Perhaps the best thing that happened in the marginal, unrepresentative Iowa caucuses was that Senator Barack Obama defied all that media speculation about Senator Hillary Clinton’s “inevitability.” Perhaps the best thing that happened in the marginal, unrepresentative New Hampshire primary was that Senator Hillary Clinton disproved all that media speculation about Senator Barack Obama’s momentum. The results for Republicans were similarly surprising, with former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee supposedly coming from “nowhere” to win in Iowa, and Senator John McCain “coming back” to win after pundits pronounced his candidacy dead. The 350,000 citizens who caucused in Iowa and the half a million or so New Hampshirites who voted in their state’s Democratic and Republican primaries reminded the pundits that even in modern America’s “mediaocracy,” the power remains with the people.
The late historian Daniel Boorstin coined the term “pseudo-event” to describe the modern media’s bizarre Alice-in-Wonderland distortions of reality. Pseudo-events are moments staged for the cameras and to shape the ensuing coverage, reducing the actual participants to props. The media gabfest about the campaign, which injects idle speculation about who’s hot and who’s not between the candidates and the citizens, is a massive sustained exercise in turning America’s most sacred democratic event into a tawdry pseudo-event.
Of course, rather than apologizing for their inaccurate predictions, reporters reward candidates for exceeding the false journalistic expectations. Thus Senators McCain and Clinton became “comeback” kids on Tuesday, having bounced back from reporters’ premature eulogizing – and pollsters’ seemingly authoritative predicting.
Thanks to the citizens of Iowa and New Hampshire, the Democratic race is shaping up as a clash of the titans, led by but still not yet limited to Senators Obama and Clinton. Even though she lost in Iowa, Hillary Clinton remains the beneficiary of one of the greatest modern political machines. Clintonites not only know how to win – they know how to lose, nimbly turning setbacks into opportunities for comebacks. And even though he lost in New Hampshire, Barack Obama remains a dazzling political talent, a silver-tongued, honey-smooth, hope-generating political thoroughbred. Both his Iowa victory speech and his New Hampshire concession were rhetorical gems, while Hillary Clinton’s New Hampshire victory speech had a lumpy, clunky quality that suggests that she has not yet learned from her husband or her chief rival how to sweet-talk the American people.
For all the obvious political talent displayed on the Democratic side, the foreign policy experience of Senators Clinton, Obama and Edwards is perilously thin. As First Lady, Hillary Clinton went on foreign trips but she rarely made policy. Claiming she has considerable foreign experience is like a bleacher bum presuming he can master center field – watching, even from up close, is not the same thing as playing. Barack Obama’s foreign policy experience – having spent part of his childhood in Indonesia – is even less impressive, akin to presuming that just because you love ice cream you know the recipe for making it taste so good.
It is disturbing how irrelevant a healthy recognition of the Islamist threat appears to be for Democrats. John Edwards, for one, went so far as to dismiss the “war on terror” as merely a slogan. Only a few short years ago, that kind of thinking would have been derided as so “September 10,” meaning buried in yesterday’s delusions. Meanwhile, on the Republican side, for all the Republican candidates’ flaws, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani have at least pitched their campaigns on national security credentials and concerns.
Inevitably, the next few weeks will bring on even more idle speculation, journalistic oversimplification, and candidate confrontations. But amid all the cheesy spectacle of the American nominating campaign, the people’s input makes the whole carnival profound. Thanks to the ornery, swim-against-the-tide, expectation-defying citizens of Iowa and New Hampshire, these campaigns have become very real. With luck, the process will not only be empowering democratically but will result in a quality leader capable of meeting America’s challenges. There are no guarantees, but as Obama has shown, hopes themselves can be not just inspiring, but transforming.