What Ever Happened to Election Campaigns?


Have politics in the United States evaporated? Has what political commentator Sidney Blumenthal called "the permanent campaign" given way to no campaign at all? Have we Americans, in our disgust with politics (a disgust that must include self-disgust, since it is no one but ourselves who vote the politicians into office) decided that politics has nothing to offer us?

I do not believe in a Zeitgeist -- a hidden hand that, acting behind the backs of human beings, concerts their actions toward a predestined end -- yet several developments in apparently unrelated areas have seemed recently to create -- or at least to bring to light -- a striking national lull in electoral matters.

The first development is the Persian Gulf war, which, by most accounts, demolished the presidential hopes of the Democrats as surely as it demolished Iraq (though not, as it turns out, Iraq's president, Saddam Hussein.)

Desert Storm, having swept away the Iraqi military, now howls through the United States as the troops return. President Bush's popularity in the polls, though down a bit from a flabbergasting 90 percent just after the end of the war, remains in the political stratosphere. No major potential Democratic candidate has yet dared to raise his head, and the people of Iowa scan the horizon in vain (if they scan it at all) for the planes bringing the campaign circus to their state. For campaign events, the country has had to make do with the decision by former presidential candidate George McGovern not to run. In the flattened political landscape of 1991, this non-story was big news.

I recently remarked to Mr. Blumenthal that there had been no sign of a campaign since the war. "What do you mean, no campaign?" he answered. "The war was the campaign."

Yet no sooner had Mr. Bush thus eclipsed his potential rivals than he was eclipsed by concerns about his health. No sooner, in other words, had our politics been narrowed down to a single commanding figure than, for reasons entirely unpolitical, that figure was, briefly, taken away.

The president's illness is reported to be minor and easily controlled by medication. Its political effects, however, may not be measurable by a stethoscope.

The doctors, of course, diagnosed Graves' disease, which is characterized by an abnormally rapid metabolism. One of the president's doctors predicted that when the medication took effect, we would probably be seeing a less "frenetic" president than before. Since a certain frenetic quality in the president has often been noted (so much so, in fact, that in the 1988 campaign his "handlers" reportedly counseled him to strenuously resist waving his hands during his public appearances), the illness may have had disproportionately large consequences for his laboriously crafted public image. For an instant, the president seemed to go out of focus.

An anxious nation naturally turned its gaze to Vice President Dan Quayle, and became more anxious still. If the president's listless potential rivals inspired little public confidence, his self-chosen replacement, in the event of disaster, inspired still less.

Not long before the president entered the hospital, serious charges were leveled that in 1980 officials of the Reagan-Bush campaign had secretly obtained a promise from the Iranian government not to release the American hostages being held in Tehran until after the election. If the alleged deal actually took place, then it may well have determined the outcome of the 1980 election, for many observers believed that President Jimmy Carter would have won if he had gained the hostages' release before election day.

In the present election season, the most striking thing about these charges is the lack of reaction to them.

This lack of interest in both the methods and the outcome of the 1980 election sheds an oblique but revealing light on the so far non-existent 1992 campaign. After all, if no one cares that an election in which the current president became vice president was won by fraud, then it's perhaps not surprising that people take little interest in the new campaign, which, for all we know or seem to care, may be decided behind our backs by similar means.

Presidential elections and their results, which have in any case evoked only a tepid response in recent years (almost half of the eligible voters passed up their chance to vote in the last presidential election), seem to have become, for the time being, a matter of indifference.

One day, historians looking back at our time may figure out how a quick, victorious war, a decline in the president's health and a decade-old alleged election scandal are linked. For now, we can only note that all somehow seem to play their role in an uncharacteristic suspension of the normally lively, not to say frenetic, political life of the United States.

Jonathan Schell is a columnist for Newsday.

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