Trying to explain anything complicated, or anything you think people should think about but you know they don’t really want to think about, you cast about for some comparison that will grab the attention of anyone likely to skim the news. So you sit and think about that.
One hallmark of American life is that, for most Americans, life peaks in their senior year of high school. It’s all downhill from there. The hotshot football player never made it big in college ball and now sells insurance. The prom queen is one more bored suburban mom or working in an office, resigned and vaguely but deeply discontented. The hard rocker was never discovered and is now in middle management. You can make our own list. But for one brief shining moment all was possible, you felt things (or each other) passionately. As for the future, obscurity was impossible. That would never happen. The world was alive and you were part of it all – and you were wanted, at least by the music industry, the retail fashion industry, manufacturers of electronic gizmos and the studio accountants out here in Hollywood. You were important. Then you moved on, as you had to, and all you had was nostalgia – and work to do. And the only ones who pay attention to you now are the nostalgia marketers and the folks at PBS raising funds with shows featuring pop acts from your glory days – fat old men who sound right but now look all wrong. Now you don’t go to reunions. That is just too depressing.
But people remember that one year – you can even see, touch, feel, hear and smell one particular hour, one particular Friday night in autumn so long ago, and so on. Those who are paid to explain the world in nine hundred words twice a week know that. High school is a good hook.
Howard Fineman of Newsweek knows that. That’s why he can write something like this:
You knew Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in high school. At least I did. They were candidates in the student senate election. She was the worthy but puffed-up Miss Perfect, all poodle skirts and multicolored binders clutched to her chest. He was the lanky, mysterious transfer student – from Hawaii by way of Indonesia no less – who Knew Things and was way too cool to carry more than one book at a time. Who would be leader of the pack?
Presidential elections are high school writ large, of course, and that is especially true when, as now, much of the early nomination race is based in the U.S. Capitol. It is even more the case when the party in question, and here we are talking about the Democrats, is not sharply divided ideologically. They have a good chance in ’08 to oust the fading prep/jock/ROTC/Up-With-People alliance.
That was from a year ago. This, from Michael Scherer, from his new Time Magazine blog, is from right now – The GOP’s High School Debate: The Cool Kid vs. the Valedictorian:
Here’s one thing you need to know about John McCain. He’s always been the coolest kid in school. He was the brat who racked up demerits at the Naval Academy. He was the hot dog pilot who went back to the skies weeks after almost dying in a fire on the U.S.S. Forrestal. His first wife was a model. His second wife was a rich girl, 17 years his junior. He kept himself together during years of North Vietnamese torture and solitary confinement. When he sits in the back of his campaign bus, we reporters gather like kids in the cafeteria huddling around the star quarterback. We ask him tough questions, and we try to make him slip up, but almost inevitably we come around to admiring him. He wants the challenge. He likes the give and take. He is, to put it simply, cooler than us.
Scherer was obviously a nerd in high school. And he’s not just using high school as a hook. The man is stuck there:
Now here’s the thing you need to know about Mitt Romney. He is the overachiever, the do-gooder, the kid in class who always does everything right. All his life he has outperformed, as a Mormon missionary in France, as a corporate takeover consultant, as the guy who saved the Winter Olympics from financial ruin. He works crazy hours and apologizes after he makes a joke, because he is worried you won’t understand his meaning. He is the one who takes endless notes in every class and has a little plastic container inside his locker for all of his mechanical pencils. He will probably be the valedictorian, and he will surely disappoint you at graduation by giving a bland speech that all the parents just love. “Isn’t that boy so sweet,” say all the moms.
Wait – this is supposed to be cleaver and inventive analysis by analogy. What’s with the seething resentment? One senses that he never got over high school and is probing old scars, muttering to himself, and transferring quite a bit of something private to something that’s not. On the other hand, he may just assume we all do this. And we may.
In any event, here’s how he frames the situation that Republicans face in this year’s New Hampshire primary – “Do we elect the jock or the overachiever? Do we go with cool and confident, or cautious and competent?”
And as for the most recent debate, we get this – “So who won? It depends whom you liked in high school. Did you want to park with the jock? Or did you admire the smart kid who volunteered Sundays at the food bank? It’s your call.”
But wait! There’s more:
A single blog post can only contain so much, but if you are wondering, Mike Huckabee also fits in my mythical high school typology. He is the class clown with the weight problem everyone likes, who always seemed to have his heart in the right place. When he runs for class president, you are tempted to vote for him if only because you just know he would make the weekly assemblies more fun. He also wants a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion, and he thinks gay marriage will destroy civilization.
