By day's end Hillary Clinton's campaign will likely be over. If she chooses to keep it on life support seven more weeks, it'll end on April 22 in Pennsylvania, where Barack Obama's numbers are surging faster than John McCain's born-again conservatism (the same John McCain who considered switching to the Democrats in 2001 and discussed joining the Democratic ticket over six meetings with John Kerry in 2004). Either way, Democrats are poised to do what they do best come November: lose.
A Democrat running against a Republican this year -- any Democrat, whether black, female, androgynous Klingon or three-legged centaur -- should have been guaranteed victory. Not an ordinary kind of victory, either. Considering the years of catastrophic misrule by the Dear Leader and his obliging escorts in courts and Congress, it should be a landslide similar to Lyndon Johnson's over Barry Goldwater in 1964 (when Goldwater managed to win only his home state of Arizona and the South's usual Confederate re-enactors).
But the same could have been said in 2004, when the Dear Leader's bribing-by-tax-cuts had already mortgaged the nation's future and his foreign wars were making American blood a cheaper export than cigarettes. The choice really was between a hoof and a Centaur. Ohio's rigged precincts aside, the country chose the hoof, leading to the most Lincolnesque declaration of that whole campaign: "How can 59 million people be so dumb?" (the famous banner headline of the British Daily Mirror the day after the election).
Democrats have been providing the answer. They're blessed with brilliance and superb leadership in either Obama or Clinton. But they're too busy validating the kind of reality-show narratives networks contrive and audiences swallow.
CNN's Anderson Cooper prompts the audience after debates and on election evenings with a favored phrase: "We have a lot to talk about tonight." But that's just it: After listening to candidates battle it out in their own words, there isn't a lot to talk about. Not if you respect your audience. But there's dead air to fill, narratives to spin, virtually all of it having to do with the parapsychological parsing of -- in the scheme of things -- insignificant moments, sighs, looks, phrases, audience reactions. It goes like this:
Obama is the naive peace-monger who'd talk to our enemies (give me a bleeding heart over blood-lust any day, by the way), the inspiring emperor with no clothes, which is really a hooded way of calling him a rhetorical Oreo or worse -- a trickster, because God forbid a black man's intelligence should ever soar past whites' receding hairlines. Hillary is the begrudging, divisive bitch who'll bring back those awful Clinton years, an incomprehensible condemnation of 1990s prosperity in favor of the current Dark Ages.
And that's the way Democrats in the two camps talk about each other. The McCain campaign must be licking its fangs, its work already half-done by Democrats (so long as they keep ignoring their self-evident strengths).
On paper -- I mean that literally: in debate transcripts, in newspaper accounts, even on the campaigns' Web sites -- the primaries have been more substantial than any in memory. We had real candidates, all of them embarrassingly overqualified compared with the incumbent specimen, often debating real issues and proposing realistic solutions. It's not because they're especially imaginative. It doesn't take a village to notice the country's Third-World health-care system, third-rate environmental record, two-tiered educational system and first-rate totalitarian tendencies (Guantanamo, torture a-la-carte, secret prisons, domestic spying, not to mention those 2.3 million Americans in prisons and jails -- an Abu Ghraib in every pot).
Nor does it take a genius to suggest that fewer tax cuts, universal health care, a little less focus on rote testing in our madrassas and a little more respect for the Constitution could restore some of what was best about this country. With marginal differences, that's what Obama and Clinton are proposing. At least on paper. But we're a nation of Chauncey Gardiner-like, simplistic voyeurs. We like to watch. The presidential campaign is televised theater, and this presidential campaign is a gladiator show unraveling prejudices we've spent decades pretending didn't exist anymore.
The talking heads re-package them. Audiences regurgitate them. You expect those prejudices from reactionaries, evangelical zealots, glass-ceiling enforcers and white-worshipping xenophobes. You expect those people to vote Republican, too. They're not the problem. The voters who'll defeat the Democratic ticket are their own, those alleged open-minded, tolerant, loving liberals proving in these primaries to be as sexist, racist and intolerant of disagreement as their supposed nemesis. They're the problem. If Democrats lose, they'll have those "independents," those "liberals," to blame.
Needless to say, nothing would revive my faith and pride in the country more than being proven wrong next November. But when hope for a more recognizably just America turns to desperation, something has already gone drastically, indefensibly wrong.
© 2008 News-Journal Corporation