The next in line

Posted: Mar 04, 2007 12:01 AM
The next in line

In the 1920s, the Brooklyn Dodgers finished in sixth place seven times in eight years. Late in that unfortunate period, a droll sportswriter, noting the team's listless play, wrote, ``Overconfidence may yet cost Brooklyn sixth place.''

Hillary Clinton's campaign did not display overconfidence when it directed the recent fusillade at Barack Obama. Her campaign's rhetorical megatonnage was in response to a prominent Obama contributor saying rude things about her. Her overreaction was one of several developments that have clarified the Democratic contest.

Bill Clinton has said, regarding presidential candidates, that Republicans like to fall in line and Democrats like to fall in love. Which explains the Clinton campaign's palpable panic: Democrats have fallen in love, but not with her.

Republicans tend to nominate the next person in line: Vice President Richard Nixon, not Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, to follow President Dwight Eisenhower in 1960; Vice President George H.W. Bush, not Sen. Robert Dole, to follow President Ronald Reagan in 1988; Dole rather than Lamar Alexander or any other contender in 1996; Gov. George W. Bush, whose dynastic lineage propelled him past Sen. John McCain in 2000.

There is a Republican tinge to Sen. Clinton's campaign: She is next in line. That fact -- combined with the Clintons' (how often the plural is pertinent) money machine, combined with the Clintons' earned reputation for ferocity -- is supposed to impart to her an aura of inevitability.

But such an aura annoys voters by telling them that they really have no choice. And that can provoke them to play the game that G.K. Chesterton called ``Cheat the Prophet'': The players listen politely to explanations of what is inevitable, then they make something else happen, which defeats boredom.

Boredom, the sociologist Robert Nisbet wrote, is among the universal and insistent forces driving human behavior. Mankind's nervous system evolved during millions of dangerous years (saber-toothed tigers, etc.). Now, however, mankind has suddenly, in a few millennia, encountered the monotony of orderly life, which bothers human brains formed by and for hazardous circumstances.

Among the cures of boredom that Nisbet listed are war, murder, revolution, suicide, alcohol, narcotics and pornography. He might have added presidential politics. Memo to the Clinton campaign: Inevitability is boring.

So is a narrow range of choices. Democrats have many interesting candidates, but governors often are the most plausible candidates to be the nation's chief executive, and only one remains in the Democratic race -- New Mexico's Bill Richardson. Three former governors -- Virginia's Mark Warner, Indiana's Evan Bayh, and Iowa's Tom Vilsack -- have left the field.

Vilsack said the demise of his candidacy was determined by ``money and only money.'' Well, yes, but there were reasons, political and ideological, why he could not find buyers for what he was selling. Nevertheless, his statement triggered the usual laments about the determinative role of money in politics. This year we are told to be horrified by the fact that by November 2008 the presidential contest will have cost $1 billion. Which means that the two-year process will cost half as much as Americans spend every year on Easter candy.

Candidates do have to spend too much time raising money. But that is because the government, by banning large campaign contributions, has transformed a huge American surplus -- money -- into an artificial scarcity. The government began to do this for anti-competitive purposes.

The modern drive for campaign finance ``reforms'' is usually said to have been initiated by Democrats in response to Watergate. Democrats did start it, but before Watergate, in response to their traumas of 1968.

That year, Sen. Gene McCarthy's anti-Vietnam insurgency disturbed the Democratic Party's equilibrium by mounting a serious challenge to the renomination of President Lyndon Johnson. McCarthy was able to do that only because a few wealthy people gave him large contributions. Democrats also were alarmed by former Alabama governor George Wallace's success in 1968, and they mistakenly assumed that Wallace, too, was largely funded by a few very large contributions.

According to John Samples of the Cato Institute (in his book ``The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform''), congressional Democrats began the process that culminated in criminalizing large contributions -- the kind that can give long-shot candidates, such as Vilsack, a chance to become competitive. Yes, the initial aim of campaign ``reforms'' was less the proclaimed purpose of combating corruption or ``the appearance'' thereof than it was to impede the entry of inconvenient candidates into presidential campaigns. In that sense, campaign reform is a government program that has actually worked, unfortunately.