With the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 8, and the Iowa caucuses dead ahead, the nominees of both parties may be known in two weeks. Surely, after Feb. 5, when a slew of primaries are held, both races will be all but over.
Then, from Feb. 5 to Nov. 4, nine months, those nominees will be made to run an Iroquois gauntlet.
To define them, before either defines himself or herself for the voters, both parties will engage in sustained barrage attacks. Their opposition research arms are stocked with ammunition.
There will be attack ads by the "527s," independent committees set up by rich folks and interest groups to do for political enemies what the Swift Boat ads did for John Kerry.
Around-the-clock bombing will commence on cable TV from the ubiquitous Democratic and Republican "strategists" trotted out to parrot talking points provided by opposition research.
Investigative reporters will begin digging for dirt, or waiting for the choice moment to dump it, or seek out in the hidden past of the candidate the unearthed scandal that can sink a ticket, as McGovern's ticket in 1972 was devastated by the revelation that its vice-presidential candidate, Tom Eagleton, had shock treatment, and George W. Bush was derailed by the revelation of a DWI 24 years before.
After nine months of this pounding, even fresh candidates -- an Obama, a Huckabee, a Romney -- will boast negatives in the 40s. Hillary's negatives are already there.
Three weeks out from Iowa, Clinton operatives have already suggested the young Obama may not only have used drugs, but sold them, that cocaine was probably his favorite, that we should not forget his middle name is Hussein and that his daddy was a devout Muslim.
Gov. Huckabee helpfully implied to Evangelical Christians that Mormonism, Mitt's faith, is akin to a cult, and don't those folks believe Jesus and Satan are brothers?
"Haven't presidential campaigns always been like this?" comes the reply. Well, not exactly.
What is different now is not only the duration of the campaign. This one began a year ago. It is the money available to parties and their pit bulls, the 527s. It is the existence of 24-hour cable -- Fox News, CNN, MSNBC -- that relishes charges and conflict, for that is what draws the audience upon which we live or die. It is the population explosion of screeds on the Internet with its vast array of websites able to bring gaffes and scandal to the mainstream in an instant. It is the telephone videocam there to record every moment, every move of a candidate, and YouTube there to receive it.
By November, when America chooses her new head of state, the country will have already been polarized over the choice.
And what will that new president inherit?
The Iraq war entering its sixth year as the U.S. troops that have brought some stability to Anbar and Baghdad start home. An Afghan war in its seventh year, where the NATO allies balk at combat, the Taliban and al Qaeda have found sanctuary in a Pakistan whose leading figure was assassinated yesterday, the poppy traffickers are back, and Kabul's writ does not extend beyond city limits.
At home, with housing prices sinking, foreclosures soaring and the Fed pumping out money to prevent the economy from seizing up, the nation could be entering a recession. Yet, with the dollar sinking abroad, we could also be facing a recurrence of inflation.
We are bitterly divided over immigration, legal and illegal, and the issue grips every state. As the world is not going to stop coming here, this is not going away, ever. Meanwhile, the culture war, rooted as it is in conflicting concepts of morality and patriotism, rages on. Even the staid old Episcopal Church cannot remain united.
Though we boast about our diversity, it appears that the more diverse we become as a nation, the less united we are as a people. Imus, Jena and the Duke rape case testify to it. As one wag puts it, the only thing melting now is the pot. Two-thirds of the nation think America is headed in the wrong direction.
The America the next president will lead is no longer able to win or end her wars, defend her borders, enforce her immigration laws, balance her budget, eliminate a chronic trade deficit that now runs to 6 percent of GDP, or maintain the value of the dollar. We save nothing.
Though addicted to oil, we refuse to drill off our coast or in our own territory. Meanwhile, Arabs and Asians, choking on dollars, are buying up our corporate and strategic assets and taking over our toll roads.
There is a great deal of ruin in a nation, said Adam Smith. Looks like we are going to find out.
Happy New Year.