Primary lessons
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 29 December 2007)

In Canada, U.S. politics has traditionally been cherished for its entertainment value. Every four years, in November, we put on our solemn faces and earnestly discuss who should lead the world's only superpower. But during the electoral process we expect to be amused. After all, our own political scene is no barrel of laughs.

A front seat at the American spectacle is one advantage of being a Canadian. Whether we love or hate the United States, we appreciate the grotesque frenzy that accompanies its elections. The more its politicians lie and reverse their opinions, the more we enjoy them. Who among us has failed to be amused at the attempts of several candidates to enlist Jesus Christ as a supporter?

But until this year the primaries were making the pre-election period relatively dull. Primaries knocked off so many candidates that hardly anyone survived long enough to put life into the nominating conventions. This time, however, creative stage management made the campaign 10 months longer than it was, treating everyone to many extra months of pre-primary electioneering.

This means we have already savoured a rich array of controversies, scandals and delightful flip-flops. Of the candidates now running in Iowa (eight "serious" Democrats and seven Republicans), Mitt Romney has become my favourite. He governed Massachusetts as a liberal Republican because Massachusetts is liberal, and he's become a conservative because Iowa is conservative. Watching him handle this contradiction is an education in carefully scripted and deeply felt hypocrisy. We haven't seen such a display of political sincerity since Bill Clinton wept at his last funeral.

In Iowa more or less intelligent politicians try desperately to bring themselves down to what they imagine is the intellectual level of Iowa -- or the 10% or 12% of eligible Iowans who will vote in the caucuses on Thursday, giving the world its first hint of where the election might go.

The poor American reporters (unlike us, and most U.S. voters) must take the words of the candidates seriously. That's not easy. Issues of experience and change define the Democratic race, according to the Washington Post, and also according to the candidates. "Do you believe in change?" asks Barack Obama. John Edwards answers "Yes" but insists that he believes in it more than Obama does -- he wants radical change. It's hard to figure out what Obama might change, if anything, and so far Edwards has looked like nothing but the rich dam-age-claims lawyer he is.

Hillary Clinton, with husband at her side, has settled on a theme for this phase of the campaign -- "It's Time to Pick a President," a slogan that surely breaks the record for banality. She claims White House experience, but The New York Times has noted that when her husband was president she didn't hold security clearance, attend National Security Council meetings, receive the daily intelligence briefing or make her views known on crises in Somalia, Haiti or Rwanda. She did, however, make such a mess of health care that she at least knows how not to fix it.

To a Canadian it's obvious that the U.S. electoral process has become a part of the American economy, redistributing vast sums of money from optimistic donors to the service industries, like companies renting aircraft. TV-stations owners, running the commercials of candidates, are having their richest season ever. Armies of press agents, spin doctors and $20,000-a-month part-time consultants are prospering. For pollsters Iowa has been heaven. They run poll after poll, raising or dashing the hopes of candidates -- and there have been no pesky vote-counts to prove them wrong. The Long Campaign must make all of these people feel as shopkeepers would feel if we decided to have Christmas two or three times a year.

For foreigners like us the campaign has been exceptionally educational. Candidates, relentlessly hunting down the last votes, have taught us about Iowa geography. On Thursday Obama campaigned in Coralville, Muscatine and a town named Clinton while his wife, Michelle spoke in Pottawattamie County, Mitt Romney worked the crowd at the Blue Bunny Ice Cream Parlor in Le Mars and Fred Thompson showed the flag at the Smokey Row Coffee House in Pella and toured downtown (that's what it said on his schedule) Oskaloosa.

Only the ungrateful will complain that it hasn't been entertaining so far. And now there's an outside chance that the primaries won't produce an unbeatable candidate in either party, meaning we could watch the first exciting conventions in generations. But that's probably too much to hope for.

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