Well, we've been off to the races for a while now, and depression is not quite the right word, but I can't be the only one with less passion, focus and energy for this election than I had a couple of months ago. I'm sure part of it is simply a natural withdrawal from the drama of the primaries on both sides; part of it relief at the departure of the Clintons; part just exhaustion from a period of intense focus.
But something else hovers. In trying to tease out the roots of my own ennui, it occurred to me last night that one reason is that one key, expressive aspect of this election is already over. We will not elect another Bush, or his appointed successor, or someone closely allied to him in certain key areas - climate, torture, full-throated conservative Christianism, reckless war-making. The electorate has already purged this legacy from the system, in so far as it can with an incumbent still-president.
Among the Republicans, it is easy to forget that there were several viable candidates who were utterly unapologetic about the Iraq war, who favored torture and detention policies indistinguishable from Cheney-Bush (or worse), who intended to run either as an even less restrained executive (Romney, Giuliani), or as an even less moderate Christianist (Romney, Huckabee). On the Democratic side, the rejection of the Clintons, with all their baggage, all their capacity to jump-start the culture wars, and all their unending '90s psychodrama was also an enormous, and by no means inevitable, step forward - and away from the worst of the past.
So in many respects, the vital expressive work of this election is already done; and the electorate has already spoken. By nominating Obama - the antithesis of Bush - and McCain - Bush's former defeated rival, the Bush-Rove era is already over in the deepest sense. If we had an incumbent Bush vice-president - or a Romney or Giuliani on the ticket - it would feel a lot different. Now, we have the more palatable choice of the post-Bush or the really un-Bush. No wonder a sense of relative relief.
The big gap in this argument, of course, is the war.
The greatest question in my mind is whether McCain is actually even more interventionist and neoconservative than Bush - just more focused on competent execution and moral decency - or whether he is a more realist and responsible commander-in-chief than the one we now have. Does he still see Iraq as a beach-head for the new American century, or does he really want to get us out of there as soon as he can? I see signs of both, but mostly, recently, of the former. When you're this close to Lieberman, have neocon fanatics like Michael Goldfarb as a spokesman, and speak in the Bushian bromides of "victory" and "surrender", it's hard to feel reassured that the worst pathologies of the last seven years have been driven from the system. McCain in this sense represents a lingering and deluded notion that the war in Iraq was worth it - or will be worth it, once the execution is improved, and the original concept rescued and vindicated. Obama represents a more decisive rejection of the whole argument for the war, with its notion of constantly expanding American control of the planet as a solution to terror, adoption of pre-emptive conflict, and long-term occupation of and enmeshment with the Arab Middle East.
The other less gripping question is the economy, where McCain's commitment to the permanence of Bush's tax cuts does indeed represent a third term - especially without any serious attempts to cut entitlements or defense. (The pork-buster routine is a trivial side-show in terms of real government spending.) But, to me at least, there's almost as much economic risk in Obama's tax hikes and expensive healthcare plan. I say almost because at this point in our indebtedness, the candidate who deepens the deficit less should get the benefit of the doubt. So far, that looks like Obama.
This is a real choice, then, between a reconstructed Bushism and a thorough rejection of it. But it is not the choice the electorate had four years ago, or even two years ago. That threat has receded. For which we can give a certain amount of thanks to the wisdom of the voters so far.
(Photo: Peter McDiarmid/Getty.)
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