If Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination in ’08, wins the election and runs for re-election, by 2016 no one under 50 will ever have voted in a presidential election without a Bush or a Clinton. (If she doesn’t win, will it be because Obama surpassed her as a rock star. Or because Gore has an Oscar?) Like the Danish kings alternating for over 400 years between the names Christian and Frederick, our Presidents just may alternate between Clinton and Bush forever. Why should this be? Why has nothing like this ever occurred before in the preceding 210 years of the republic? My answer is that increasingly the presidency is a stage, and the vote for it is more and more like a vote for the next host on the Tonight show.
Over my entire life, the more personable candidate has practically always won, though name and face recognition has helped too. Hillary is very familiar by now. Running for office has become a very carefully choreographed event, and, for most Presidents — along with other pols— holding office is just as much a staged presentation as running itself. The presidency itself confers instant attention, whoever the occupant of the office, because the White House press corps, many hundreds strong, get their own attention from their closeness to the Prez. And holding office increasingly consists of simply acting the part, as the latest Bush Administration so amply attests.
Bush might have made it through two terms with high popularity according to the old southern conditional “the good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise,” except the creek, i.e. the Missisippi did rise, swamping the Big Easy, and revealing the Potemkin village character of the Bush presidency a little too blatantly. (According to a north Georgia paper, the original phrase, referred to the Creek nation not rising against white settlers, in which case it is doubly relevant if Iraqis can stand for Creeks. )
Of course, satisfying as large an audience as is necessary to have high standing as President for eight years is a difficult task, but even those who succeed pretty well, such as Bill Clinton, are still more successful as crowd pleasers than administrators. We can expect this problem to get worse not better.
The deeper problem is that adequate governance has to be rethought in the attention-economy era. In the MMI past, the main functions of government were maintaining adequate conditions for commerce and assuring some degree of material equality. But now, increasingly, even material well-being hinges on having adequate amounts of attention. Health care, for instance, is largely a matter of getting professional attention, but that is just one crude example.
How (or if) government can equitably allocate attention is not obvious. Certainly the problem is not anywhere in the typical politician’s mind. Rather the primary goal is to enhance the politician’s own supply. We could call this “attention-corruption,” but how can this get on radar screens without some attention corruption of our own?
More to follow…..