Chagrin and Politics

  Jerome Shea       June 8, 2008      Weekend Wonk

One could argue that chagrin and politics go together like salt and pepper. More on that later, perhaps. But this chagrin—mine—arises from the fact that a week after I wrote the “Rainy Day” wonk, there came another wonderful rainy day: Sandias socked in, sky a dripping dome, and so forth. This after I had sworn to you that Albuquerque was only slightly more moist than the Atacama Desert in Chile. What can I say? Well, I’m happy to eat my words or crow or whatever else is on the menu. Climate change is, it seems to me, clearly afoot, and if that means more rain for us over the long haul, I won’t complain. I’m still betting on drought, long term, but it’s a bet I would be happy to lose.

On to politics, national and state. I think the pundits are right, for once, when they tell us that this presidential election is the most important in decades. George W. Bush’s poll numbers are in the basement if not the toilet. Millions of not just Democrats but traditional Republicans are disgusted with the way things are going: Iraq is a black hole, government mismanagement seems endemic, we have lost respect around the world, and so forth. John McCain, certainly the most interesting of the Republican primary candidates, came from behind and has won the de facto nomination. The Democrats, seldom outdone, are pitting the first serious black contender, Barak Obama, against the first serious female contender, Hillary Clinton. There are good reasons to vote for either of them. Imagine the quandary for primary voters in this embarrassment of riches: do I vote for the very first credible black candidate or for the very first credible female candidate? (It would be so much easier if Oprah Winfrey were in the race, a twofer!) Interesting times, as the Chinese saying has it. It looks, however, as if O’Bama (oops, I mean Obama—that was the Irish in me) has the nomination within his grasp. So next November we will likely be choosing not only between a man trying not to be dubbed “McBush,” and a man whose inexperience is ripe for attack despite his eloquence, but we will also be pitting a perhaps worrisomely old man (McCain is 71 and counting) against a black man, as if we needed more to make it really interesting. Wow. You really do have to love this country. Or at least be fascinated by it.

And things have never been livelier or busier here in New Mexico, ever since “St. Pete” Domenici, who has been representing us in Washington since slightly after the invention of dirt, announced that he would be stepping down as our senior senator. This produced a true domino effect. Before you could say “news conference,” all three of our U. S. representatives had announced for the vacant seat. Which means, in turn, that all three of those congressional seats are up for grabs. The only job not in play is that of our soon-to-be senior senator, Jeff Bingaman. You can hardly walk down the street without tripping over a hopeful.

Northern New Mexico traditionally is a Democratic stronghold; the southern part of the state is reliably Republican; District 1 (Albuquerque and environs—almost half of our state’s population lives in greater Albuquerque) is the one always up for grabs, at least theoretically. The Democrat for the northern district has the nomination in hand. The two Republicans, the one who represents, basically, Albuquerque, and the one who represents the southern half of the state, are having a real knock-down drag-out. Oil and ranching interests dominate the southern part of the state and Steve Pearce is slightly to the right of John Wayne, which is just the way his constituents like it. Heather Wilson, on the other hand, has had to finesse things just a little over the years, so Pearce is calling her a—gasp—liberal! I would never mistake Heather Wilson for a liberal, no matter how dark the night. (I’m rooting for the Democrat, Tom Udall, in November, having imbibed liberal values with my own dear mother’s milk.)

With me so far? Ok. The scramble for the three U. S. representative seats is a blur, a food fight, a true melee. You can hardly tell the players even with a scorecard. At least a half dozen of those glossy five by eight postcards show up in the mail every day, usually featuring the candidate, his or her loving family and the family dog, all impossibly photogenic, and promising everything possible and several things impossible. Charges and counter-charges scorch the airwaves and blister the newsprint.

It is also the season for that ever-useful trope, apophasis, which consists of denying what you are really affirming, or at least want to suggest. “I will not stoop to discussing my opponent’s rumored bestiality,” the high-minded candidate intones, or the prosecutor makes an outrageous accusation, knowing that “objection sustained” is meaningless: the vile idea has already been planted in the jurors’ minds. In a slightly more subtle form, a candidate will play the race or the gender card and then apologize profusely for doing so and feign bewilderment at being so misunderstood. In a delightful variation, one candidate in the battle for Tom Udall’s old job points out that it is an open secret that one of his rivals is gay: why will he not come out and admit it, eh? Ben Ray Lujan bristles and denies, pointing to the girlfriend who seems ever at his side on the campaign trail. Benny Shendo adds piously that of course there is nothing at all wrong with being gay; it is just this idea of Lujan’s hiding something that is giving him sleepless nights.

But for sheer goofiness, Robert Pidcock, a long-shot for Heather Wilson’s seat, gets my vote. Pidcock, like politicians stretching back for centuries, wants to show us that he is a regular fellow, a man of the people, one who is not afraid to get his hands dirty, so to speak (as we shall see, it is only “so to speak”). Pidcock is on a creeper underneath a vintage pick-up truck. He is talking with a good ol’ boy who’s leaning against the front fender. Pidcock is deeply concerned about Iraq or the healthcare mess or our economy or something. I always forget the topic because here comes Pidcock, rolling out from under the truck where he has presumably got down and dirty with the underbelly. But there is not a smudge of crud on him! His blinding white t-shirt is as spotless as the day he bought it and even the rag in his hand is unsullied!

What was he thinking? What was his campaign manager thinking?

Such a grand and reliable show it is. I’ll almost be sorry on November 5th. Almost.

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