Can it really be May 2007 and we’re already in the thick of a presidential campaign? Was that really a “debate” the other night among the eight Democratic hopefuls, 19 months before the 2008 election, and are 10 GOP candidates actually squaring off this week to declare themselves ready to run the nation? Will 2008 just feel like some form of déjà vu where desperate politicians try to say something new to a populace that by then wishes we hardly knew them?
Consider how elongated the election season has become: We will know the winner of the next two World Series before we know who will be the next president of the United States.
Once upon a recent time, say, the presidential election of 1976, challenger Jimmy Carter was just a blip on the nation’s radar screen as late as January of that year. The governor of Georgia and a man overtly motivated by religious impulses, Carter was the choice of only 4% of Democratic voters as late as January 26 of that year. His rise from near political obscurity to the Democratic nomination just a few months later was meteoric (and, in retrospect, maybe a good argument against short primary seasons), but the pace of the process was not unusual. Candidates typically announced their intentions late in the year prior to the election, and with generally enough resume and record so that people could judge their accomplishments and philosophy.
Now, it seems, the primary season affords us a different experience and a different opportunity. For far too many candidates, it offers a chance to observe how much they will shade their accomplishments and change their philosophy to suit the primary voters to which they are appealing. The longer that season, the more tactical they become, tacking and veering to pick up the sustained breeze they believe will carry them to victory. Whether it’s Rudy Giuliani proclaiming his evolving admiration for conservative judges or Mitt Romney explaining why he is both pro-life and troubled by South Carolina’s proposed law to require pregnant women to see ultrasound images, this tacking can make spectators seasick.
The spectacle may have reached a new height (or low) last week in South Carolina when Senator Joe Biden of Delaware used the Democratic debate to denounce the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the ban on partial-birth abortion. Lining up with all seven of his rivals, Biden declared, “The truth of the matter is that this decision was intellectually dishonest. I think it is a rare procedure that should only be available when the woman's life and health is at stake. But, what this court did is it took that decision, and it said -- put a Trojan horse in -- through dishonest reasoning, laid the groundwork for undoing Roe v. Wade. That's the danger of this decision. Not the specific procedure, but the rationale offered to justify, I think, the next step they're going to try to take.”
“Intellectually dishonest,” indeed. The Supreme Court did not reason in its ruling about the essential holding in Roe v. Wade. Instead, it deferred to the reasoning of the United States Congress about the lack of medical need for and brutality of the partial-birth abortion procedure, which involves the partial delivery and subsequent killing of the child in mid- or late pregnancy. It was Congress that intellectually reasoned about this reality, and it was a bipartisan majority in Congress, including Joe Biden, that voted for the ban. Here then was Biden, with no change in the facts or the law before him, hitting the Supreme Court not only for agreeing with him, but for deferring to the branch of government of which he is a member. The only explanation for this change of heart is the same one that explains the chameleon’s change of color. Biden wants to have the same political hue as his blue state rivals for the 2008 nomination.
Maybe the same thing would have happened if the presidential campaign were shorter and candidates ran on their records, take them or leave them. Then again, maybe not.. Our country could use the clarifying messages of candidates like Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan, telling us where they stand. In the meantime, we are all learning something about the competitors as they fold, spindle, and sometimes even mutilate their own pasts. I can hear the opening statements now, “Let me distort my own record so you don’t have to!”