The apathy factor in American presidential politics has seemingly never been higher.
I was channel-surfing the other day, looking for something genuinely interesting on television, like maybe a repeat of the Big Ten Network's Diamond Report or video of a wrecked Nazi tugboat, when my fingers got stuck on a news channel. There, lighting up an NBC broadcast with her smile, was New Hampshire's Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte, talking about her Vice Presidential qualifications ...
Who? That was my first question, but then my second obstacle was the sudden recollection that we were in an election year. I'd actually forgotten this was the case. Four years ago at this time, that would never have happened – we were in the middle of one of the most witheringly nasty primary fights ever, with people very nearly coming to blows depending on where you stood in the Hillary-Barack battle.
Back then there was great nervousness in the country even beyond the Democratic Party's intramural mess, as the specter of the first black presidency was hanging over everything: People as diverse as Geraldine Ferraro and Jeremiah Wright were dragged into racial controversies, while whispers about Obama's birthplace and "Muslim" heritage spread across the country like wildfire.
This year? It's been eerily quiet. The apathy factor in American presidential politics has seemingly never been higher.
As if to combat this, we're getting stories now about how this election is closer than you'd think, how Obama is in for a "tight race" or a "fierce fight" with Romney, and how the Republican challenger is "closing in" to a "statistical dead heat."
They're going to say this, and they may even have numbers to back it up, like this week's Gallup poll showing Obama with just a two-point lead. But I think it's a mirage.
The people who work for the wire services and the news networks are physically incapable of writing sentences like, "This election is even more over than the Knicks-Heat series." They are required, if not by law then by neurological reflex, to describe every presidential campaign as "fierce" and "drawn-out" and "hotly-contested."
But this campaign, relatively speaking, will not be fierce or hotly contested. Instead it'll be disappointing, embarrassing, and over very quickly, like a hand job in a Bangkok bathhouse. And everybody knows it. It's just impossible to take Mitt Romney seriously as a presidential candidate. Even the news reporters who are paid to drum up dramatic undertones are having a hard time selling Romney as half of a titanic title bout.
Anyone who wants to claim that Romney has a chance in this election needs only to watch candidate Romney's attempt to connect with black voters via his rendition of "Who Let the Dogs Out?" to be disabused of his illusions:
The Republican base is angrier and more determined than it ever has been, yet Republican voters picked as their nominee the one candidate in their slate of primary challengers who depresses them. This is exactly the John Kerry scenario. Kerry was never going to win, either, and everyone pretty much knew that, too. But at least in the Kerry-Bush race there was a tremendous national debate over the Iraq war, which many people (incorrectly, probably) thought might end more quickly if a Democrat was elected.
This year, it's not like that. Obviously Republican voters do hate Obama and genuinely believe he's created a brutally repressive socialist paradigm with his health care law, among other things. But Romney was a pioneer of health care laws, and there will be dampened enthusiasm on the Republican side for putting him in office.
Meanwhile, Obama has turned out to represent continuity with the Bush administration on a range of key issues, from torture to rendition to economic deregulation. Obama is doing things with extralegal drone strikes that would have liberals marching in the streets if they'd been done by Bush.
In other words, Obama versus McCain actually felt like a clash of ideological opposites. But Obama and Romney feels like a contest between two calculating centrists, fighting for the right to serve as figurehead atop a bloated state apparatus that will operate according to the same demented imperial logic irrespective of who wins the White House. George Bush's reign highlighted the enormous power of the individual president to drive policy, which made the elections involving him compelling contests; Obama's first term has highlighted the timeless power of the intractable bureaucracy underneath the president, which is kind of a bummer, when you think about it.
Then there's one more thing – Obama versus Romney is the worst reality show on TV since the Tila Tequila days. The characters are terrible, there's no suspense, and the biggest thing is, it lacks both spontaneity and a gross-out factor. In Reality TV, if you don't have really sexy half-naked young people scheming against each other over campfires in the Cook Islands, you need to have grown men eating millipedes or chicks in bikinis drinking donkey semen. And if you don't have that, you really need Sarah Palin.
This race has none of that. Biden is the best character in the series, but for exactly that reason the Obama administration would be wise to bury crazy Joe in a salt mine until the election is over. (The networks have skillfully teased the Frasier-style future spinoff show from this election – the inevitable Hillary-Biden race in 2016 – but they're keeping most of that action under wraps for now). Romney will no doubt stoop to some truly appalling attacks before the election season is over, but he'll do so out of sheer, boring calculation. He's not insane, which is a tremendous insult to a Republican politician.
Anyway, you can expect the media efforts to drum up interest in the election to really heat up in the next few weeks. The Republican race is over now and the networks need to fill those hours. The presidential race is always a great illusion, designed to distract people from the more hardcore politics in this country, the minutiae of trade and tax and monetary policy that's too boring to cover. When the presidential race is a bad show, people might not have any choice but to pay attention to those other things. And this year's version is the worst show in memory. It'll be interesting to see how it plays out.
p.s. sorry about the typo, I did mean Obama-McCain.