Three-Ring Circus

by Glenn Bridgman | 10/25/04 5:00am

The current election, more than those of the past, has been dominated by professional political operatives. Politically involved people on both sides of the aisle are convinced that the opponent is merely a puppet, cavorting on the strings of his "adviser," who is the one actually calling the shots. Take, for instance, Karl Rove, the most famous of these political animals. My Democratic friends already fear him, assuming that no matter how large Kerry's lead, Rove will invoke his dreaded powers to manufacture some scandal and steal victory at the last minute. The funny thing is that, like his tactics, Rove's legend is nothing more than a bit of calculated chicanery.

Let's examine some of the inanities that have been inflicted on us by Rove and his counterparts on the Democratic side of the aisle. Way back in the summer, there was that whole imbroglio involving the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Whether the accusations were accurate or the purest fiction, does something that happened thirty years ago really deserve so much attention? American troops are facing a potentially lethal foreign insurgency and the Baby Boomers are waiting just over the hill to smack us in the face with the bill for Social Security and Medicare, yet we decide that we are going to spend time on this? My god, get me out of this insane asylum.

This is but one example of the bizarre sideshow that has become American politics. A few weeks after the Swift Vets stopped polluting the airwaves, amateur typographers all over the nation started scrutinizing 1970s era memos and debating the capabilities of the IBM Selectric typewriter. Now, Democrats are trying to terrify people with the specter of a draft at a time when the military doesn't even want to contemplate using conscripts. And how about that Mary Cheney imbroglio? Lynne Cheney saying that Kerry is "not a good man" is something out of a soap opera. Oh, I almost forgot, Dick Cheney gave rather implausible advice to a senator about how he should copulate with himself. I could go on and on, but I believe I have made my point -- this election is absolutely nuts.

It's not that this electoral cycle is, as some would have you believe, particularly bitter or nasty. This is a country whose founding fathers were practiced masters at vile invective -- dirty elections are as American as apple pie. Instead, this election is unique because it is taking on elements of the surreal. Both candidates are avoiding the issues and focusing on irrelevant trivialities with a manic intensity. An outside observer might be inclined to believe there is a secret pact between the candidates to absolutely avoid anything resembling a substantive discussion of policy. Before, the calumny was at least leavened with intelligent discourse -- you might call your opponent a callow fool, but you would also explain why your tax policy was better than his. Now, all we have is an endless repetition of stale talking points; this election is a pair of pedants slinging mud at each other. If it wasn't so depressing, it would be comical.

The P.T. Barnums of this bizarre political circus are the image-makers and political consultants -- Karl Rove and his cadre. These people care little for policy; for them, winning is an end in and of itself. With victory as their only objective, there is little limit to the tactics they will use. This is why we have an election in which more attention is paid to John Edwards' hair than to the words coming out of his mouth. These tricksters spend all of their time manipulating image because that is what ultimately gets people elected. This election is merely that maxim taken to a new extreme -- as long as people vote based on image, politicians will continue to ignore policy and focus purely on superficiality. The upshot of this is that the power of political operatives is purely illusory. They are influential only to the degree to which people grant them influence by demanding style over substance. Every time we jump on some innocent mistake, every time we buy into an argument that is more about appearances than reality, we are giving Rove and his ilk more power to wield.

We need to stop playing "gotch-ya," no matter how righteous it makes us feel. The health of our country should come before scoring petty political points.