Ron Brownstein voices the concern of many as he laments the 2004 election’s slide into the past:
“It’s an axiom in political circles that campaigns are always about the future. But this year’s presidential election is in danger of being hijacked by the past.”
It’s of course more than a little crazy that the major issue highlighting this presidential campaign has been an ongoing debate about Vietnam. One could have predicted a titanic battle over policies in Baghdad or at the IRS. But few would have suggested that we’d go to Mekong Delta (or somewhere in or around Alabama depending on your 527 of choice) and basically stay there.
Especially in the case of recent charges, it often seems that we are looking into the past through the distortions of a fun house mirror. Objects in the rear view mirror may be closer than they appear. Then again, they also may bear absolutely no resemblance to what is actually back there.
But should campaigns necessarily be forward looking? Sure, we want to be made aware of the policy distinctions between the candidates. But maybe, on some level, the race for the White House should be conducted much in the same way two kids race to become student body president of their elementary school (insert reading level joke here).
In other words, maybe presidential elections should at least in part be personality and popularity contests. After all, we’re essentially hiring a person to perform a set of tasks that we can’t possibly predict. Did anyone ask then Governor Bush how he would handle the destruction of the Twin Towers and several years of a war with Islamic terrorists? Ever remember Kosovo coming up during Bill Clinton’s first term campaign?
The truth is that how a person behaved in the past – and the level of credibility we can attach to their own description of that past – is worth a long look. The moments during which we will need the President most (and when he will be most empowered to have a one to many impact) cannot be accurately predicted.
So personality and the past do matter. Of course, when it comes to personality contests, how a candidate chooses to run his campaign (or to let it be run by surrogates) is also fair game. Sometimes when you spend too much time in someone elses past, that past can come back to bite you.