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In the middle of 2008, Hillary Clinton transformed herself from a perfectly-fine-but-slightly-boring presidential candidate to a really terrific campaigner. This all happened too late to help her candidacy. But some of us hoped that it might be the beginning of a new era. Women in politics had always had a reputation for being honest and steady and hard-working. Maybe some of the next generation would also have a wow factor. That is exactly what happened. Except the smart and steady women were not the ones who got the wow.
The sensible candidates actually seemed to get more boring. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison’s attempt to win the Republican gubernatorial nomination in Texas was one long yawn. You might have said it was the worst major campaign so far this year, if you had not seen the one where Martha Coakley tried to become the senator from Massachusetts.
Meanwhile, two of the hottest names in politics are Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann.
They held a joint rally in Minneapolis this week, and it was one long wow. Palin called the crowd “you who love your good hunting and fishing.” Bachmann sounded like a combination of an ancient Roman matron preparing to send her sons off to die for their country, and one of those people who walk around yelling that enemies implant secret radios in their brains while they’re sleeping.
Their superstardom is a very bad development, even though there is no reason to believe either is ever going to be elected to a position where they could do serious damage. (If Sarah Palin was seriously planning a presidential run, do you think she’d have agreed to be speaker-for-hire at the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America Convention at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas this week?)
The problem is that they’re all wow and no substance. Palin is living proof that you can be popular without having to try very hard. It appears she’s never going to respond to all the pundits who urged her to go back to Alaska and read up on current events.
And Bachmann’s fame has increased by leaps and bounds despite the fact that she, um, makes stuff up. In February, she said she had it on good authority that in Japan the government puts people who criticize the health care system “on a list” and denies them treatment. (“That takes us to gangster government at that point!”)
It’s hard to overestimate how much oxygen Palin, and now Bachmann, take out of the political conversation. When President Obama sat down for an interview with ABC News, it was Palin’s critique of his nuclear weapons initiative that he was asked to respond to. Ambitious pols who have never once been mentioned in a presidential interview, or brought a shrieking crowd to its feet, must be looking for a way to get into the act.
At the Minnesota rally, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a presidential hopeful, tried to glom onto some of the glitter, but all he could come up with was “Wall Street gets a bailout, the poor get a handout and everybody else gets their wallets out,” which is mean without being exciting. The crowd yawned.
Pawlenty is supposed to be one of the new breed of level-headed conservatives, but by next year he may be wearing snowshoes for his speeches and accusing Obama of surrendering our freedom to Finland.
There’s a feeling abroad that politicians can only get attention by sounding a little nutty. In California, Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, seems to have gotten a boost in her bid for the Republican Senate nomination with an ad known as “Demon Sheep.” It features a herd of sheep and a man crawling across the grass on his hands and knees wearing a really cheap wolf pelt and a mask with glowing red eyes.
The campaign has cleaned up the first version, which went viral on the Web, and added more specifics about Fiorina’s opponent, Tom Campbell. But part of the fascination of the original was that it did not seem to be about anything, except a vague mention of Campbell’s role in the “2005 budget.” People do not generally keep track of budget years gone by, although perhaps in California they think of them like wine. (“The 2005 — so flaccid, so pretentious. Lacking all the structure and earthy undertones of the budget of 2003.”)
The actual point seemed to be that Fiorina was a candidate so wow that she would make a demon sheep ad that did not bore the audience with any actual information.
“Something is way crazy out there,” Bachmann said last summer in Colorado, in what surely has to be one of her more accurate statements. This was the same speech in which she told the crowd to slit its wrists, although we hope she was being symbolic.
I am rethinking my opposition to boring campaigns.
And so, there you have it. In 45 years, we’ve gone from politicians who could express actual positions with sincerity, to those who were all “wow” and no substance.
Frankly, I don’t see even the slightest ripple of hope.
Ah, Bobby. You left us too soon. (The video is worth the 5 minutes it’ll take to watch.)