Inside the walls of Troy

This post from one of the NYT blogs raised my eyebrows. It’s a defense of the fact that campaigns go on forever now (do they ever really stop?) and that this longevity is, in fact, a good thing for Murka. The first paragraph gets right to the whitewashing:

There we go again. After nonstop headlines a year before Election Day and nine debates between the Republican candidates (number 10 is scheduled to take place on Wednesday in Michigan), Americans are already grumbling that the 2012 presidential campaign is ugly and interminable. But these quadrennial complaints about campaigning miss the point.  Presidential campaigns are nasty, long and expensive because they should be. Many aspects of campaigns that Americans hate reflect democratic ideals we love.

Emphasis mine, o’ course. Are Americans really grumbling about the fact that the campaign is ugly and interminable? Gil Troy, who writes the piece, doesn’t provide any links to back up his claim. Perhaps Americans are grumbling about this. But, in my ever-humble opinion, I’m not sure Americans are kvetching about such a thing. I don’t think they’re doing so because most American’s aren’t paying attention. Most Americans are thinking about fantasy football or Lindsay Lohan or gardening or how to pay their bills or trying to get laid (yeah, probably this one) or whatever. The point is, in even the first paragraph, Troy implicitly advances the idea that Americans are Serious, devoted observers of the political process. Which just isn’t true. Half of us don’t even vote, fer Chrissakes. And we’re nearly a year from the actual election.

Continuing directly, Troy muses:

The presidential campaign’s length and fury are proportional to the electorate’s size and the presidency’s importance.  A new president should undergo a rigorous, countrywide, marathon job interview. Citizens need time to scrutinize the candidates. As David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s senior strategist, puts it: “Campaigns are like an MRI for the soul, whoever you are eventually people find out.” Already this year, “easy favorites” like Tim Pawlenty fizzled, while Rick Perry learned that years governing Texas do not provide as much political seasoning as weeks of presidential campaigning. Mitt Romney, his aides admit, worked out his campaigning “kinks” in 2008.  That year, Sarah Palin’s popularity waned while Barack Obama’s soared, the more each campaigned.

Yeah, a presidential candidate should undergo a “rigorous, countrywide, marathon job interview.” No doubt. But is that what actually happens? It’s more like a several-month long trial under a microscope that focuses primarily on stupid, inane trivialities (Al Gore’s clothing, whether Mitt Romney seems “authentic,” Herman Cain’s trendy fedora). A campaign season during which the media (NYT, WaPo, cable channels, network news programs, etc) actually explored, in detail and with conclusions, the implications of different policies, that’d definitely be a worthwhile reason for having a year-long campaign.

Troy later on writes:

A campaign is the defining democratic exercise for a country founded on the consent of the governed. Since the Jacksonian Democratic revolution against elitism in the 1820s, each revolution democratizing American life further popularized the campaign.  Democracy trumped dignity; mass politics required mass appeals that frequently became protracted, vulgar brawls.

OK this just doesn’t make any sense to me at all. The Croesian (Croesusesque? Croesuslike?) amounts of money required to run a campaign run pretty much perpendicular to the flowery notions to which Troy pays tribute in this passage, because they give a few select, moneyed interests the ability to exercise outsized influence on policies. Well, lobbying helps with that too, but still. Furthermore, the insane amounts of money now requisite for a competitive campaign mean that politicians have to spend tons of time fundraising and doing more campaigning instead of governing. So, in this section, Troy gets it pretty much backwards, for my money.

Troy goes on to note:

Like automotive crash tests, nasty campaigns determine a potential president’s strength and durability. George H.W. Bush deflected ridicule in 1988 as a “wimp,” a “weenie” and “every woman’s first husband,” by mudslinging. “Two things voters have to know about you,” his aide Roger Ailes advised. “You can take a punch and you can throw a punch.”

Alternatively, a well-placed blow can pulverize a vulnerable candidacy. Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, a ferociously partisan Democrat, twice devastated Republican contender Thomas Dewey. First, in 1940, Ickes said the 38-year-old New Yorker had “thrown his diaper into the ring.” Ickes was also popularly credited with suggesting four years later that the dapper, mustachioed Dewey looked “like the groom on the wedding cake.” Both barbs stuck, crystallizing concerns about Dewey.

This amuses me, because it connects to one of my previous points. What do these charges against Dewy and GHWB have in common? They have nothing to do with policy. So, the great contribution of our magnificent, inclusive campaigns is that candidates can be dismissed on the grounds of idiotic, baseless narratives that other political operatives create and distribute? Uh… terrific. That’s wonderful news.

Troy keeps going:

The time and money invested pay off because campaigns matter. The stakes in elections are high, the outcomes often in doubt. Despite frequently feeling powerless in modern America, voters can make history. The George W. Bush-Al Gore deadlock in 2000 reminded Americans that in close elections, old-fashioned civics teachers were proved right: every vote counts. When Truman upset Dewey in 1948, the St. Louis Star-Times saluted unpredictability as an “essential part of freedom.”

Well… I suppose that’s one interpretation. Another one is that the 2000 general election reminded people that a class of overpaid, detached, chattering clowns can hold a grudge against one candidate to such a degree that they make up lies about him and end up playing a significant role in placing a demonstrably less qualified candidate in the White House during whose two terms perhaps-irreparable damage was dealt to the country.

Troy finishes by remarking:

So, yes, campaigns are excessive, part old-fashioned carnival and part modern reality show. But in these extraordinary, extended democratic conversations, a country of more than 300 million citizens chooses a leader peacefully, popularly and surprisingly efficiently. As Reagan told Iowans during his costly, nasty, lengthy – but successful – 1984 campaign, “It’s a good idea – and it’s the American way.”

“Extraordinary, extended conversations”? I guess I actually agree with that part, although probably not in the way that Troy means it. Our system could be worse, no doubt. We could be ruled by brutal autocrats. We are could be ruled by a select series of financial interests. But our system could be a helluva lot better. And for many years, it was. That, to me, is a far more important narrative than the one that Troy advances.

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