Ah, When Elections Were Special

On the eve of the first debate between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, I found myself reading A Call from Jersey by friend and frequent Hawaii visitor Paul Kluge. The setting is 1930s New York and New Jersey, his main character a recent German immigrant named Hans Greifinger.

Greifinger and a group of fellow expatriates had scored tickets to the 1932 title fight between German Max Schmeling and American Jack Sharkey. On fight night their loyalties were divided, their excitement palpable.

“We were working men, not your sporting types, but a heavyweight title fight — an international title fight at that — was something special back then, the way the World Series used to be special, and a presidential election.”

But of course. When in 1951 Bobby Thompson hit his storied home run to beat the Dodgers, the Giants went directly to a seven-game World Series. Today, the winner of the regular season heads into a mind-numbing series of best-of-five playoffs that will, sometime in the midst of the NFL football season, conclude in the often body-numbing cold of late October.

Ditto our contemporary presidential elections. They begin on the Inauguration Day of the previous president. Read Robert Draper’s Do Not Ask What Good We Do, which begins with an Inauguration Day 2009 dinner attended by, among others, Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan and former Speaker Newt Gingrich. They left the four-hour dinner meeting committed to “unyielding opposition to the president’s economic policies,” takeover of the House in the 2010, and of the Senate and the presidency in 2012. So far, they’ve kept their word.

Witness Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s infamous 2010 statement of Republican goals: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

For the past four years, Washington’s most powerful people have been obsessed not with governance, but with defeating a president — or defending him.

Presidential elections have been trending toward never-ending campaigns for decades. Some argue that they began with the bitterness engendered over Watergate, or Iran-gate, or of rhetorical bomb-lobbing tactics used by Gingrich to realize a Republican House majority, or of the futile impeachment effort against President Clinton, or of Speaker Pelosi’s icing out of the minority.

The list goes on. Whatever its origins, presidential campaigns now last four years, of denigrating and defending, played out in congressional debates, news conferences, and the 24/7 cable news cycle.

Since the national political conventions, the topic of endless conversation has been the first debate: in the minds of many pundits, Romney’s last opportunity. What does Romney have to do in the debate? And Obama?

Needless to say, Romney and Obama and their corps of consultants worked out both goals and defenses. By last Wednesday, Obama’s rehearsal sessions had practically closed down the presidency; Romney’s had practically closed down his campaign. All while their spokespeople played down expectations. Romney’s repeatedly spoke of Obama’s gifts in debate; Obama’s of Romney’s.

Fact is, both are practiced: Obama in the long primary slog of 2008, and Romney in his equally long ordeal this past spring.

Fact is also that neither of them will win laurels. Obama allows the viewer to watch him think too much, while Romney, while quick, too often turns into a gaff machine.

Ah, for the days when a presidential election was “something special” rather endless warfare, rehearsals and tactics.