Election showtime

By Max Calloway


Forget the 2000 election serving as the best illustration of the pageantry presidential elections have become; it was the 2004 presidential debates that hit home the fact that presidential elections have become nothing short of a reality-show distracting the masses from substantive political discussions.

At the time I was only 16, but I knew there was something wrong with the fact that, owing to Republican concerns for their thickheaded incumbent, neither candidate was permitted to formally rebut any of his opponent’s points. Worse, in the 32-page document governing the rules of the debate, both parties agreed that neither candidate could directly address one another.

In other words, the 2004 presidential election cycle didn’t feature any “debates;” instead, the American public watched two adults, both vying to represent the most powerful country in the world, mind you, engage in a passive aggressive pissing contest.

The outcome was what many expected; despite his handsome chin and publicity stunts – who could forget him all suited up in camouflage fatigues with a rifle slung over his shoulder – John Kerry fell flat on his boring face, while George W. Bush won the hearts of the public because a majority of the electorate felt they could drink a beer with him and have fun.

That’s all well and good, but I don’t want a bar regular running my country. In fact, I want someone who’s too preoccupied with the insufferably boring minutia of economic policy for me to ever want to shoot the s*** with. This, of course, is an exaggeration. The ability of a candidate to meaningfully connect with the electorate is just as important as their intellectual predilections; the presidential office is a public one, after all. But relying solely on gut feelings about a person shouldn’t be sufficient to elect them to office.

Luckily, the 2008 elections ended up with two candidates everyone could take seriously… that is until John McCain announced his running mate: Sarah Palin. I immediately wrote her off as a publicity stunt simply because she was a woman; and, after Hillary Clinton losing the Democratic nomination, who couldn’t blame the McCain camp from trying to cash in on her feminist wake?

As it turned out, though, Palin was even more of a wild card than the McCain campaign bargained for. It seemed like every time she opened her mouth we were guaranteed laughs: the 24-hour news networks cashed in on the ratings while the McCain camp footed the political bill.

Now, four years later, Palin is a celebrity with her own reality TV show and John McCain is back in the senate, suffering through more woefully untelevised senatorial elections.

In the end, though, last election cycle taught the Republicans a valuable lesson: the American people love a spectacle, and this latest season has already put Sarah Palin to shame.

First out of the gates were Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain looking to cash in on Dubbya’, Palin and Obama’s political gimmickry. Then, issuing from the depths of the neo-liberal snake pit emerged the new and even sleazier Newt Gingrich. Republicans, however, aren’t looking to cash in on old ideals or loyalties in any serious way – Mitt Romney is proof of that. Tack on to that Donald Trump, host of “The Apprentice,” moderated a CNN-sponsored primary debate, an ever-expanding galaxy of speculative media punditry feeding the campaign narrative and a now two-year long season of campaign jockeying, and you’ve got the longest-running reality show on TV.

Move over Snooki. Bachmann’s butchering of Elvis’ birthday and the site of the beginning of the American Revolution, Perry’s inability to rattle off three government agencies he said he would eliminate if elected and even Romney’s blunders, like telling Heartland voters he’s friends with NASCAR owners, is far better telentertainment than anything the sinister minds at MTV could conjure up.

Despite all of the recent fanfare heralding the GOP’s latest wacky candidate, Rick Santorum, nearly all the serious forecasters are predicting Romney, the “real” candidate, will win the nomination. However, Santorum is providing a sufficient amount of flame-fanning to keep people watching this spectacle of an election.

Santorum’s last name is even a popular Internet joke; he’s some sort of meta-caricature of GOP extremes, and he’s not even the candidate with a viral video featuring him in gospel robes singing a corrupted cover of “Imagine” about pizza. That, and Santorum’s conveniently drawing attention away from what an ineffectual mess the Republican-lead Congress has been. Viewers get what they want, I suppose.

Regardless, while I don’t expect President Obama to end up a one-term president, I am curious to see how the rest of the primary season plays out. This very well could be the year that media depictions of the field of candidates and their own public presentation through the media decide our Republican presidential nominee, and if this is the case, 2012 will be the year U.S. presidential elections moved from pageantry to full blown spectacle.

Get out your dial-in pads, America, phone a friend! This electoral cycle has finally seen the line between politics and entertainment bleed into a convoluted red, white and blue tapestry, and it couldn’t be juicier.

Max Calloway is the Op/Ed editor and can be reached at [email protected]