George Will

WASHINGTON -- Like the Roman god Janus, from which this godforsaken month takes its name, the two parties' voters in two states have looked in different directions. After six months of intense campaigning, in just six transformative days Iowa spoke and contrarian New Hampshire said: On the other hand ...

These states perhaps started a marathon -- it might not reach a decisive crescendo on Feb. 5 when 22 states choose -- between two formidable Democratic candidates with ardent constituencies. Meanwhile, Republicans, illustrating this year's elemental asymmetry, may be contemplating a choice among John McCain, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani.

If McCain, who in 2000 won Michigan after winning New Hampshire, takes it again next Tuesday, Romney will be, in e.e. cummings' words, "a recent footprint in the sand of was." None of the four candidates is close to enkindling a substantial plurality of the party to a temperature comparable to that of Hillary Clinton's and Barack Obama's cohorts.

The wrong question about Obama has been "Where's the beef?" -- "beef" meaning policy substance. Policy papers in profusion can be ginned up by campaign advisers, of whom Obama has plenty. The right question is whether he is a souffle -- pretty and pleasing, but mostly air and apt to collapse if jostled. Presidential politics is an exhausting, hard, occasionally even cruel vetting process -- necessarily so, given the stakes -- and now that he has been bumped hard we shall see if there is steel beneath the sleek gray suit.

Regarding Clinton, Iowa Democrats seemed to experience a great flinch, contemplating, then recoiling from, the prospect of a Clinton restoration.

New Hampshire Democrats, however, demonstrated that her candidacy might not be so brittle after all. But Iowa might have been a harbinger of flinches to come, especially if her husband continues to behave as he perhaps cannot help but behave.

Sixteen years ago, the Clintons advertised themselves as generational archetypes. How right they were.

Led Zeppelin's recent reunion concert in London exemplified a tiresome phenomenon -- geezer rock groups catering to baby boomer nostalgia.

Speaking of the boomers' inexhaustible fascination with themselves, Bill Clinton has transformed his wife's campaign into his narcissism tour. As The New York Times dryly described a New Hampshire appearance the day after her Iowa rejection: "He talked about his administration, his foundation work and some about his wife."


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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