Call me a pessimist, but I’m getting a little tired of what one of my colleagues might call “the election jiggery-pokery,” especially as I slog through the dozens of pages of South Carolina debate transcripts hoping to find a nugget of truth or a kernel of sincerity (I don’t watch the debates for three reasons: 1)at that hour, Thing One is still marauding around this house, and I’m asleep before the reruns, 2)I don’t have cable, and the TV is in a closet somewhere, which is why my children are not going to have ADD (insha’Allah), and 3)I can’t actually stand the strident tone of candidates’ voices when they’re going at each other like rabid pit bulls and/or whining for the favor of the camera. I need my politics “affect lite”; the neutrality of print helps me evaluate the choices based on what candidates actually say, rather than the fact that they probably want to drop-kick each other, especially HRC and BHO, and if I had had to watch John Edwards’s face while he was smarmily referring to himself as “the white male candidate,” I might have had to break out the Courvoisier — I was already wearing a rhinestone-encrusted pinky ring).

So I’m trying, this morning, in between grading papers and supplying my two-year-old with healthy, low-sugar snacks, to make sense of the debates so that I can confirm or dispute what I think I already know, but even I recognize this as a losing proposition, because as much as I and a bunch of other people deny how much election choices depend on identity politics and first impressions, that is exactly what they depend on. David Brooks makes that point in his op-ed, “How Voters Think.” This little tidbit pretty much sums it up: “In reality, we voters — all of us — make emotional, intuitive decisions about who we prefer, and then come up with post-hoc rationalizations to explain the choices that were already made beneath conscious awareness.”

America, you are not objective. Those of us who prefer to think we are, are of course just engaging in higher-level self-deception and post-hoc grandiloquence, which is, I suppose, true for the candidates as well. And while I believe it happens that a candidate’s words can alienate the voters, I think it’s much less frequent that his or her words can win voters over for exactly that reason: we have already made up our minds. It remains for us only to be dissuaded.

That actually explains why Clinton spent much of the debate trashing Obama’s integrity and he and Edwards spent most of it tag-teaming Clinton, fangs out, when Obama wasn’t taking polite digs at Edwards and Edwards wasn’t trying to look morally superior to the other two. Because their constituencies are with them now, and they’re going to stick. The real question is: how many of the other guy’s people can they confuse or disillusion?

Or maybe the real-er question is: is John Edwards going to reprise his role playing second fiddle in the national election this year? Let me be the first to say that, if he is, I’m happier with either of the front runners than I was with Kerry, to whom I threw my vote for one reason only. And the media machine certainly seems to be trying to promote that idea: after Iowa, there were whispers of “Obama-Edwards 2008,” and this morning, the headline “Clinton, Edwards hold private post-debate meeting” appeared on the Cnn Political Ticker blog. The entry features a photo of Clinton and Edwards looking chummy and sincere.

Of course, the photo was not taken at the alleged “private” meeting, which several aides have described as “accidental” and “consisting of light chit-chat.” But who cares? We’re being groomed to think that Hillary and John are either colluding against Barack, or experiencing a meeting of minds that might usher them both into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Together. Which, again, would do little more than placate Edwards’s tiny share of the vote, and which is probably based on the fact that — thanks to massive friction between Bill and Barack — there’s no way Ms. Clinton and Mr. Obama are teaming up for anything but a Bush-trashing session.

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