" centrist platform. Senators Edwards and Obama seem to be preparing to run on "things are bad, and we must do something about it" platforms, and if we are so fortunate as to have Vice President Gore in the race, he will surely be running on the latter sort of platform.

if Senator Clinton wins, it will be because people believe that getting Bush out of office and putting Democrats in Congress will be enough to make things better, and that aside from that, there should be as little change in the status quo as possible.

I think Senator Clinton is going to face the same kind of struggle in the Democratic presidential primary that Senator and word-class lying, hypocritical worm Joe Lieberman faced in his Senatorial primary. Lieberman lost, and only Connecticut's loose third-party rules enabled him to use the power of incumbency to win in the general election. Senator Clinton is not nearly as bad as Senator and WCLHW Lieberman, but the challengers are a great deal stronger, and national outrage against the Iraq war is only going to grow. I think it is still quite possible that Senator Clinton will win the nomination (unless Gore runs), but I hope that either she will pushed through the primary process to develop a platform that is more committee to change, or that she will lose the nomination.


I hesitate to disagree with you, but I don't really think Senator Lieberman is world-class.

Thanks,
-V.


I'll accept that correction.


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