Start of a Marathon
Like the Roman god Janus, from which this godforsaken month takes its name, the two parties' voters in two states have looked in different directions. After six months of intense campaigning, in just six transformative days Iowa spoke and contrarian New Hampshire said: On the other hand . . .
These states perhaps started a marathon -- it may not reach a decisive crescendo on Feb. 5 when 22 states choose -- between two formidable Democratic candidates with ardent constituencies. Meanwhile, Republicans, illustrating this year's elemental asymmetry, may be contemplating a choice among John McCain, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani.
If McCain, who in 2000 won Michigan after winning New Hampshire, takes it again on Tuesday, Romney will be, in E.E. Cummings's words, "a recent footprint in the sand of was." None of the four candidates is close to enkindling a substantial plurality of the party to a temperature comparable to that of Hillary Clinton's and Barack Obama's cohorts.
The wrong question about Obama has been "Where's the beef?" -- "beef" meaning policy substance. Policy papers in profusion can be ginned up by campaign advisers, of whom Obama has plenty. The right question is whether he is a soufflé -- pretty and pleasing, but mostly air and apt to collapse if jostled. Presidential politics is an exhausting, hard, occasionally even cruel, vetting process -- necessarily so, given the stakes -- and now that he has been bumped hard we shall see if there is steel beneath the sleek gray suit.
Regarding Clinton, Iowa Democrats seemed to experience a great flinch, contemplating, then recoiling from, the prospect of a Clinton restoration. New Hampshire Democrats, however, demonstrated that her candidacy may not be so brittle after all. But Iowa might have been a harbinger of flinches to come, especially if her husband continues to behave as he perhaps cannot help but behave.
Sixteen years ago, the Clintons advertised themselves as generational archetypes. How right they were.
Led Zeppelin's recent reunion concert in London exemplified a tiresome phenomenon -- geezer rock groups catering to baby boomer nostalgia. Speaking of the boomers' inexhaustible fascination with themselves, Bill Clinton has transformed his wife's campaign into his narcissism tour. As the New York Times dryly described a New Hampshire appearance the day after her Iowa rejection: "He talked about his administration, his foundation work and some about his wife."
She, the afterthought, arrived in New Hampshire spoiling for a fight but missing the point. Mountaineering on molehills, she said Obama has changed some positions. But people inebriated by "hope" for "change" are not smitten about issues, concerning which the differences between him and her must be measured by ideological micrometers. Voters are attracted to him as iron filings are to a magnet. Mind hardly enters into this response to his nimbus of novelty, and it is impossible to reason people out of affiliations they have not been reasoned into.
The Clintons' decision to cast the election as a bridge back to the 1990s -- to themselves; another bridge to nowhere -- has her campaign, in characteristically retrospective mode, stressing that by the time her husband won his first 1992 contest, in Georgia, he had lost six others.
But Georgia's primary was on March 3, a month later than this year's Feb. 5, 24-state cymbal-crash event. Jay Cost, a University of Chicago doctoral candidate, notes that although Clinton did indeed lose seven of the first nine contests, he lost to four different competitors: Tom Harkin, Bob Kerrey, Paul Tsongas and Jerry Brown. That limp down memory lane underscores how much time has flown since the Clintons were fresh faces.
Iowa's results created what Sen. Clinton had hoped to delay for many weeks -- a binary choice, her against one rival. Now she, like her rival, must show her steel. Republicans must show staying power.
Huckabee -- Where is Pakistan? Who is Darwin? Why is Wall Street so icky to Main Street? -- may be a fluke of the nominating schedule that put Iowa, planted thick with evangelicals, first. He won just 14 percent of Iowa's nonevangelicals, among whom he finished fourth. Where would McCain be if the schedule had not offered him an early chance to romance New Hampshire again? Giuliani, supposedly able to compete in the Northeast, spent $3 million on advertising without elevating his New Hampshire numbers, but he waits down the road, where 97.2 percent of the convention delegates -- the currency by which the prize will be purchased -- remain unallocated.
A marathon would reveal almost everything relevant about the candidates. If, afterward, either party suffers buyers' remorse, the buyers will have no one to blame.