In a ‘silly season,’ the coming election is still serious business

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September 23, 2008

4:50 PM

My new favorite expression is the “silly season in politics.” Not only is it amusing because of its sheer irony (is there ever a sensible time in politics?), but also because of its incredible relevance in describing the 2008 election — in case you hadn’t heard, Gov. Sarah Palin could end up in the White House.

The term generally refers to the latter part of summer, in which news stories are slow and networks, cable news stations and newspapers are forced to sell more ads and run sensational and frivolous news stories. (Search lipstick on a pig.)

But while much of politics is silly — sometimes humorous — and the media’s coverage of the 2008 election has removed any possibility of having intelligent debates on the issues, we shouldn’t allow anyone or anything to discourage us from being involved in the process of democracy, particularly in such a difficult time.

For many of us, this will be the first presidential election in which we can cast a vote, myself included. But there are other reasons that this election is so interesting for me personally. I volunteered in a presidential campaign in the lead-up to the New Hampshire primary, although my candidate of choice decided that an amateur filmmaker was more important to him than the nation. At least his wife’s cancer was in remission at the time.

Being in the midst of an exciting race is likely a first-time experience for most of us. I grew up in Massachusetts, a state that has only voted for two Republican presidential candidates since World War II, Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, and Ronald Reagan in 1984. In 1972, Massachusetts was the only state to vote for George McGovern against the incumbent Republican President Richard Nixon. During the height of the Watergate Scandal and Nixon’s subsequent resignation, many residents displayed bumper stickers on their cars saying, “Don’t Blame Me, I’m From Massachusetts.”

Virginia, you might say, is a bit different. The state has not gone blue since Lyndon Johnson ran for re-election in 1964. When I first arrived at the College of William and Mary, I had an idea in my head that Virginia was a red state, and there was no changing it. Even when Sen. Barack Obama secured the Democratic nomination, the idea that he could even contest Virginia still seemed, well, silly.

But Virginia is in a dead heat between Sen. John McCain and Obama. Some polls show McCain with a narrow
lead of just over 1 percent.

The reason I raise the issue of the tight race in Virginia is that democracy is not a spectator sport, and the closer a race gets, the more you want to pay attention to it. If one candidate or another has already given up on your state — which, in the bitter, divided atmosphere of today’s politics is all too often the case — you feel somewhat removed from the democratic process.

But when Matt Lauer and NBC’s ‘Today Show’ broadcast from your town, it’s difficult to ignore that what happens in your state could very well determine what happens in the other 49 over the next four or eight years.

Close races in swing states reveal as much about the voters as they do about those who would have our vote. At the national level, the campaign is about the candidates. At the state level, it’s about us. What issues matter to us, and how do they change from election to election?

Everyone is feeling the pinch, in one way or another, with today’s economy, but what are the magic words that convince us that one candidate can help us more than another? Hope? Fundamentals? Pork-barrel spending? Can Obama attract voters in far-flung counties of the state that generally vote Republican? How will McCain fare among the College crowd? It’s a fair enough bet that Williamsburg will go Obama, but can McCain’s fresh, innovative energy policy (“Drill, baby, drill!”) resonate enough to grab a chunk of the student demographic?

The answers to these questions may very well determine who wins Virginia and, depending on the results in other key states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, who becomes president. Nothing about that is silly, even if bits and pieces of the process are. So, while we’re all out watching candidates speak — whether in the media or in person — keep in mind what’s at stake.

Alexander Ely is a senior at the College.

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