All this is a little unsettling, like Uncle Frank, who never amounted to much, going on about scoring the winning touchdown and then kissing the homecoming queen way back when, then passing out in the Lazy-Boy as a rerun of Grease blares on the television in front of him, and no one wants to turn it off as he might wake up and offer more slurred stories. It’s embarrassing, and sad, and you get angry.
George Will doesn’t write such nonsense, although he has his moments. At least he’s not stuck on (or in) high school. He one of those pro-business conservatives, quite unhappy with Edwards and Huckabee, and not fond of nascent adolescent traits worn as badges of honor by people who are now, whether they like it or now, adults. He’d just as soon Barack Obama became president. It would be the best thing that happened to the nation in a long time:
Barack Obama, who might be mercifully closing the Clinton parenthesis in presidential history, is refreshingly cerebral amid this recrudescence of the paranoid style in American politics. He is the un-Edwards and un-Huckabee – an adult aiming to reform the real world rather than an adolescent fantasizing mock-heroic “fights” against fictitious villains in a left-wing cartoon version of this country.
Yep, this is not high school. And Obama often says actual adult things:
If you know who you are, if you know what you believe in, if you know what you are fighting for, then you can afford to listen to folks who don’t agree with you, you can afford to reach across the aisle every once in a while. It won’t hurt you. You won’t be compromised and you will be able to form the majorities that will defeat the special interests and win elections.
The outraged-for-seven-years hard-left folks at Daily Kos should be worried (they are), and what will the self-righteous do if someone actually listen to them and respects them? Hey – this isn’t high school.
Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly, generally behind the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, after what happened in Iowa is still trying to figure out what’s up with Obama:
Obama won (or tied) among all income groups and among union households. This is really pretty startling considering Hillary Clinton’s supposed strength among blue collar voters (not to mention all those union endorsements she snagged) and John Edwards’ fiery working class populism. Ron Brownstein’s famous column last year dubbing Clinton the “beer track” candidate and Obama the “wine track” candidate got a lot of attention, but in Iowa, at least, that wasn’t true. Turns out that beer-chugging union members like Obama pretty well after all.
One his readers tries to set him straight:
I know why the youth are excited about Obama. NO ONE has ever said those hopeful “we are all Americans” things to them before! They missed the last big bi-partisan American civil religion wave… they weren’t born yet. They messages they have gotten have been divisive, negative, that being American means being AGAINST other Americans!
Barak is simply preaching American civics and representative democracy and good government… the same stuff that made (before Bush) the rest of the world look to us as a model.
I’m THRILLED to know that my kids have the opportunity to hear a REAL American stump speech! It works, we ARE in this together and Obama is simply stating the obvious.
The divisive, negative messages they have gotten, that being American means being against other Americans, are so high school, actually – the mean girls gossiping and the braggart boys showing off, hoping the rich and mean jock doesn’t smack them, just for the fun of it. Hey, George has been known to do that.
But if the high school stuff doesn’t work for you, there are alternatives. Over at the Times of London, the American conservative who used to be a Brit, Andrew Sullivan, has a column explaining things here to the Brits there. It’s all very simple. You see, Barack Obama is actually the “liberal Reagan” who can unite America.
What? This may make sense if you follow his process of elimination. Even if anyone says so, Obama is not “the effete loser” Adlai Stevenson. He’s more dynamic. He actually does things. And he’s not Jack Kennedy either, who won “by out-hawking Nixon in 1960.” Obama is a clear anti-Iraq War candidate, so that doesn’t work. And he’s not Bobby Kennedy, “a mix of inner steel and an evolving moral candidacy.” He comes fully formed, although if a vote for Bobby in 1968 was seen by many “as a form of collective self-absolution for Vietnam” Obama does appeal to Americans who do not recognize what their country has become these past few years.
So what do you have left? Reagan. And that should worry Republicans:
Reagan was the cutting edge of the last realignment in American politics. With a good-natured, civil appeal to Democrats who felt abandoned by their own party under Jimmy Carter, Reagan revolutionized the reach of his own party.
He didn’t aim for a mere plurality, as Bill Clinton did. Nor did he try for a polarizing 51% strategy, as George W Bush has done. He ran as a national candidate, in search of a national mandate, a proud Republican who nonetheless wanted Democrats to vote for him.
He came out of a period in which Americans had become sickened by the incompetence of their own government. Reagan shocked America’s elites by pivoting that discontent into a victory in 1980. And by his second term, he won 49 out of 50 states.
And the Republicans need to worry about the Republicans who like the guy:
What has long been remarkable to me is how this liberal politician fails to alienate conservatives. In fact, many like him a great deal. His calm and reasoned demeanor, his crisp style, his refusal to engage in racial identity politics: these appeal to disaffected Republicans.
