This front-loaded presidential election year is spinning past at dizzying speed. It's all happening much too fast to think. Which isn't good for the voters, the country, or the candidates, who no longer get to wage a long, drawn-out national campaign for their party's nomination. To run a presidential marathon requires endurance, thought, organization and grace under pressure. Maybe even high principle. Or at least low cunning. Reduce the race to a sprint and you get, well, what the country's got in 2008 - too many elections too soon. Result: The chances increase of electing a chief executive unprepared for the job - and Lord knows the country has had enough of those.
Some of us can remember those long-ago times, like four years ago, when a proper pace was maintained in these presidential sweepstakes. The campaign would essentially start off, as long custom dictated, in New Hampshire in February, proceed in measured steps to big states like New York in the late spring, and then conclude with the biggest prize of all, California, at the beginning of summer. This long, stately procession of primaries set the stage for the big show, the nominating conventions, at the end of the whole, and possibly even deliberative, process.
Well, deliberation ain't got a chance in 2008. Not in all this swirl. Those of us who are supposed to comment on these hasty proceedings barely have time to scrawl a few notes, let alone go beyond the horse race to discuss the great issues at stake, if any.
There's just barely time to count the votes in one primary before the country must move on to the next crucial/decisive/must-win primary or primaries. Super Tuesday is followed by Super Tuesday II, which will be followed by what? A sudden-death playoff tonight? A slow swan song over half a year? A helluva trainwreck at this year's Democratic national convention that'll derail the surviving candidate in the fall?
Through the grace of history or maybe just happenstance, the United States of America had developed just about the best of tests for a prospective president: the long, well-paced campaign. Now we're busy junking it.
The only sure thing about this year's presidential election is that it's going too fast. The effect is like running an old movie at twice the intended speed, or a 33 rpm record at 78. Everything is reduced to a high-pitched whine, a montage of jerky movements. Think? Americans are too busy voting - early and often.
In such an atmosphere, the press is as subject as the voters to mindless enthusiasms, maybe more so, for we've got deadlines to meet, copy to file, air time to fill, judgments to rush to. Consider the whole phenomenon known as Obamamania. This kind of political intoxication deserves a chapter in the sequel to "Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds" that I'd long intended to write if only I hadn't been swamped by the sheer overabundance of raw material.
Oh, the swooning of the crowds, the adulation of the political junkies! The whole thing has been sweeping over the country like a great national revival, or maybe just the flu. Whatever it is, it's contagious. The media-ocracy, formerly known as the press, seems unable to control its attraction for this bright new star flashing across the political heavens. To cite a few symptoms of the effect St. Barack Chrysostom has had on some of us taking notes out in the pews:
Chris Matthews, who once prided himself on playing hardball, went all weak in the knees, literally, after one of the Sen. Obama's many victory speeches, saying he felt "this thrill going up my leg." Contrary to Mr. Dooley's oft-cited dictum, politics is beanbag once Barack Obama casts his spell over formerly hardened observers of the game.
Tough, probing questions are transformed into sweet nothings as Sen. Obama enchants the smitten fourth estate. Bob Schieffer of CBS, who's been around so long you'd think he'd be resistant to puppy love by now, confessed that he got all choked up just watching the pro-Obama video "Yes We Can."
Grown men have been known to tear up at the sight of Mister Cool wooing the masses, making comparisons to JFK, William Jennings Bryan and the Beatles at the drop of a notebook. Somebody really ought to tell these fans in the guise of commentators to curb their enthusiasm before they say still more embarrassing things. Is this a presidential election or the Second Coming?
Hey, what a country. There's a war on, the economy is having a case of the vapors, uncertainties abound at home and abroad, and the two surviving candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination have been busy exchanging sound bites. Has anyone heard a great idea out of either of them?
Instead we get only alternating team yells: Change! Experience! Is this a race for president of the United States or a high school popularity contest? It may all be riveting for us political junkies, but it's scarcely serious.
The two contenders, having forgotten that they once praised free trade, now try to outdo each other at bashing NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement - at least in Ohio, where it makes a handy scapegoat. (In Texas, where NAFTA's been a great success, they tend to grow silent on the subject.)
When the subject is the all-important one of war and peace, notably in Iraq, each tries to outdo the other in defeatism - as if The Surge hadn't started to turn things around. It's as if neither has read a paper for the last six months.
Meanwhile, the GOP is preparing to crown its presidential nominee - if only that good ol' boy from Arkansas would get out of the way. Republicans must be watching the proceedings in the other party with a mix of amusement and dread. For the longest time they'd been preparing to campaign against an op researcher's dream in Hillary Rodham Clinton. It was going to be like running against Lady Macbeth. The low campaign Mrs. Clinton et vir have conducted against this bright young comer only added to her voluminous dossier, which just waited to be reviewed at length by her opposition in the fall.
But the prospect of going through all those old scandals - again - was deadening, which may explain why voters flocked to a newcomer on the national scene whose scandals would at least be new. And now the GOP may have to run not just against a candidate but a political phenomenon. No wonder so many Republicans find themselves pulling for a Clinton for the first time in their lives. Which is one more delicious irony in a campaign full of them. For connoisseurs of irony, this has been a veritable banquet. But it's been conducted at breakneck speed. The guests barely have time to study the menu before it's whisked away. And the choices to be made are much too important to be rushed.