Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Politics, NFL Style: A Guide to the Presidential Playoffs

There are so many candidates currently vying for the presidency, that it’s gotten to look like the NFL playoff grid. Here are some sporty thumbnail sizeups about each, offered roughly the way the polls (which I don’t trust, by the way) have been generally lining them up. We’ll divide the candidates just like NFL teams, into the Democrat Conference and the Republican Conference. The top four become “division winners,” and all the rest are “wild card” teams.

Regrets to guys like Dennis Kucinich and Tom Tancredo, who didn’t make the cut here despite playing some determined political football.


North Division—Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton’s favorite pronoun is “I.” Listen to how often she uses it. Clearly this is a campaign about her, and not about some kind of loyalist groundswell tied to enthusiasm about her specific plans for improving America. She was not asked to run. You rarely hear the humble, movement-oriented “We” come out of her mouth. She speaks in platitudes, offering a better country, but she never advances specifics about how she’ll actually accomplish her goals. It’s very odd to watch her work. Personally, I find it scary, verging on demagogic. The face she is presenting to all those farmers in Iowa is a mask out of ancient Greek theater. She tugs at their heartstrings with blather about “bringing home the troops,” and “supporting our police and firefighters,” and posits bromides on health-care and (my favorite) education. But ask yourself, Do you really want those people back in the White House, with their twisted marriage and their out-of-control egos? Also, Clinton claims to have all kinds of experience, but really she’s only just completed her first term as a U.S. senator, which happened as a carpetbagger after she moved to New York (basically so she could run for the Senate). I don’t know about you, but I don’t count eight years as First Lady as “experience” of any kind, no matter what she says. And she has the temerity to attack Barack Obama for being a novice. She has supporters, this we know, but is it only because she’s a woman?

East Division—Joe Biden
Now here is an experienced guy. Biden’s had his controversies through the years, but they’ve been minor tempests in teapots. He’s been the senator from Delaware for nearly 35 years, and is generally recognized as a thoughtful, moderate fellow. He’s chaired important Senate committees, he knows Washington inside and out, he speaks well and he appears sincere and smart. He’s also ruggedly handsome, and you’d think, as a respected lawmaker and serious-minded individual, he’d be a more imposing player than he has been heretofore.

South Division—John Edwards
Edwards and his $400 haircuts are suspect, but he’s reading a little more sincere these days. Like Clinton, he only has one term as a U.S. senator on his resume, but he had the national stage as the veep candidate with John Kerry in 2004. He claims to be for the little guy, for whom he had success in his law career, gaining huge medical malpractice settlements which made him (and his clients) wealthy. (He even sued the Red Cross—three times!) His wife is battling cancer, and it’s hard to know what to make of his decision to continue running for the presidency despite such a personal event. Is it courage, or hubris, or opportunism? Edwards has talked intensely of reforming health care, but, like everybody else, is vague on specifics. Generally, he comes off as a moderate, but in the absence of communicating any greatly imaginative ideas on the issues, he also comes off pretty bland. He’s a handsome guy with a decent profile. Is he a heavy hitter—or a finesse player?

West Division—Barack Obama
Obama is definitely a media darling. He’s handsome, well-spoken, smoothly dapper, he’s got a hip wife, and now Oprah Winfrey has joined his bandwagon. He was elected to the U. S. Senate in 2004, after eight years as an Illinois state senator. His resume is a tad “lite,” for sure, and there are tons of questions about his ability to lead on the world stage. Fact is, when you think about it, he has not put forth any substantial ideas that have captured the public’s imagination. Like Clinton, he speaks in bodacious platitudes, which sound good on TV but don’t really tell us a thing about his economic or social ideas. Yes, he voted against war funding; what he’d do as chief executive to deal with the war is another matter altogether. He seems to want us to elect him because he’s sincere and younger and change-minded, but those factors have nothing to do with the mechanics of getting stuff done in Washington, especially if you’re going to overhaul the system (which seems unlikely no matter which of the Dems might get in). Being an African American is an interesting thing, but the more exposure he gets, the less people will focus on it seriously (though this fact could hurt Clinton in the primaries, for sure). Obama is not selling snake oil; that said, it is unclear what his product is. Caveat emptor.

Wild Card—Chris Dodd
Dodd is a veteran senator from Connecticut. He seems completely intelligent, sincere about wanting to lead, and passionate in expressing his ideas. He has generally moderate positions about a lot of things, and frankly he probably wouldn’t be a half-bad prez, if only because he’s got a lot of experience and brings a level-headed approach to his candidacy. He’s not connecting on the “sex appeal” factor, but maybe if we listened more we’d find him to be a lot more substantial than Obama, Edwards and Clinton combined. He should be taken seriously, but the superficial stuff hurts him, as unfair as that may be.

