Give me a mo­ment

The Saline Courier - - OPINION -

Beto O’rourke had his. Pete But­tigieg is still hav­ing his. So is Joseph R. Bi­den Jr. But Jay Inslee hasn’t had his, nor has John Hick­en­looper. And when ei­ther Ka­mala Har­ris or Amy Klobuchar has hers, watch out.

Ev­ery four years, a group of pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates have their Mo­ment, a golden in­ter­ces­sion when the press and the coun­try dis­cover their virtues, be­gin to con­sider them as strong White House con­tenders, con­ceive of them as plau­si­ble pres­i­dents. It hap­pened to Barack Obama in the spring of 2007; he never lost that fairy dust. It hap­pened to Howard Dean of Ver­mont in late 2003 and early 2004; his magic dis­ap­peared by mid­win­ter. It hap­pened to Dick Gephardt of Mis­souri twice -- in late 1987 and again in early 2004; he never caught the cam­paign wind long enough to cruise to the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion.

These men still live with their Mo­ment, the glory that was in their grasp un­til it mi­grated else­where, to stur­dier, stronger hands able to hold it more firmly, some­times long enough to pro­pel them to the in­au­gu­ral plat­form on the west front of the Capi­tol.

“Can­di­dates need to trans­late their

Mo­ments into cash,” said Bruce Ne­smith, who as a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at Coe College here is a veteran ob­server of the first cau­cus state. “They then need to trans­late both cash and fame into build­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions, both here in Iowa and around the coun­try.”

The Mo­ment was in the youth­ful hands of Sen. Gary Hart af­ter he stunned the po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment by up­set­ting for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Wal­ter F. Mon­dale in New Hamp­shire in late Fe­bru­ary 1984. Hart had the tail winds be­cause he was new and nim­ble of mind, and was pos­sessed of a sense of des­tiny that streamed from his in­tense eyes and from his pos­ses­sion of “new ideas.” He then streaked through Maine and Ver­mont, the Mon­dale moun­tain wall crum­bling like an avalanche in the White and Green Moun­tains of north­ern New Eng­land.

Then Mon­dale’s strate­gists -- the canny James A. John­son and the shrewd Michael Berman -- came up with a gam­bit for the ages. They looked ahead to Su­per Tues­day with trep­i­da­tion, but also with cal­cu­la­tion. Hart, they knew, was po­si­tioned to win Mas­sachusetts and Rhode Is­land by prodi­gious mar­gins, and to cap­ture Florida, the big prize of the day, as well. All that came to pass, to the dis­tress of the Min­nesotan and his min­ions.

But the Mon­dale brain trust be­gan a par­al­lel cam­paign, not so much for con­ven­tion del­e­gates as for the con­ven­tional wis­dom, and they sowed the no­tion -- pre­pos­ter­ous on its face, and even more so in the rear-view mirror of his­tory -- that Florida and the New Eng­land Demo­cratic stronghold­s counted for noth­ing, and that the key to po­lit­i­cal suc­cess was the con­test in ... Ge­or­gia.

Ge­or­gia was, of course, the home state of Jimmy Carter, the for­mer pres­i­dent who had cho­sen Mon­dale as his run­ning mate in 1976. Carter was in dis­re­pute pretty much ev­ery­where in Demo­cratic cir­cles with one ex­cep­tion, his home state. Mon­dale had months ear­lier grit­ted his teeth and stopped in Ge­or­gia to pay re­spects to his pa­tron. Po­lit­i­cal pros at the time won­dered of the wis­dom of that visit to a one­time

pres­i­dent who only later en­joyed his re­vi­sion­ism by virtue of his post­pres­i­den­tial good works. But it paid off. Hart won three of the five states con­tested that day, los­ing Ge­or­gia by only 3 percentage points -- but los­ing the mo­men­tum he cul­ti­vated on the ground though not in the press.

His Mo­ment had van­ished, for­ever. Over­all, Hart won six more states than Mon­dale. On the last day of the pri­mary sea­son, he won the big­gest prize, Cal­i­for­nia. A day later Mon­dale claimed suf­fi­cient del­e­gates to win a nom­i­na­tion that even­tu­ally proved to be more dross than dream. But he also proved how fleet­ing can be the Mo­ment.

Speed ahead four years and there was, as Bar­bra Streisand sang in an en­tirely dif­fer­ent con­text, a Mo­ment to re­mem­ber. It be­longed to for­mer Gov. Bruce Bab­bitt of Ari­zona, like Hart a cere­bral po­lit­i­cal fig­ure but lack­ing the Coloradan’s dash and glam­our. Later Bab­bitt be­came sec­re­tary of the In­te­rior and would have been on the Supreme Court had Western law­mak­ers not ob­jected to his de­ter­mi­na­tion to keep their states free of pol­lu­tion, and of min­ers.

The Bab­bitt Mo­ment crys­tal­ized in a late 1987 de­bate, when he chal­lenged Democrats to con­front the bud­get deficit. Bab­bitt pro­posed a tax on con­sump­tion (a “pro­gres­sive na­tional con­sump­tion tax”) and a “univer­sal means test” -- no farm sub­si­dies for the rich, new taxes on So­cial Se­cu­rity for the wealthy.

The press, as al­ways guilty of fo­cus­ing on pol­i­tics rather than pol­icy, sought to right its great wrongs and de­cided Bab­bitt was a truthtelle­r for the times, deem­ing him a pos­si­ble hero for the ages.

“These cam­paign Mo­ments are cov­eted ‘X fac­tors,’ kind of mys­te­ri­ous, in a way fas­ci­nat­ing, but often fleet­ing,” Bab­bitt said in a con­ver­sa­tion the other day, in which he avowed that his Mo­ment came be­cause “peo­ple were cast­ing around for a can­di­date they liked and weren’t find­ing that in any of us.” When Bab­bitt ac­tu­ally said some­thing sen­si­ble, at least to Demo­cratic ears, his name was on ev­ery­one’s lips.

But not for long. Bab­bitt has an un­usual sense of self-per­cep­tion for a politi­cian, and per­haps it is best that he tells of the de­noue­ment: “I had de­fi­cient com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills and couldn’t take ad­van­tage of my Mo­ment. I couldn’t make my pol­icy pro­pos­als morph into a per­sonal connection with vot­ers.”

And so it dis­ap­peared like a mid­win­ter thaw in New Hamp­shire, where Bab­bitt fin­ished sixth and de­parted the race.

In years to come, Repub­li­cans Ben Carson and Her­man Cain would have mo­men­tous Mo­ments, with Cain -- he had a cameo reap­pear­ance last month as a failed Fed can­di­date -- ac­tu­ally lead­ing the polls in 2011. It was only weeks later that he, too, left the lists.

But not all Mo­ments fade for­ever. Sen. John Mccain had a 2007 Mo­ment, then a 2007 col­lapse, and then -- mirabile dic­tum -- a 2008 re­vival. He won the GOP nom­i­na­tion, and though he didn’t win the pres­i­dency, he went to his death re­spected by nearly ev­ery­one in American life -- the prin­ci­pal ex­cep­tion be­ing the current pres­i­dent, whose Mo­ment, per­haps the un­like­li­est of them all, has lasted three years. •••

David M. Shrib­man is the for­mer ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor of the Pitts­burgh Post-gazette. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at Shrib­manpg.


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