One looks at election campaigns from a partisan view -- "I sure hope my guy wins" -- and sometimes from a dispassionate, professional view ("polling data suggest that the candidate's strategy is unlikely to gain traction among . . .") But at a certain point, we have to acknowledge the fact that this is a television program that we have been watching for almost two years. Considering that the show is on every day and does not have a summer break, that's a lot of episodes. At a certain point, the television watching experience of the thing, the slouched on a couch with a beer, the daytime soap opera, the pure Entertainment Tonight vapidity of it all has to take over. You start finding yourself thinking the sorts of things you think about television shows; is the plot holding together? how has the acting been? are the jokes funny? You see a familiar face you have not seen in a while and you react "oh yeah, that guy, he was President in the movie version, right?" Or you start wondering "whatever happened to the girl who was having a baby? Is she supposed to she get married or something?" "I wonder what they'll pull out for sweeps week."
From that perspective, the goal of the Obama campaign is transparently obvious: they want to be West Wing. The McCain campaign? How about Laverne and Shirley?
No, seriously, and I mean this with the utmost respect and sympathy for my friends in the GOP, we have to go back to that epic moment in television history when Fonzie, leather jacket and all, soared atop a surf board over a penned-off area of ocean containing a ferocious man-eating shark. That moment, of course, is definitional: when we feel the same combination of nausea, fascination, and disinterest -- a difficult trifecta, that! -- that we felt the first time we saw Fonzie jump the shark, we know we are in the presence of what the kids call Epic Fail.
That's how I feel about the McCain campaign these days. What was the particular moment? The selection of Sarah Palin? Nah. Get off your political high horse and admit that it made for priceless television. The moment when Tina Fey did a parody of Palin's interview that used her actual words? Funny. But what about the interview itself? What about Sarah Palin delivering responses to interview questions that could be used, without alteration, as material in a sketch parodying her performance? That was the real moment of genius. It was fantastic. Inspired. Breaking the third wall Comedie del Arte Ernie Kovacs television brilliance.
No, I'm choosing a different moment. I'm going with the moment when Joe the Plumber, appearing as a featured speaker at a McCain rally, took questions on foreign policy from the audience.
It was a tough choice. I could have gone with the moment when it was announced that Joe -- I just call him Joe -- is thinking of running for Congress. Alternatively, I might have chosen the interview of Tito the Builder that I saw on Fox News a couple of days ago. (Tito explained that Obama is a socialist; he has an interesting theory of political economy. Neil Cavuto ended the interview rather memorably by saying "I'm glad this is a remote because if you were here with me I'd be afraid you were going to beat me up." Tito looked confused, and dignified. Cavuto looked like he was about to giggle.)
Nonetheless, I choose that rally, and the decision to have Joe answer questions from the audience, which led to the moment when an audience member stated "a vote for Obama is a vote for the death of Israel." Joe agreed, and then reiterated his agreement.
Now, I stand second to no one in my desire to vote for a radical Muslim terrorist who will bring death and destruction raining down on Israel. If I could find such a candidate I would support him in a second. Sadly, I'm stuck with Barack Obama. But that's not the point. The shark-jumping "this is no longer amusing" element of the event was not the bat-shit looniness of the sentiment (although one has to be proud of one's tribe at a moment like this). The reason this was the moment I felt the shark being jumped was because of the completion of the process of Jacksonian flattening, the collapse of all standards of knowledge or expertise or intelligence. Way back before Palin, you may recall, McCain was running on his experience, his leadership, his readiness to lead from Day 1. Then came Palin, and the idea that pretty much anyone -- well, any hockey mom, anyway -- was qualified to be President. But there was a counter-narrative still at work; she is, after all, a governor, and has a keen grasp of the dangers of a resurgent Russia. That tension was the source of the humor; watching Palin and her supporters try to make the case for experience and expertise on the one hand while at the same time promoting a selection that defies both criteria. See, that's why it was funny; there was dramatic tension and unintended irony -- ample fodder for parody.
But Joe the Plumber discussing Middle East politics? The shark has been definitively jumped.