As Iowans make their way to various meeting places to participate in the too long anticipated caucuses, we are witnessing not only the first real test for this current field of presidential aspirants – we are seeing a very telling zeitgeist indicator.
Our age is increasingly characterized by the frenetic pursuit of instant gratification – with little deferred for anytime later. Early is good and the earlier the better – whether it’s our food, our media, our money, or our politics - especially our politics. So today, less than a quarter of a million Midwestern citizens will migrate to schools and halls to deliberate.
Then the spin will begin. Really fast spin.
George H. W. Bush, running an ultimately failed campaign for the Republican nomination in 1980, bested Ronald Reagan by a couple of percent points in the Iowa Caucuses and announced that he had “big MO” – that being early Bush-speak for momentum.
Apparently the MO bailed out somewhere over the Heartland as he winged toward the Granite State that year.
But, back then there was more TIME. The nation could catch its breath and reflect, at least a bit, on the results in the Hawkeye State before attention turned completely to the first primary. Now, however, the process is an exercise in cultural hyperventilating. The New Hampshire primary is next Tuesday and by mid-February more than 30 states will have posted caucus or primary results. Voila.
The problem with instant gratification is that it seldom really satisfies. We pursue attractive and compelling things with overheated passion, only to be let down. Then we move on to the next distraction. We will likely know the Democratic and Republican nominees within six weeks. Then what?
I have no forecast today as to the transcendence of this or that candidate – I have my opinions, of course. But I do make this prediction. No matter who gets BIG FAST MO today, by the time of the conventions this summer, and certainly the general election in the fall, any honeymoon will long be over. With suspense gone boredom will set in. And, that tends to be a breeding ground for discontent and dissatisfaction – oh, and cynicism, too.
The system is now designed to insure that presidential wannabes peak too early. That’s never good in a society where our collective attention span is sound bite size.
Fifty-six years ago there was a seismic shift in the presidential nominating process as “smoke filled rooms” began to give way to the light of primary day. Dwight Eisenhower fought Robert Taft for the Republican nomination in 1952 putting the New Hampshire primary on the political map. Since then the people have had more and more of a say than have dealmakers and power brokers.
And, rarely since then has a party ignored primary results, the most notable exception being in 1968 when Eugene McCarthy led all Democratic primary vote getters with nearly 39%, yet losing the nomination to then Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had garnered a whopping 2.21% of actual people votes. This took place against the backdrop of, shall we say, a slightly unsettled convention?
By the way, forty years ago during that turbulent and watershed year, people were still campaigning for primary votes in June – with one major candidate not even announcing his entrance into the race until March 16th (Robert Kennedy).
This year there will be a few lingering primaries after mid-February, but it is hard now to see a deluge of campaigning, not to mention media attention, in South Dakota prior to its June 3rd primary.
So, we have here a case of BIG FAST MO – and we’d better watch closely or we might miss it. In a twinkling of the national political eye today candidacies will be made and broken. A few will get a measure of momentum, others will slow down dramatically, while yet others will be calling Iowa auctioneers for help unloading materials that will move to the memorabilia shelf.
And, it’s sort of our fault. We asked for it. We don’t want to wait for anything. We live by instant messages, instant food, on-demand media, and now instant politics. It may be better than the intrigue and manipulation of the old smoke filled room, but it doesn’t strike me as being any better – just more expensive, if not potentially perilous.
I am not bemoaning modernity, I just got an I-Phone and this piece is not being written in chalk on a slate. What I am suggesting is that this current dense packing of state deliberations is motivated by a desire to be relevant. No state wants to have a meaningless primary (though some surely will this year – sorry, Montana), thus the rush toward the front of the line.
I guess I am wishing everything would slow down a bit and that we’d defer the gratification of glorifying a candidate – maybe save something for later.
But, that’s a hard sell these days. And, we’ll never get that genie back in the bottle. So we have this very curious convergence of the old and new today. Hard working Americans will go here and there in Iowa expressing their opinions in much the same way as our ancestors did. But, then those opinions will be uploaded by the nation and we’ll have that adrenaline rush of instant gratification.
But, frankly, it won’t last long at all. And, we won’t be satisfied.