George W. Bush isn't running for anything, but you wouldn't know it by the way the 2008 presidential candidates are looking for the homestretch.
With only 558 days to go, a lot of the noise is already beginning to sound like mush, or at least mashed peas. The big Democratic "debate" last night in South Carolina was mostly more mashed peas (not even black-eyed, crowder or purple hull peas, just more of those little tasteless green ones).
Barack Obama, only three years out of the Illinois legislature, is getting more mileage from warmed-over warm and fuzzy Ladies Day rhetoric than any presidential candidate since Harold Stassen got lost on his way home from the hustings. He faults George W. for "squandering" the eagerness of "the millions around the world" dying to help America in the wake of September 11 and thinks he has the formula for finally getting it right. "We must lead by building a 21st-century military," he told a Chicago audience the other day, "to ensure the security of our people and advance the security of all people." He doesn't explain what that means, if anything, but it sounds like the "nation building" George W. once mocked.
But there's more meaningless mush: "America must lead by reaching out to all those living disconnected lives of despair in the world's forgotten corners. ... There are millions more ... who want our beacon of hope to shine its light their way."
He was reaching for Ronald Reagan's easy eloquence about "morning in America," but it sounded more like an invitation to "tea in late afternoon." We've heard that verse before, that the world is full of small-d democrats and small-r republicans panting for Athenian democracy. Some people might even call the senator's bloviation a bit of blarney, but he's Barack Obama, after all, not Barney O'Bama. You have to have a talent for peddling moonshine, and even the best white lightnin' can go flat over the year, six months and nine days between now and the mercy of Nov. 4 next. When one of Mr. Obama's handlers suggested to Chris Matthews the other night that Mr. Obama even has a plan to get both Sunni and Shi'ite to "the table of peace," Mr. Matthews, who recognizes the scent of moonshine, replied, grinning: "Getting Sunni and Shi'ite to the table of peace after 13 centuries sounds like something only the Lord could do."
Over on the other side of the great partisan divide, John McCain pulled into New Hampshire with a tired team, a heavy load and a long way to go. He sounded tired, too. He wants everybody to know that yes, he said nice things only a few days ago about George W.'s stewardship of the war in Iraq and the risks of cut-and-run, but that was last week and this is this week, and he can be a weenie just like a Democrat if that's what it takes. He sounded right sorry that he said harsh things last week about Teddy Kennedy and Russ Feingold for "celebrating" their nostrums of "defeat" and "surrender." Even in the heat of the campaign, he told a New Hampshire gathering under the trees, "we shouldn't lose sight that much more defines us than our partisanship, much more unites us than divides us."
Then he was off on the Straight Talk Express, the famous campaign bus that made him the favorite of reporters and independents seven years ago. This time, he said, a new president needs a landslide, not just a victory by "a few votes in a few counties in a few states." Not like George W.'s two victories, you might say. (But the betting here is that he would settle for another one like those two.)
Rudy Giuliani drew the only Democratic blood of the week, weak as it was, with his blunt assertion that if Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or John Edwards wins next year the United States and what's left of the West will go back on defense, anxiously waiting for the next 9/11: "We will wave the white flag on Iraq. We will cut back on the Patriot Act, electronic surveillance, interrogation, and we will be back to our pre-September 11 attitude of defense. The Democrats do not understand the full nature and scope of the terrorist war against us."
The leading Democratic candidates naturally cried foul ("he took the politics of fear to a new low"), abuse ("divisive and plain wrong"), and Hillary even accused him of "political rhetoric," stopping just short of reproaching him for speaking prose. The unified Democratic message was clear: Everybody's mayor wasn't playing fair. He was supposed to dish out mashed peas.