The Liveliest Campaign Season Since 1968
Those who slight the Republican primary candidates and sneer at their campaigns are either innocently misinforming their audience or strategically disinforming them. In fact, this is the all-around spunkiest campaign season I have witnessed since 1968 and the smartest since about 1864.
I have been tracking campaigns closely since 1960. Then, as a pre-teen paperboy and JFK fan, I scrutinized the results of the Democratic primaries as intensely as I did Dodger games. In 1964, I chanced upon Ronald Reagan's stirring televised defense of Barry Goldwater and began to rethink my adolescent allegiances.
In 1968, I tried desperately to reconcile my drift to the right with Robert Kennedy's cagy shift to the left. His assassination in June of that year spared me that burden and thrust me, though still too young to vote, into the ranks of the independent and undecided. That was the year, of course, that the Occupy Chicago folks turned the Democratic Convention into a third-world smackdown. As the son of a cop, they lost me forever.
For pure theater, however, even Chicago did not match a George Wallace rally I attended that year in downtown Newark, New Jersey. With an 8 mm camera in hand, I stood on the low wall surrounding Military Park and filmed the day's events.
First arriving, and quickly surrounding the speaker's platform, were Wallace's supporters. This being Tony Soprano's hometown as well as my own, most of them were Italian-Americans. Scores of angry student types, mostly white and hirsute, flooded the park behind them. Bearing the banners of the Progressive Worker Party, they started surging up against Wallace's paesanos.
Before the Italians could respond, a motorcycle gang roared up on their Harleys. The gang members inserted themselves between the Wallace supporters and opponents. Their backs to the stage, they stared down the wide-eyed students, who, upon seeing the gang patch, "United Klans of America," surely regretted cutting class that day.
This was enough for the Newark P.D. A flying squad of cops, none smaller than an NFL linebacker, blew right by me and waded into the melee. A month after Chicago, our young leftist friends developed a new and healthy respect for the police.
An equal opportunity voyeur, I brought my camera to an Eldridge Cleaver rally in Albany, New York a few weeks later. The Black Panther honcho was also running for president. Why not? When asked by a reporter what candidate Cleaver hoped to bring down, Cleaver replied without hint of a smile, "Yo Mama." Next question?
The 2012 election does not promise to be nearly as amusing or as destructive, but what it has already delivered the most engaging Republican race in my memory, likely ever. In the last year, no fewer than seven candidates -- Romney, Paul, Gingrich, Cain, Santorum, Perry, and, early on, Michele Bachmann -- have flirted with front runner status.
Although Romney is threatening to, no one has yet run away with the race. There are several reasons why. For one, the major media anoints only Democrats, most notably JFK in 1960 and Obama in 2008. For another, the Republican candidates are appealing to the best-informed electorate since the Athenians elected Pericles.
Historically, in one survey after another, conservatives have proven to be the most knowledgeable of all voters. This year, thanks especially to the social media, they are better informed than ever.
As always, relatively few people watch the primary debates. After this season's debates, however, supporters of the various candidates now post their guy's brightest moments and the front-runner's dimmest. On paper, Rick Perry seemed the best candidate. On YouTube, he was the worst.
In weeks between debates, Republicans have seen an endless stream of charges and counter-charges flow through their email and Facebook accounts. Unlike in the past, these charges are backed by actual documentation, including video. We can see what Mitt or Newt or the two Ricks actually said in moments of RINO weakness, and they have all had them.
To survive, candidates have been exploiting such weaknesses in their opponents or explaining away their own. With the possible exception of Jon Hunstman, all of them are running to the right, and they are not afraid to say so.
On the Sunday MSNBC debate before the New Hampshire primary, Romney declared himself "a solid conservative," one who was "very proud of the conservative record I have." Gingrich described himself in that same debate as a "Reagan conservative." Santorum boasted of his "90 percent conservative voting record." Rick Perry took them all to task, "There's a bunch of people standing up here that say they're conservatives, but their records don't follow up on that."
The Democrats, by contrast, inevitably run away from labels and strong positions. In an April 2007 MSNBC primary debate -- with a broad field that included senators Biden, Clinton, Dodd, Edwards, and Obama as well as Rep. Kucinich and Gov. Richardson -- no one dared to the use words "liberal" or the more trendy "progressive."
In ABC's primary debate of April 2008, with just Clinton and Obama left standing, the candidates and their sympathetic moderators likewise ducked the "L" word. Unwilling to define themselves, the candidates killed the time in both debates with vapid platitudes and hyperbolic attacks on George Bush.
Republican candidates have rarely embraced such strong conservative positions as they are doing this year almost uniformly on hot issues like life, marriage, immigration, regulation and more. In 2000, George Bush felt the need to qualify his brand of conservatism as "compassionate." His father downgraded his own to an even more tepid "kinder and gentler." If the 1996 Republican candidate, Bob Dole, or the 2008 candidate, John McCain, even had a clear position on any domestic issue, it escaped me.
In 1980, Reagan's uniformly squishy primary opponents-- John Anderson, Howard Baker, Bob Dole, John Connally, Lowell Weicker--held his conservatism against him, and the media amplified their charges. This year, unless Jon Hunstman successfully poisons his opponents' water glasses at the next debate, the Republican nominee will run the most conservative campaign since Reagan in 1984, and I will vote for him.
That candidate will know, however, that millions of conservatives, armchair or otherwise, will hold him to his stated positions. If he waffles before the election, images of that waffling will spread as quickly and destructively through the Internet as the ILOVEYOU virus, and some good portion of us will sit the election out. If the chosen candidate wins and waffles afterwards, he will face a primary challenge in 2016 and lose.
All the Republican candidates are smart enough to know this. Our job is to hold them to their promises and vote Obama out of office. Too much is at stake to do otherwise.