Wild Card—Bill Richardson
He’s been a U.S. congressman, ambassador to the UN, secretary of energy and currently the governor of New Mexico. In other words, a career politician whose biggest jobs have been appointments (sorta like Papa Bush). I never find Richardson very articulate or inspiring in the debates. He bumbles his way through and always comes off as pretty forgettable. He seems like a decent guy, who ultimately should best stay put in New Mexico or snap up the next appointment that comes his way. He’s a Democrat foot soldier, not a commander-in-chief.


North Division—Mitt Romney
Handsome, rich, articulate enough. With a fairly reliable persona as a conservative. He could certainly run on the national ticket that way. But I don’t know how he’s gonna run the gauntlet between Huckabee and Giuliani, unless one of them drops out, which would make positioning himself a lot easier. He looks strong on paper—a viable Republican candidate. But he needs to step up and define himself more. If he had great ideas, no one would care that he’s a Mormon. But if he remains bland, then the religion issue looks like another strike against. (We don’t mind our cultists if it looks like they can lead us to the Promised Land.)

East Division—Rudy Giuliani
He condones gay marriage and abortion. So how can he run the distance as a Republican? Well, he might, if only because his Democratic opponent will share those views and they then become a wash. Giuliani’s had some weird issues besetting his campaign, which deal with judgment. Yet he certainly has an impressive mind where big-picture issues are concerned, and he seems in charge of his presidential persona. Yet he’s on his third wife. Now, I don’t judge a guy for that, and sometimes it just takes a while to get that sort of thing right. But it’s an atypical profile for any presidential candidate, and there are probably some voters who think it “means something.” Lucky in politics, unlucky in love? It sure is weird to see a former mayor of New York City over in the Republican camp, that’s for certain. I think he’s headed for trouble in the primaries. That said, he still seems to be a pretty tough guy. He’s highly intelligent, but the last two presidential elections have shown us where that gets you.

South Division—Mike Huckabee
Welcome, Mr. Happy. It’s all smiles for Huckabee, who’s come out of nowhere to make his mark in presidential politics. He has impressed me as a very controlled speaker who is articulate on some issues. He’s also an ordained Baptist minister. Now, the last Baptist we had in the White House was, like Huckabee, also a governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton. And before that, we had a Baptist in Jimmy Carter. So I’ll let you make up your own mind on whether that means anything. I just don’t know about Huckabee. If it walks like an elephant, then I guess it must be a Republican candidate. He’s made inroads because he seems so right-wing and the supposedly rabid Christian right responds to him. Is that a good thing or something to be suspicious about? (It’s killing Mitt Romney, that’s for sure.) Huckabee smiles a lot. He’s almost robotically perfect. Clinton played the saxophone. Huckabee plays bass guitar. A bassist in the White House?

West Division—John McCain
If there’s one Republican candidate who seems to have all the game necessary to win in ‘08, it’s the senator from Arizona. A respected and experienced politician on the national stage, a war hero, a generally strong conservative whose pedigree is tempered with moderate nuance, a sincere speaker, a man of compassion. Why he’s not the runaway frontrunner, though, is a bit of a mystery. He’s 71, which doesn’t help, but it’s unclear whether that’s hurting him much. He appears robust and when you say the words “President McCain,” it has a nice probable ring to it. Whoever is next in the Oval Office has to deal with the infernal Bush War, and McCain inspires confidence in this area. So, why hasn’t his candidacy caught fire?

Wild Card—Fred Thompson
Did Thompson join the race just to say he did? He seems awfully phlegmatic for a guy with huge national recognition and strong party affiliations. He finally looked feisty at that recent travesty of a debate in Iowa. Thompson has some real experience in the Senate and government and a legit conservative pedigree, but he seems sluggish out of the box. Maybe he can emerge out of the pack like some longshot thoroughbred. The problem with that, though, is that his Daily Racing Form numbers say he ought to be a favorite. It doesn’t seem like he wants it much. If he waits till the last furlong it could be too late.

Wild Card—Ron Paul
Full disclosure: I am an admirer of the ideas of Ron Paul. He is the only candidate anywhere with an actual philosophy. He appears to be a man with a tremendous amount of faith in the American system, and his devotion to constitutional principles is fresh and exciting (which kind of makes you wonder which principles have been guiding us up till now). Paul is doggedly consistent in his beliefs, and that’s cool. Whether he’d be flexible enough to run a White House, cajole or strong-arm Congress, and develop the right political allies as president is a concern. Don’t, however, be swayed by the pundits or the reps from the opposing campaigns, who like to talk about Paul’s candidacy as a mere Internet dalliance propped up by teenagers and crackpots. They say that for only one reason: because they’re aware that Paul is developing a unique and serious voting base, one that they most likely can’t get their hands on. Make it clear: Paul didn’t use the Internet to launch his campaign. He was already running when devotees started to use the Internet to spread his message. Fred Thompson should have such an inspired fan base.

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