I have just completed a poll, and discovered that there is virtually no one in America, with the exception of the Democratic presidential candidates, their wives and their campaign managers, who has gotten seriously interested in the Democratic presidential campaign so far. This is the season for foreplay, but the candidates, to a man, are putting the voters to sleep.
Not a single one is coming even close to filling Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's shoes in capturing the public's interest. The hostess who depends on the Democratic candidates to keep a dinner party going is in trouble. Not one of them has done anything controversial, scandalous or absurd. They seem determined to have the kind of all-American marriages that make for happy families and dull gossip. They have not even taken positions on such burning issues in American life as sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. For that, we have only Interior Secretary James Watt to turn to. Whatever you may think about his politics, you at least have to thank him for giving us something to talk about.
President Reagan is offering us vastly better political entertainment than all six Democratic candidates put together, merely by keeping everyone guessing about whether he will run for re-election. At a weekend dinner party, for example, the Reagan question and the Nancy factor provided a nice bridge between the second round of drinks and dinner. The Democratic candidates were barely mentioned. This is something hostesses don't forget.
Former vice president Mondale showed a hint of ability to perk things up earlier this year when he swaggered into the international trade fray and came out in favor of protecting American industry from the Japanese. He delivered his speech with combative conviction, showing he understands that good politics is also good theater. But then everyone started criticizing him (which was fun for a while), and he stopped coming out with controversial positions. In fact, he doesn't seem to have come out with much at all. Is he still running?
Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado managed one of the most entertaining presidential bids we've had in modern times, which led a lot of people to expect great things from him this year. The McGovern campaign--with proposals for heavily taxing inheritances, for example--could keep rich Democrats as well as rich Republicans ranting and raving for an entire evening. But Sen. Hart hasn't come out with a single outrageous proposal--such as, perhaps, abolishing the tax-exempt status of churches--that could capture the public's imagination or its wrath. It's unfortunate for the public's enjoyment, but probably just as well for the Hart campaign.
Former Florida governor Reubin Askew shows absolutely no talent for entertaining. He appears, instead, to be a truly temperate candidate. He is determined to run an intellectual campaign based on issues. While issue papers and thoughtful speeches are a wonderful way of showing voters that you are the most capable candidate, that is almost never the candidate they elect.
Sen. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina has a flair for controversy, but he is stuck on trying to make everyone forget that he is from the same part of the country as Jimmy Carter. This is a mistake. This happenstance of birth has left Hollings with by far the most interesting speaking voice, an important concern to voters who know they'll be listening to the winner for four straight years. Few people know it, but a lively speaking manner was crucial to Reagan's victory and President Carter's defeat. When he spoke, "Wake Up, America" took on a whole new meaning.
Finally there are Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, who came out of orbit and landed solidly in the middle of the road, and Sen. Alan Cranston of California, who eats vitamins, runs, enjoys Rocky Road ice cream and has come out foursquare for peace. You can't keep a dinner party going on that.
The Republicans are winning the battle for the public's interest hands down. The only entertainment the Democrats have offered lately has been the infighting behind their fund-raising telethon. It raised millions more than anyone thought it would, probably boosting the national ambitions of organizer John Y. Brown. A future star may have been born, for which we can all be grateful. The flamboyant governor of Kentucky might not be presidential, but at least the campaign wouldn't be dull.