The first week of the fall campaign closes as the nation observes the third anniversary of 9/11. For those who thought and hoped that elections and civic life would be somewhat more sober, respectful and purposeful after the shocking tragedy that opened our 21st century, it has been a disillusioning and disappointing week and it will add an extra sadness to the anniversary.
Rather than rising to the times, our campaigns and leaders – all of us, really – have shrunk. This presidential race, so far, is in fact pettier, dirtier and less relevant than the two elections before 9/11. The political part of American culture has met adversity with pointed fingers and quivering chins. The first presidential election of the post-9/11 era is shaping up as an ignoble and often silly national discussion.
Perhaps the debates will add dignity to the contest. Perhaps I am as much a Pollyanna for hoping so as I was in the months after 9/11 when I thought I was going to be covering a uniting and transforming period of American politics.
Deep down, I expect that even the most rabid Bush-bashers and Kerry-haters agree that this is not an inspiring campaign; each team blames the other team, or the money or the media. The non-rabid, still the majority, I think, are disenchanted because politics seems so nasty, fake and vacant. Polls don't really measure whether voters are proud of the elections they vote in or whether they think the available candidates are the best and the brightest. But we can guess at the results.
There were signs of trouble. The 2002 mid-term elections were nicknamed the Seinfeld elections because they were not about anything. While 9/11 diluted the bile from the Battle of Florida in 2000, which once seemed impossible, the 2002 elections oddly lacked urgency and big controversy. There was a vague consensus about how to fight the evildoers. The electorate was split evenly, as were the House, Senate and state governments. President Bush reversed a great historical pattern and gained some congressional seats in an off year election.
Now it seems all the bile is back but none of the big spirit we all vowed would be the silver legacy of 9/11.
The Republicans staged a convention intended to midgetize John Kerry and the polls indicate it worked (breaking news flash: negative campaigning works!). The patient was prepped by weeks of pre-op treatment from the Swift Boat crowd, so the convention surgery went especially smoothly.
Vice President Cheney followed his convention scalpel work with an even more reprehensible statement this week, declaring if Kerry gets in the White House "the danger is that we'll get hit again." Never mind that the Cheney's boss routinely tells the country it is almost certain we will get hit again. Never mind that we got hit the first time with Cheney and his boss in the White House. Cheney has learned how to scare Americans.
The Democrats have responded with their own TV ads starring Vietnam veterans who attack Bush's National Guard service. They make the same hollow claims Republicans do about how these naughty groups have nothing to do with the official campaign. The truth is, Kerry and the Democrats have been dining out on the 527's, the Michael Moore's, and the Soros groups for months. The Democratic National Committee propaganda is as distorted, out of context and rancid is it gets.
And Candidate Kerry has not been able to come up with a basic position on the Iraq war that anyone without the hermeneutic skills of Thomas Aquinas can make sense of. That's not dirty campaigning, but its bad campaigning. And for voters, it reflects the quintessential vice of politicians – pandering without backbone, flip-flopping, being a two-faced, cake-and-eat-it guy. It insults voters at a serious time on a serious subject.
And there are so many mechanical factors that pump fuel on to these fires.
High offices are now filled with a generation of politicians who only know politics in the constant-campaign, constant-fundraising, constant-sound bite era. Campaign reform deformed; now the fount of funds that can be spent by "independent" groups on electioneering is unlimited. That may be the First Amendment at work in a very pure form, but there's a cost. Same with the unlimited chatter about strategy and tactics and the food fights of cable TV, talk radio and, yes, the Web. The campaigns cope with all this with ammo stocked war rooms that counter every charge and counter-counter every counter-charge 24/7, much of it dealing with what the candidates were doing in 1972.
In the end, what we have is a campaign where the very patriotism and basic decency of the two candidates is under constant assault. What is good in them has become quite invisible. This was not true in 1996 when Clinton ran against Dole. It wasn't true in 2000, when Bush opposed Gore. It's awful that it's true now, when the stakes are higher.
So we have yet another casualty of 9/11, this one self-inflicted. We saw the possibility and indulged the hope that for a moment politics could provide common cause instead of division, meaning instead of cynicism and maybe even lift us up just a bit. Instead, we are sinking to the occasion.
Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.
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By Dick Meyer