Whitesburg KY

Early birds



Imagine if the World Series started on the Fourth of July, while everyone was barbecuing and no one but the sportswriters had any idea who was on first.

That’s what this presidential campaign is beginning to resemble.

Fred Thompson has been through three campaign managers, and he has yet to declare.

John McCain is being written off, down to single digits in Iowa, and they haven’t even had their straw poll, much less the caucus that picks the delegates to county conventions that pick the delegates to the state convention, who then get to go to the national convention.

South Carolina is talking about moving up its date, which means New Hampshire will have to move up its contest, which means Iowa and Christmas will be in a run for attention. Maybe Santa Claus can get on the ballot.

As Newt Gingrich rightly pointed out, it’s nothing less than “insane.” Candidates are being asked to detail their plans to deal with problems that are at least two years down the road. So anything they say now is likely to be overtaken by unpredictable events and circumstances.

Everyone, with the exception of Gingrich himself, has bought into the conventional wisdom that you can’t win if you don’t announce early – because of the amount of money you’ll need to raise. So how much you raise, rather than what you have to say, becomes the measure of success and the determinant of whether anyone will listen to you.

There have been so many debates, with so many stabs at gimmicky formats and would-be star hosts, that it feels more like a tryout for American Idol than for the American president. Even insiders are bored. Audiences are deserting in droves. Maybe Fox is lucky to be the target of a Democratic boycott. Regular programming is now beating regular debates.

By the time most of the public starts paying attention, the candidates are likely to be so tired, so scripted, so overexposed and sound bitten to death that they’re bound to come across as a bunch of well-rehearsed phonies, like a Broadway show that has lost all its freshness.

Does anyone win in this game?

Absolutely: The consultants who are paid by the month. The media makers who get a percentage of the buy. The fundraisers who are rewarded according to how much they raise.

And the joke writers and cynics who make a living making fun of politics win big.

I remember being asked, more than a year ago, on a show that will remain nameless, what Hillary Clinton would do about health care if she were elected president. I answered honestly. I didn’t have a clue. Make it better, I said. Try to make it more affordable and accessible. But the details? What a ridiculous thing to pretend to know – when you have no idea whether it would be a Democratic or a Republican Congress, whether we’d be facing a surplus or a deficit, whether we’d be busy fighting a war – much less try to explain in 30 seconds.

Years ago, when I was working on issues in my first presidential campaign, my boss asked me to draft a “white paper” on Senator Kennedy’s positions on urban policy. As is often the case in campaigns, I had one day to do it. So I quickly reviewed his prior speeches, made a few phone calls and frantically started writing. In no time, I had a 20-plus-page document. My boss, more experienced in the ways of political reporters than I, warned me that I better put a cover sheet on the front outlining the “highlights,” which I did – including the usual Democratic promises of more housing for the poor, better mass transit, including public transportation, more opportunities for young people, that sort of thing.

The next day, it was released, and sure enough, the newspapers and television news all reported that the candidate had issued a comprehensive and detailed white paper with plans to accomplish all the things I’d included in the bullet points up front. Mostly, of course, they covered the urban vote – where it was important and who was going to get it, the politics of the paper and not the substance of it.

I was a quick learner. After that, I wrote one a week, on women’s issues and the auto industry and everything else I could think of, and it worked. The fact that the 25-year-old author of these positions was not going to have to implement any of them, even if we won, didn’t matter to anyone else, so it certainly didn’t matter to me. I’d make up a number about how much it would cost, and which savings and reforms would pay for it, and everyone was happy. So when the talk-show host asked me about Hillary’s health care plan, I almost laughed, thinking about the younger version of myself who would one day draft it, and the real questions of character and experience behind my decision to support her.

But we never got that far. Like the most recent round of presidential debates, I only had 30 seconds to answer, and he kept interrupting me anyway, so even the attentive viewer learned nothing. Starting the campaign early is no guarantee that anyone will learn any more about what they need to know. In fact, the opposite may turn out to be true.

©2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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