Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Silly Season

Peggy Noonan, a writer whose skill I truly admire, observed recently that 2016, for better or worse, will not be a politics–as–usual kind of year.

"This is big, what we're living through," she concluded.

I agree with her — to a point.

As is always the case in a presidential election year, our nation faces very serious issues, issues that we as Americans must confront frankly and candidly and decide what we want to do about them — the economy and joblessness (that alleged 5% unemployment figure simply is not good enough, nor is a GDP that struggles to stay in positive territory); terrorism (something has to be done about those who want to kill Americans indiscriminately, especially in America but everywhere else, too), and immigration and national security (America has always been a nation that welcomed people from every corner of the world, but a nation that is not secure is a nation that is not free).

These are complex issues. They always are. We owe it to ourselves to come to a national conclusion about what must be done. We cannot, as Barack Obama has famously said, continue to kick cans down the road.

But, as always (and this is where I disagree with Noonan — this is the way in which American politics circa 2016 is the same as ever), we allow ourselves to become mired in irrelevance.

This is so typical of this country. Go back over the history of presidential elections, and you will see this just about every time.

This year is no different. Are we discussing the issues I just outlined? Sure, we talk about them — but in vague terms and only long enough and in adequate terms to energize the base. We don't discuss them in detail.

What are we talking about in detail?

Public restrooms.

The whole thing keeps bringing to mind — well, my mind, anyway — the phrase "the silly season."

That is a phrase that has been used in many contexts. I was familiar with it in my days on newspapers. When I worked in news, it was typically a reference to the general lull in news events in late summer (aka the "dog days of summer"). That always seems to be a slow news season, presumably because just about everyone goes on vacation and nothing of substance is done, certainly nothing of a controversial nature, until after Labor Day. Thus it becomes necessary for reporters to come up with stories to justify their presence on the staff — until real news starts happening again.

In my days on the sports desk, it typically referred to all kinds of off–season stuff that happens in every sport.

In modern presidential election years — at least since the last time a major party's convention needed more than one ballot to agree on a nominee — the phrase "silly season" has typically referred to the period between early summer (after the primaries have ended) and mid– to late October (which, polls show, is when most Americans start paying attention to the campaign).

With a few exceptions, political conventions have been scripted and predictable. Fewer and fewer Americans have watched them in recent presidential cycles. And, although debates are taken for granted today, they have only been part of presidential elections for the last 40 years — less than one–fifth of all presidential elections in America's history.

In the last 40 years, debates between the major parties' nominees have frequently begun in late September, which has shifted the calendar of interest somewhat in those election years.

But the silly season really seems to be getting a head start this time. It's only April, we still have more than a dozen primaries on the political calendar for both parties, neither nomination has been clinched for the first ballot — and we're already descending into silly season hell.

Don't worry about all those other issues, though. There is only one burning — as it were — issue.

Where do you stand — er, sit — on it?

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