The presidential candidates, particularly the Democrats, are beginning to feel sorry for themselves. They ought to feel sorry for us.
The Democratic worthies took up places last night at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., and none looked as if he (or particularly she) had joined the ranks of the homeless and hungry. Nor did they look particularly fatigued. Why should they? Aides are always there to cut their roast beef, butter their bread, button their overcoats, knot their ties, polish their shoes, and, in the case of John Edwards and Hillary Clinton, touch up eye shadow, lip gloss and moisturizer.
The Washington Post, tireless seeker of obscure victims of life, which is always unfair, and resolute worrier about things like this, reported on the eve of the latest Democratic gong show that “already, debate fatigue is setting in.” Naive readers might have thought that “debate fatigue” is what the rest of us are suffering, and awarded the candidates points for worrying about us, but naive reader is wrong as usual. Nobody much is watching the gong show of either party so far, with Election Day 2008 as remote as a distant star, so no, it couldn’t be about the rest of us.
John Edwards, who may actually be a little bushed from his day job of, as he puts it, worrying about the poor, and Hillary are eager to ditch everybody else and debate only each other for very different reasons. They’re even willing to suffer Dennis Kucinich as straight man in three for the road. Bill and Hillary think they can quickly lap the field if they can get Barack Obama out of the way, and the Breck girl is desperate to get out of his rut at distant third place. Mr. Kucinich, grateful for anybody’s table scraps, would make any of the other candidates look measured and middle of the road. Nice work if Bill’s gal and the Breck girl can get it.
But debate fatigue is the problem. The tales the candidates tell would break a hooker’s heart. All the traveling, even in the pampered style that our top pols quickly become accustomed to, is so, so wearying. You just can’t imagine.
The problem, as Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic strategist, tells The Post, “is not the debate itself, it is the debate prep, it is the travel. The problem with the debates is, you don’t control your fate or your schedule. If you’re a candidate, you want to be the one to decide when you go to Los Angeles or Miami. You don’t want to be told you have to be there.” The sorrow, the pity of it all.
Doing what you have to do to do your job is for working slobs, not guys and gals on ego trips to the moon. “Some group is sponsoring [a debate] who is an important constituency and [the candidate] doesn’t want to get in trouble,” Mr. Elmendorf explains. “The candidate’s staff all sit around and wring their hands and say, ‘We wish we weren’t doing all these.’ ”
And we ain’t seen nothing yet, speaking both figuratively and literally. So far our fatigued worthies have put on only “unofficial debates,” together with “forums.” Given the size of the audiences, these are actually “availabilities,” which few voters are availing themselves of. Masochism is not an American taste. The “debate” last night was sponsored mostly by YouTube.com, the popular Web site where anybody can post videos of himself (or herself) singing, dancing, skateboarding, talking on a cell phone, primping, polluting or even wolfing down hot dogs in training for something called “competitive eating contests.” It’s a venue tailor-made for our times and “the early presidential cycle.”
The next “serious” debate will be showtime for one of the most important Democratic constituencies. Everybody will come in from the road next month for a command performance in Los Angeles to debate “gay and lesbian issues.” How to stage a debate when everybody agrees is something everybody is working on. After that come Iowa and New Hampshire, where faking interest becomes art.
John Edwards says he’s only doing it for us; naturally, he had rather be somewhere else, thinking about the poor. A campaign aide explains that he thinks a few little debates with only two real candidates and a guaranteed empty suit will guarantee the “real” thing later. “You cannot explain how you will end the war in Iraq or solve the climate crisis in 60 seconds.” Even if 60 seconds is about all the rest of us can stand.
Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.