The other night, for the first time, I watched a 7-year-old beauty pageant contestant on TLC—a network now too embarrassed to call itself “The Learning Channel”—jump around on a sofa, mug before the cameras, and opine on gay rights. “The Honey Boo Boo Show”—I’m not even going to bother looking up the program’s actual title—included a six-fingered baby, the only teenage girl in the world who would let her mother nickname her “Chubbs,” an English-speaking family that required subtitles, and a manic title character who 10 years from now will show up on the cover of People after robbing a liquor store.
The Honey Boo Boo spectacle—for those who haven’t seen it, think The Beverly Hillbillies meets Jurassic Park—is now dominating the 2012 election season. Recently, the guy running to be the leader of the free world took time to answer a question about her from Kelly Ripa, in the vain hope that he might look like he was “with it.” The program actually beat the Republican convention in the ratings. And now most of the candidates running for high office have taken a page from the show: focusing on spectacle, weird asides, and name-calling to try to grab America’s attention.
You will find no better example of this deplorable turn than Massachusetts, the cradle of American liberty and one-time home of John Adams, where this year’s most expensive Senate race between Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown has boiled down to whether or not one of the candidates looks minority enough. “Professor Warren claimed she was a Native American, a person of color,” Sen. Scott Brown charged in a recent debate. “And as you can see, she is not.” The charge led people to pore through Warren’s employment history, which then led Democrats to ask whether Brown thinks you can identify people’s ethnicity just by looking at them, which then led alleged Brown supporters to do a tomahawk chop mocking Warren, which then led to an apology demand from a Native American leader, which then led… you know, I’m just going to stop right there.
Scott Brown has been in the United States Senate for more than two years. For just as long, Elizabeth Warren has been a well-known “consumer advocate.” Neither is an unknown entity to the people of Massachusetts. So what is this back and forth all about? And what do these charges and countercharges possibly mean about their capacity to govern?
This, then, is the Honey Boo Boo campaign—mindless. A race in which the Republican, Mr. Brown, has spent millions trying to prove that he’s a better Democrat than the Democrat running to replace him. “I can name a litany of Democratic-sponsored bills that would not have passed without me,” the senator boasted, even airing a television commercial that included praise he’d received from President Obama. Is this the same Scott Brown who nearly every Republican pundit and politico in Washington panted after as a future president simply because he took Ted Kennedy’s seat and pledged to repeal Obamacare? Oh, and about that ObamaCare pledge…
Earlier this year, the two candidates pledged a clean campaign, one that was above the fray, serious-minded. They promised to denounce super PACs that aired ugly commercials on their behalf. “I’m pleased Professor Warren has joined with me in signing my People’s Pledge,” Brown crowed. “A great victory for the people of Massachusetts,” Warren exulted.
We should have known how that was going to turn out. Brown began calling his opponent “Professor Warren” as often as possible. This was considered a brilliant political tactic. After all, why would the people of Massachusetts ever want to be represented by someone who shows any sign of being educated? Warren, meanwhile, worked to depict Brown as a right-wing extremist while others started to question everything she ever said or did. The most recent charge is whether she practiced law without a license 17 years ago.
So with weeks to go and a narrow lead for Warren in most polls, the race has turned to the core issues that really matter in a country where millions are jobless: Whether she is a liar and he is a racist. Well, good luck on that, Massachusetts. At least the rest of us don’t have to deal with such nonsense.
What’s interesting about the Massachusetts mudfest, in fact, is how closely it tracks with the presidential contest. In both cases, a Harvard-trained academic said to be aloof and arrogant is running against a nice-looking nice guy determined to prove to voters that he is something that he isn’t. Both races are among the most expensive in our history. The estimated $2.5 billion spent on the presidential race alone—that’s billion with a “b”—has allowed advocates on both sides to pretend to talk about health care and taxation and energy and the environment. But with weeks left, the presidential race is really down to two main issues: whether the president is a liar and Romney is a heartless bigot.
“I like to get in the mud,” Honey Boo Boo once said, “because I like to get dirty like a pig.” At least she has the self-awareness to admit it.
Political candidates have never been strangers on the low road. In prior elections, there were attacks on Abraham Lincoln’s homeliness and Grover Cleveland’s illegitimate child. But there used to be more of a focus on the big ideas too—Should America make its way to the Pacific Ocean? Should we send a man to the moon by the end of the decade? Should we pass new civil rights legislation? Should we return the Panama Canal? Should we trust the Soviet Union’s intentions? Should we bolster our nuclear arsenal or get rid of nukes altogether?
Today, in 2012, what big idea is really at stake?
So far the most profound concept anyone has put forward this year comes, again, from this campaign’s poster child. “I’d love to have six fingers,” Honey Boo Boo said the other night, “because then I could have me more cheeseballs.” Can’t argue with that one.