There's something spooky going on this time around. Something missing.
Travelling in the U.S. in the month before a presidential election isn't exactly a personal tradition but it is one of my favourite ways of spending October every four years. Elections in Canada are such tepid, now-you-see-'em, now-you-don't affairs that seem to come around on the PM's whim and last less time than a good bout of indigestion. By contrast, elections in the U.S. are more like watching two cats have sex — an interminable amount of very noisy foreplay eventually consummated in a blur of activity, flying fur and blood.
I'll be back in Canada when the blood starts flowing but right now, at least in the western part of the country, there is hardly a trace of noisy foreplay. This time around we seem to have a stealth election.
Travelling through the eastern part of Washington, there was no trace of an impending election. People are going about the business of getting ready for winter, laying in wood, harvesting fruit and hay, hunting meat for their freezers. Same in Idaho. Same in Wyoming.
The first presidential candidate signs I saw were in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Depressingly, they were Romney signs. So much for my illusion that ski towns tend to attract more liberal people. The first sign of support for Obama came outside Denver, the bluish heart of a pinkish state.
What's a guy to think?
This election is being fought on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and TV. It's aimed at eyes increasingly glued to screens of one sort or another. It's being fought to fire up the decided voters and get them to actually vote.
The current polls look like a dead heat: 47 per cent to 47 per cent with only six per cent unwilling to commit, perhaps hoping for an alien intervention to deliver another choice. The edge incumbent Obama had vanished after last Wednesday's first presidential debate, itself an anomaly in an anomalous election.
If you didn't watch — and really, who could blame you for ignoring it even in the absence of hockey — the debate was, well, bizarre. I tuned in expecting to see Barack Obama and Mitt (really, Mitt?) Romney dodge and weave, obfuscate and generally avoid saying anything of substance.
Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be a debate between an empty chair, the ghost of Barack Obama and some guy no one had seen in decades running for the Republican Party. My first inclination was to smack the side of the TV in hopes of getting a clearer picture. But it was a flat screen and didn't offer much of side to smack and I didn't imagine the folks who ran the motel in Republic, Washington, would appreciate me abusing the electronics. So I sat in wonder.
The empty chair seemed to be some kind of homage to Clint Eastwood's uncomfortable performance at the Republican convention. In case you missed that — and why wouldn't you — Squint, looking old and confused, carried on a rambling, disjointed conversation with an empty chair, apparently standing in for an uninvited Obama. I'm not certain what the point of it was, and neither was anyone else who watched it, but it proved you should never, under any circumstance, let a movie actor go off script. Even the republicans were embarrassed, something no one thought was still possible after two terms of George W. Bush and Dick "Itchy Trigger Finger" Cheney.
Anyway, there seemed to be an empty chair at the debate last week. I know Obama, the candidate we remember from four years ago, was invited this time but he was absent, perhaps again symbolically represented by an empty chair.
In his place was the ghost of Obama. Kinda looked like him, only a bit greyer and worn down, but didn't have any of the fire or soul of they guy elected in 2008. I couldn't help thinking it had something to do with the timing of the debate. The first words out of his mouth were a sort of apology to his wife for standing in front of the TV cameras instead of nuzzling her neck and celebrating their anniversary.
A line from novelist Tom Robbins kept playing around my head as I watched the ghost of Obama miss opportunity after opportunity to call out his opponent who seemed to have only a passing familiarity with the true meaning of the word "fact," passing hallucinations off as bona fide truths.
I had visions of Michelle Obama, in an uncharacteristic fit of pique, whispering some pointed words into her husband's ear about standing her up for a mere presidential debate and leaving him at least symbolically emasculated, a victim of a twist of the wrench.
Or it could have been the accumulated weight of all the change we believed in being squandered in an effort to appease his republican opponents in Congress the last four years. Or hell, maybe he was so buoyed by his poll numbers he twisted up a fatty in the green room. Whatever the explanation, the president had left the building and in his place was an empty chair and his ghost.
Now, that in itself would have been weird enough to make me wish I'd have kept driving instead of stopping in time to catch the debate. But who was that guy the chair and ghost was debating?
Purported to be Mitt R-money, survivor of the most unreal nomination process ever witnessed outside of Italy, it was like watching a chameleon shed its skin and turn itself into a koala bear or something unlike whatever it started out as. Or, ironically in Mitt's case, turn itself back into the guy who was governor of Massachusetts back in the day.
I mean, the guy seemed human, something I thought the rules of the Republican Party specifically prohibited in a presidential candidate. Gone was Teaparty Mitt, the guy who pretended to be as whacked out as the rest of the rugged individualist birthers who seem to be running the party. Gone was playing to the base and throwing red meat. Oh sure, the guy rarely made any sense and like I said, didn't know a fact from a donut but it was as though the Mormons shanghaied Mitt the candidate, performed an intervention and presented us with something approaching what we all suspected he was under the various disguises he's been using for the past 18 months.
Lord knows who's going to turn up for the next two debates but it's sure to get curiouser and curiouser.
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