Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Two Good Candidates This Time?

What we have after Iowa and New Hampshire is the possibility of a presidential race between two candidates who are charismatic, honest and thoughtfully moderate.

It may make for a November the likes of which Baby Boomers have never seen.

Call 1968 the first election in which most Boomers voted, and count from there. The presence of Richard Nixon automatically disqualifies 1968 and 1972 on two of the three counts (his saving grace: Nixon was no rabid right-winger), and still in 1972 McGovern was further to the left than any Democrat in American history.

In 1976 neither Carter nor Ford had charisma. In 1980 and 1984 Reagan had plenty of charisma, but nobody has ever accused him of being an intellectual or of not being conservative enough. In 1984 and 1988 Mondale and Dukakis came straight out of liberal Democrats’ central casting. In 1992 and 1996 we had Clinton, whose parsing of the meaning of “is” makes him unfit to claim intellectual honesty, and we also had Poppy Bush and Bob Dole—nice guys, not driven by doctrinaire demons, but not exactly bursting with personal magnetism

Over the last two elections the younger Bush ran against two thoughtful Democrats who were moderate or at least realized the virtue of appearing so—but Gore and Kerry never managed to loosen up.

And then there is W. himself. Let’s just say he’d probably be a blast to have a beer or three with

That’s 40 years and ten elections in which more often than not [begin ital] both [end itals] candidates disappointed.

Is the end of the streak of awfulness?

Of the leading Republican candidates, Romney and Thompson are paint-by-the-numbers conservatives, with their soporific talk about guns and lower taxes. Can’t they think of something fresh, 20 years after Ronald Reagan left office? Giuliani may be a strong leader and moderate in domestic issues, but in the international arena he is capable of performing the improbable feat of making the United States even less respected than it is now. Ron Paul? As radical in his own way as George McGovern.

That leaves McCain and Huckabee. The latter has his own quiet brand of likeability (the first fundamentalist with irony, somebody called him), and seems more pragmatic than the stereotypical Christian conservative. But people who reject the basics of modern scientific thought cannot be called thoughtful.

Over on the Democratic side (where Richardson should give it up, Kucinich should return to his flying saucer, and Mike Gravel…who [begin itals] is [end itals] Mike Gavel?), Hillary Clinton has constructed a public persona so opaque, even post-tears, that it is no longer possible to tell what she is or is not. And Edwards has converted himself into a Democratic version of Mitt Romney, mouthing platitudes stale since Hubert Humphrey

Which leaves Obama. And the possibility of Obama versus McCain in November.

The Democrat’s appeal is that he has the power to recast the image of the United States abroad and at home. An Obama presidency will make America less race-conscious—we will look at him and see him as the president, not just as the black president. Overseas, the recasting is even more necessary—but is Obama too eager to run around the world embracing dictators? How well does he distinguish between diplomacy to prevent war (Iran, North Korea) and diplomacy to bring democracy (Cuba)?

McCain, too, has the power to make this country be itself again, with his principled stand against torture, his refusal to play immigrant basher along with most other Republicans. Even war opponents who are honest will admit (at least to themselves) that his support for the Iraq surge is born of honest conviction, not desperation or ignorance. But I keep thinking back to his “Bomb Iran” moment, singing it to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann.” And I wonder what making light of such a grave affair says about the man.

They both bear watching. As does the exciting possibility that for the first time, millions of Americans will know what it feels like to vote for a presidential candidate they actually like, instead of the lesser of two evils.

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