Lincoln-Douglas this isn't. Once again the issues being debated in this year's presidential campaign are of the greatest importance - war or peace, freedom or slavery, national unity or a house divided against itself. But today's debaters do not rise to the stature of the questions facing the country and the world.
Both major parties have platforms and policies and soundbites to offer, but neither yet offers a clear vision. Their leaders are adept enough in the give-and-take of political repartee, but the object of the game has become how to echo the voters' concerns, not shape them.
It's as if our leaders were waiting for We the People to lead them - and only then will they choose a direction. What's missing is what Bush I, in his clipped way, used to refer to as The Vision Thing. Let this much be said for Bush the Elder: He seemed aware of what he lacked even if he had no idea of how to attain it.
The current crop of contenders in the '08 campaign, which is in full gear in '07, may not even be aware of what they lack. They occasionally light on some insight - blind hogs and acorns and all that - but then the usual murk descends.
Nor does the current, foreshortened campaign for the presidential nominations leave enough time for the candidates to be tested through a long series of primaries, or for the public to get to know them before the nominations are decided. Things happen too fast, as they do in much of the rest of American life.
It long has been fashionable to lament the length of American presidential campaigns, overlooking their educational value for both voters and candidates. After this year, we may lament their brevity before the nominees are chosen.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is waging a classic Clinton campaign, not taking a position unless she's absolutely forced into it. Eventually, when the opinion polls are in, or her rivals back her into a corner, as on the issue of drivers' licenses for illegal immigrants, she may finally come down on one side or other of an issue - but not before. Even when she does take a stand, does it matter? Since it can safely be assumed that, if public opinion changes, she'll change with it.
It's not Mrs. Clinton's changing stands on specific issues - free trade, for example - that bothers so much as a hollowness at her political core. How Clintonesque. Like husband, like wife. A this rate, Clinton fatigue may set in before the next Clinton administration does.
As for her leading rivals, Barack Obama brought great promise to this campaign mainly because he brought so little experience. But the map of his ideas remains almost as blank as it did the day he announced. He's supposed to represent a new generation in politics, but it may be Generation X.
Then there's John Edwards, whose role in this campaign is not blank at all but quite familiar in American politics: demagogue. He's been in training for it for years, and played it to the hilt four years ago as the Democrats' vice-presidential candidate. Is there an appeal to class envy the man has not made by now? He is the trial lawyer of presidential candidates, treading back and forth before this nationwide jury looking for any threads of emotion to exploit.
Unlike the Democratic field, in which one candidate would seem to be the woman to beat, the GOP's crop of contenders has yet to jell. But it's been fun watching Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney being born again as a red-state conservatives. Fred Thompson hovers somewhere over the race, but it's still not clear whether he'll prove the party's best hope or last resort. John McCain is still there, too, as he has been for so long, but political virtues like integrity, consistency and experience are so . . . dull. This is a country that craves the new. Whether the new is good, bad or indifferent may be only a secondary consideration.
Mike Huckabee's genuine Arkansas character, or maybe genuine Arkansas eccentricity, continues to charm not only Iowans but sophisticates in the Eastern press. But he may be dismissed as unelectable even if he does well in the early elections. Fixed opinions are hard to overcome.
For now, the more candid, even eccentric, candidates of both parties can be refreshing, They offer a welcome contrast with the gray background provided by their oh-so-respectable rivals. They give voters a definite choice even it's not a very rational one.
Ron Paul on the Republican side and Dennis Kucinich on the Democratic side appeal to the true believers in their respective parties because they have selves, however quirky, not just campaign posters. Each represents a genuine populist/protectionist/isolationist America. They represent not so much a school of thought as a whole ethos. They bring a missing element to this presidential campaign: the kind of deranged authenticity removed from the modern world that Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan brought in 1992. That year the country also felt adrift - and decided to remain that way by going with Bill Clinton, who could make drift sound like a high and noble mission.
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