He is particularly attractive to those on the American right who feel betrayed by the Bush administration’s version of conservatism, just as many Democrats felt betrayed by Jimmy Carter’s liberalism.
These voters – non-evangelical, fiscally and militarily prudent, socially tolerant – do not feel at home in the angry, Southern, anti-immigrant Republican party of the past few years.
Almost a quarter of those voting in the Democratic caucus last Thursday night were Republicans or independents. In both categories, Obama beat Clinton by more than two to one.
Something is up, and high school has nothing to do with it. Even the Baptist preacher is a problem:
Huckabee is the most talented natural politician. And he has taken Bushism to its logical conclusion.
He argues – proudly and simply – for a politics based overwhelmingly on religion. He refuses to apologize for previous statements that he wants to reclaim America for Christ or that people with Aids should be quarantined.
In Iowa, he won the born-again vote and the vote of Bush fans. He’s the kind of preacher who lets you know he likes a beer and knows his rock ‘n’ roll. It works. One slogan seemed as powerful as it is simple: “I Like Mike.” And so many do.
And, unlike Bush, Huckabee has combined a belief in the paternalist state with a hostility to Wall Street. He is a potential builder of a future Republicanism that is as socially conservative as it is economically populist: extremely hostile to illegal immigrants, gay couples and abortion, but just as angry at big corporations, free trade and the globalised gilded elites.
… The simmering class resentment, which is just beneath the surface, clearly motivates his supporters. When they were attacked by Washington Republicans as know-nothings, they responded by surging to the polls. They can smell the condescension. And it angers them.
It may be that Huckabee, as the conventional wisdom has it, cannot win the nomination, but who else is there – Old McCain, Slick Romney, Sleepy Thompson, the ethically challenged mayor from the Big Apple? It’s not looking good. Nominate any of them and grumpy Republicans may look for their Reagan, and find he’s now the skinny black guy.
Ah well, they very well could run a McCain-Huckabee ticket, by default. That’s not promising.
I should have added Ron Paul to that list. Paul, to his credit, talks about the existence of problems in the economy and sells himself as a person who would implement policies to alleviate ordinary people’s economic situation.
When I first heard anecdotal evidence and then saw some Iowa entrance poll data that indicated that some folks are backing Paul on economic grounds, I was a bit mystified. But as with Huckabee, it goes back to the vacuousness and weirdness of the mainstream campaigns. Paul gets up there onstage and suggests that fiat money is the cause of high oil prices because we’re devaluing our currency. This is flat-out wrong and suggests a strange ignorance on the part of a monetary policy obsessive (to make a long story short, there’s a reason we distinguish between “real” and “nominal” prices and the “real” ones are the real ones that matter; meanwhile, international oil transactions are conducted in dollars anyway). But for that matter, he also thinks the gold standard would reign in health care inflation.
It’s all hollow and absurd, even more so than Huckabee’s populist case for a 30 percent national retail sales tax that he’ll pretend is only a 23 percent tax. But the point is that both Paul and Huckabee try to connect to people feeling economic pain while Rudy McRomney seem to be living on a weird planet where none of these problems exist. Certainly, they don’t deign to try to expose Paul and Huckabee as selling snake oil and propose something more constructive; they’re just ignoring it.
It may be Obama’s year. What’s a conservative Republican to do?
And it would be all that bad, considering this, from Ramallah:
We speak about a war of ideas; some go on about a clash of civilizations. We hold seminars about the relationship between Islamic theology and Islamist ferocity. But like most people without a lot of time on their hands, this cab driver had simply put a face to the problems he was experiencing, as he navigated through an infuriating life. That face was George Bush’s, who was somehow (and a little magically, perhaps) not considered a part of the American people. The answer to Bush was Khaled Meshal.
But what if the face of America were Obama’s instead, and the warmth of feeling extended to Americans could not instinctively be denied their leader? What if the posters of Mohammed Ali would come down and posters of, of all things, the US president would be filling their spaces – filling, that is, some of the holes in the hearts of fruit vendors, terrified by globalization, from Palestine to Jakarta? Obama’s campaign, and many pundits have made the point so I won’t go on about it. But I thought I might report that one cannot take a cab in Ramallah and not run into what this means.
That may be silly, given the recent Lee Harris book, The Suicide of Reason: Radical Islam’s Threat To The West: The Return of Fanaticism and the Death of the Liberal West – just reviewed by Ayaan Hirsi Ali in the New York Times here. Harris argues that the West’s “fanaticism of reason” is no match for the fanaticism of radical Islam.
That may be so, but where’s all the enthusiasm for reason? Most of us are still stuck in high school or pining for long-gone, befuddled Gipper.