net.wars: If God had meant us to vote…

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 04 January 2008

It seems like a couple of years now that people in the UK have been asking me, "Do you think Hilary or Guliani is going to win?" Sometimes they mention Obama. But it's like the meme of a few years ago about Arnold Schwarzenegger becoming president: the famous name dominates the coverage beyond all reason.

Wendy M Grossman

When the Schwarzenegger thing came up, I tried patiently to explain about the Constitution: to be elected president, you must have been born a US citizen. I assume the Founding Fathers, even without the benefit of having seen George Bernard Shaw's The Apple Cart, were worried that some English king would come over to the US, get himself naturalized, win the president's job in one of those democratic elections, and then push the country back to colonialism.

"They'll amend the Constitution," people said.

Well, not quite. It takes an incredible amount of effort to change the constitution: the prospective amendment has to pass both legislative houses by a two-thirds majority, and then three-quarters of the states. Often, there's a time limit of seven years, which is what eventually scuppered the Equal Rights Amendment. (Apparently the fastest-ever passage of an amendment, 107 days, was not getting Prohibition repealed but lowering the voting age to 18 during the Vietnam War.)

While there was, apparently, an attempt in 2004 to introduce an amendment allowing foreign-born, naturalised citizens to become president, it's hard for me to believe even Schwarzenegger thinks he has a chance in his lifetime; he's 60 this year. Certainly, it's not a possibility people inside the US seem to take seriously.

That so many people outside the US think of the chief presidential candidates as Hilary, Obama, Giuliani, and Schwarzenegger tells you how little of the US's real politics seeps out to other countries. Fantasy politics all you want, sure: as many British friends as American ones bought into The West Wing's fictional White House.

Very fictional: Josiah Bartlett might have managed to get elected president despite being a Catholic (Kennedy) and having multiple sclerosis, but he'd never be able to overcome the twin disadvantages of being a Nobel Laureate in economics and, above all, being SHORT.

Martin Sheen is 5 foot 7. You have to go all the way back to 1900 and William McKinley to find a president that small, and even then that was short by historical standards. In 1988, Michael Dukakis lost the election when moving around the debate podiums to shake hands with George H.W. Bush revealed that he barely came up to Bush's shoulder. Over and out.

Most reports guesstimate Obama at six feet, but Clinton reportedly clocks in at 5 foot 8 and a half – tallish for a woman, maybe, but not for a presidential candidate. Giuliani claims 5 foot 10 (though some observers claim he's shorter). And John Edwards comes in at 5 foot 10.
John Edwards? Things look very different from inside the US. Here, although Clinton, Obama, and Giuliani are still getting most of the headlines there are plenty of other candidates to pick from even just within the Democratic party, all of whom look more like a US president usually looks: white, male, and middle-aged. Giuliani's best moment may have been when, as New Yorkers gleefully keep saying, his every sentence was summed up by Democratic hopeful Senator Joseph R. Biden as "a noun, a verb, and 9/11",

Yesterday's Iowa caucus – the first primaries of the 2008 presidential election – is the first real data we've had. And reality started to hit: Giuliani polled 4 percent; the Republican front runner is former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who suddenly came out of nowhere in the last few weeks . Clinton polled 30 percent, which sounds respectable until you find out she came third, narrowly below Edwards. Obama led with 37 percent. Lots more to go there.

Some more notes for the coming weeks:

  • Giuliani was more or less hated in New York while he was mayor.
  • Clinton, like her husband, was politically hated when she was First Lady, despite her exceptional star-name fundraising ability.
  • Huckabee crossed WGA picket lines to appear on Jay Leno's Tonight Show on January 3 (without a deal with striking union writers, Huckabee was the best Leno could do for a guest.) When asked, he said he thought Leno had a deal with the WGA. No. "Oh." Oops.
  • Vice-president Dick Cheney has vehemently denied all possibility that he will run. "And if elected I will not serve."
  • Lots of press speculation that New York's current mayor, the megawealthy Steve Bloomberg, will enter as an independent.
  • No matter who runs, from the primaries onwards the technology of voting is going to be an unholy mess and doubtless, in some districts, a deciding factor.
  • I can't guess November's nominees, but I don't expect to see Clinton among them unless it's as someone's vice-president (and who's going to want Bill hanging around kibitzing?). Clinton's trailing Edwards, even if it's only the first state, suggests the big show will feature dismal, "safe" choices.
  • Cue Utah Phillips: "If God had meant us to vote, he'd have given us candidates."

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