Monday, January 23, 2012

Fragments of Democracy: The Aftermath of South Carolina

Rain in Southern California has a tendency to keep people off of the streets. This is a good thing, because most residents of this area drive like banshees the minute water hits their windshield. They'll do their best to make it to a nearby bar to wait out the storm, leaving the roads adequately vacant for rest of us. After I had closed up shop, I spent the drive home hopping AM stations like a kid with a HAM radio searching for the police blotter; any signal, no matter how remote and fraught with static, would at least sate me until I managed to get home.

Conservative debate, especially for the more liberal-minded junkies among us, is a test of mettle rarely found in this day and age. The tools required to endure it vary for each individual, but I have spent years accumulating mine. I knew coming in that surviving it would require a fair amount of alcohol: A few shots of rum and a bottle of Corona would keep me up to this kind of wretched work, and I had to be able to survive the whole carnival show from start to finish if I wanted to make a comment on it with any sort of confidence.

Watching these debates, it's easy to get the sense that there is an understanding between the networks and the candidates' handlers. Rules on time and rebuttals intentionally reduce responses down to finely-tuned talking points, red meat for the base and accusations of media bias. Nine times out of ten a candidate will simply ignore a question and instead go on a 30-second diatribe on the outrage-du-jour, capped off by a rousing round of applause and the shrug of a moderator too meek to even try and keep them on topic. Those who attempt serious journalism are left battered and bloodied or simply mocked on the national stage. Juan Williams felt the bitter sting of this reality, but he will certainly not be the last; this show has no room for the ad-lib.

Because national politics these days - especially when it comes to television - is distilled, bottled and distributed by the same board room dweebs who peddle major league sports. To say that televised debates are akin to a NASCAR event is an insult to the simile; they are interchangeable phenomena, and in each the favored champion has often been selected long before even the participants themselves have had an opportunity to fuck up their own fortunes.

The political junkies among us crave those moments: the crash-and-burn, the look of sheer panic in the eye of the candidate, the stunned silence of Rick Perry when he has an on-stage epiphany: "Sweet Jesus," you can almost hear him say, his face pale beneath heavy layers of bronzer and rouge. "I have no idea what the fuck I'm talking about." These are the broken legs and torn ligaments of the more common American pastimes, and as with any other sport the most spectacular injuries can sometimes permanently cripple the players' careers.

Yet American politics, unlike many others, is a game fraught with second chances. I have no doubt that Perry will limp his sorry, backwater ass back to his governorship and, at the very least, live off of the public teat for the rest of his life. If his handlers have any sense between them they'll let him fade into the political wilderness to die in obscurity, lest he one day decide to irrationally lash back out onto the national scene at some inopportune moment.

If he's lucky, he will re-emerge when the party base is ready to ingest his strange brand of radioactive Texas lunacy. It is not a difficult thing to accomplish in this day and age, especially in the GOP. The fact that someone like Gingrich, who was ridden out of town on a rail by his own party a mere two decades ago - a serial adulterer, chronic liar and petulant bitch of a child - can vault back to the scene and take South Carolina from under the anointed nominee's nose speaks volumes about the baseness of the electorate participating in this scheme and their willingness to engage in a sort of "Scorched Earth" policy to prove some half-baked point about "conservative bona fides".

Gingrich in particular is an outright anomaly to me. If you had asked me weeks ago - before Iowa and New Hampshire - if Gingrich would have any chance of clinching the GOP nomination I would have balked at the idea. Too much sleazy, horrid baggage hung like an albatross around his neck; he'd never be able to keep his head above water. Besides, Romney was the anointed nominee, crowned by the establishment prior to the race even beginning.

For better or for worse, depending on your perspective, I was wrong, though I would argue it was for the wrong reasons.

The truth is I had irrationally assumed that the GOP base was clever enough to avoid a candidate who managed to make Romney seem trustworthy and likeable. Romney is a failure of a candidate because he is incapable of understanding the unique plight of those of us who pay above a 15% income tax rate - or as he calls us, "the help". This is not because he is a narcissistic windbag with no moral compass, but because he wasn't programmed with the ability to feel empathy. It's an oversight I'm sure his manufacturers are beginning to regret.

But "alea iacta est" - the GOP will have to lie in the bed they've made, and live with the imagery of Gingrich being in it, as well. And if he, in fact, does manage to clinch the party nod, we can only hope that his mental train derails somewhere around October, reducing him to drooling idiocy before he has a chance to do any more damage to the nation then he already has. The rest of us will be dutifully standing by, ready to pick up the pieces.

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