Saturday, August 30, 2008

Political theatre of the absurd

In the US and Canada, political events have been taking place that simply make no sense. The plots--if plots there be--have departed utterly from Aristotelian notions of probability and necessity. Examples: the likely calling of an election in Canada this Fall, and John McCain's choice of running-mate.

I dealt yesterday with the soon-to-be-dropped writ here at home. It made no sense then, and it makes no sense now, even after a good sleep and having read and digested Jeffrey Simpson's analysis in today's Globe and Mail. "A cold calculation," he calls it, after a few paragraphs eviscerating The Stephen's claim that Parliament isn't working. Then he wanders into sexual fantasy:

When elected, the Harper government expected a vote within 18 to 24 months. They got most of their major promises from the last campaign done in that time frame. They even advanced by two or three years the second one-point cut in the GST. The Liberals let the budget pass, which left the Harper government in office but in a state of political semi-tumescence, which is where it's been since those first days. For only so long can a party preparing for the climax of an election keep denying itself, so that part of the explanation for the current haste is too many consummations already denied.

Political blueballs? This is what passes for analytical commentary by one of Canada's foremost pundits? Simpson goes on to make a case--an extraordinarily weak one--that the Liberal Green Shift package, which is admittedly complicated, expensive and resistant to being turned into soundbites, presents a winning electoral issue for Harper. All he needs is an election. But without an election it's just a political position without substance, and Harper is already governing effectively with a majority, thanks to his Liberal backbenchers.

Taking another brutal toke, Simpson goes on to speculate that Harper is worried that the Liberals might do badly in the scheduled September 8 by-elections, putting off even further that delayed climax he wants so desperately now. There have been extensive private polls, says Simpson--the Cons have spent record amounts of money on them--but just what are they revealing? Harper himself says that another minority government is the likely outcome of a Fall election. I believe him. Recent public polls have been saying exactly the same thing.

As Simpson points out, the Cons are facing a difficult economy in the near future, and
meanwhile they've emptied the public treasury. Coming into office with a $12 billion surplus, they are now (thanks largely to tax cuts) running a deficit. Somehow all this allegedly factors into the electoral calculus. But is the deficit going to disappear when an election is called? Or, rather, will it provide yet another juicy campaign issue for the opposition parties?

Against all this, not to mention the obvious breaking of the fixed-date promise and the current scandals, heavy-handedness and crises that have accumulated like sludge in a sewer-pipe, we are left with two suggestions. The first is that Harper, control freak that he is, wants to be the one who calls the election, rather than being forced into one by a non-confidence vote--as though the electorate will give a damn who called the election a day after the announcement. The second is that he wants one sooner rather than later because things will only get worse for the Conservatives further down the road as the economy deteriorates, But the latter are both unproven assertions, to put it mildly.

Meanwhile, Harper's Calgary-based mentor Tom Flanagan thinks it's the next battle in a war of attrition against the cash-poor Liberals, and lauds the current "Canada is Strong" line. Canada prefers a "strong, masculine, resolute" Conservative Party, he says: "Nobody
wants a sharing, caring, touchy-feely Conservative Party." He's serious. Ay-yi-yi.

A good part of political theatre is reading the critics. But in this case they're simply indicating their own confusion as the drama crazily unfolds. They don't have a clue. Neither do I.

On to the US. John McCain, old and with a history of cancer, chooses a running-mate, Sarah Palin, who is young, female and the governor of Alaska. What could possibly be wrong with that?

Well, lessee:
  • Palin has all of two years of gubernatorial experience. Before that, she was a small-town mayor, and not a very good one. Now she could be that ol' heartbeat away from the Presidency. Way to undercut Obama's alleged insufficient credentials in government and foreign policy. I'm going to enjoy the Biden-Palin debates, aren't you? Popcorn, anyone?

  • She supported Pat Buchanan for president in 1996. Yes, that Pat Buchanan.*

  • She wants creationism discussed in the classroom.

  • She's presently embroiled in a major scandal, allegedly firing Alaska's police chief for refusing to can a state trooper involved in a messy divorce with her sister. The report of a special prosecutor is due--in October!
Obama himself, as it turns out, could hardly have chosen a better McCain ticket-sharer. And given the nut-scented political air these days, it's only a matter of time before someone comes up with that as a serious theory.

Why Palin? The punditos are going wild. It's to trap the Democrats into complaining about her lack of experience. It's to trap the Democrats into being condescending and sexist, hence losing the women's vote. She'll pick up all those disaffected Clintonians. She'll shore up the so-con base. (It needed shoring up? Since when? The evangelicals were going to vote for Obama until she appeared?) She has the executive experience that Obama doesn't have (two years in a state with a total population of 670,000.) She's the very model of...something. Communicates well by all accounts, a hard-working, pull-herself-up-by-her-bootstraps, evangelical, MILFy, pistol-packin' mother of five.

Whew. Something there for nearly everyone. Well, not really. She'll get the folks that were going to vote Republican anyway. She'll appeal to the evangelical nutroots. But she'll turn off liberal Clintonocrats with her extremist anti-choice views and her Big Oil anti-environmentalism. And Americans, when prompted during the campaign, will fuss about her over-all lack of experience. Many of them like just plain folks with a clear message (e.g., Reagan), and they do tend to prefer image over substance and narrative over action, but Palin's candidacy presents such obvious difficulties and vulnerabilities that currently undecided voters cannot fail to notice. Count on the Obama campaign to put those issues up in lights.

Meanwhile, the undertone of the current commentary is one of bewilderment. Check out the punditry for yourselves. The political chatterati are trying to make sense of a decision that makes no sense. They're rationalizing and speculating, and those with Republican leanings are attempting to put a good spin on it, but the smart ones are calling it "risky" and "a gamble" and a "Hail Mary pass" and the like. They don't know what to make of it. Neither do I.

I'm sympathetic to those striving mightily to construct a rational framework for all of this. We all try, after all, to find meaning and sense in seemingly random, disconnected, incomprehensible events.
We use our powers of analysis to attempt to explain what's going on. But once in a while, do we not get the cold feeling that there's just no meaning to be found? And that possibility becomes especially salient, it seems to me, when the tales of the pundits become as surrealistic as their subject-matter.

H/t Canadian Cynic, Creative Revolution and Damian.

_________
*UPDATE: (September 2) Commenter Bruce Rheinstein (and others in the blogosphere and the media) have largely let the air out of this one. Besides an AP news story and the claims of Pat Buchanan himself, there doesn't seem to be a lot to go on. A story of perhaps more interest at this point is the one about Palin's links to the secessionist Alaska Independence Party. (H/t Boris.)

UPDATE: (September 3) Or not. (H/t the indefatigable Bruce Rheinstein)

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