Political optimism

Posted: Jan 21, 2004 12:00 AM

Not having a clue about what the future holds is one of the least appreciated conditions of life. If we knew, probably most of us would be in a constant state of despair. But in our ignorance of the future, most of us live in hope. Certainly Howard Dean and the Republicans enjoyed living in hope these last eight or nine months.

Now, Howard Dean, if he has returned to rational consciousness yet, has seen the future -- and it is President Deanless. Thus, he would be justified in feeling existential despair. For the Republicans, the revealed Deanless Democratic presidential ticket evokes conditional disappointment. But, ignorant of what is to come next, Republicans are quickly reconfiguring a plausible hopeful future.

That GOP rejiggering of modalities of hope, however, is quietude itself when compared to the orgiastic post-Iowa Democratic dreams. Surely, for the last 24 hours, John Kerry, John Edwards and Wesley Clark must all be subvocalizing the melody of "Hail to the Chief" (admittedly, this is probably not a new phenomenon for Wesley Clark). But mentally concocting fantasy visions of the future is not limited to the candidates (at least two of which will, in a matter of at most a month or two, be joining Howard Dean in the grim despair of reality).

Rank and file Democrats who a week ago saw in John Edwards only a callow, inexperienced, pretty boy multi-millionaire trial lawyer -- now think they see a new Bill Clinton -- but without the moral squalor. The man who only recently was seen as being unable even to get himself re-elected to the Senate from North Carolina (the freshman senator with more ambition than sense of timing), is now imagined by a multitude (of pundits, at least) as the man who would be king -- as the unblemished young cavalier possessed of both a pure heart and golden sword who can talk to the heart of the South and the mind of the North. Yes, they live in hope.

But let's wait a few weeks to see what Kerry's and Clark's butcher boys do to that unpocked skin. Which of their operatives will raise the election-night image of super-lawyer John Edwards promising to protect the public from the "lawyers. " What will Kerry's Boston mafia find in John Edwards' old court records?

Edwards has enchanted both audiences and pundits in the last week or two with his beautiful, newly born platitudes about "two countries" (rich and poor, hard working and shysters, healthy and sick, etc.). It will be fun to watch Sen. Kerry remind the public that in Edwards' six years in the Senate, he has done little legislatively to alleviate the pain of the downtrodden. The Kerry camp will surely trot out the proposition that Edwards is a show horse, not a workhorse, a talker, not a doer. We will see how well that pony can run.

The majestic ignorance of the future in which we all are consigned to make our daily calculations has certainly been shown by the changing public assessments of John Kerry. Self-created in the image of John F. Kennedy (replete with an episode of wartime naval heroics), he has long been seen as made of presidential timber -- though suffering from an inclination to diffidence, if not opportunism. When he declared for the presidency amongst a field of midgets, his already tall physical stature projected his image as the colossus of the field -- -after which he proceeded to stumble around the stage, bump into furniture and stutter in the senatorial style. From champ to chump, and now back to champ again. But the giddy current hopes of the Kerry fans should be tempered by the likelihood that the Massachusetts liberal probably couldn't carry a state south of the Mason/Dixon line.

And, as the campaign heads to South Carolina, can any of us really imagine that General Wesley "I'm not too tightly wound" Clark won't make some bizarre accusation about John Edwards' military leadership capabilities?

Meanwhile, the whispering campaign expressing doubts about General Clark's mental processes continues apace. But as of now, we can't know whether the public -- as it starts to pay attention -- will begin to draw any uncomplimentary conclusions from General Clark's grandiose self descriptions and conspiratorial assessments of his many enemies' vicious actions against him in the Pentagon, the White House and generally all around him. Will his seemingly inexplicable misstatements of facts be considered as merely of the garden variety, or will an uncharitable explanation gain favor in the public mind?

Clark, Kerry, Edwards and, yes, Bush operatives, all live in hope on these many points. It is good that we live in ignorance of the future. Otherwise, we pundits would be out of business, and there would be only one candidate for president. What a lot of fun we would miss. Let the games continue.