We’ve reached the end of a long, ugly campaign. When the networks project a winner (hopefully) tomorrow night, no doubt one ticket and a little less than half the electorate will be disappointed, but I don’t think anyone will be sorry to see this election season go. This young girl certainly won’t be.
Mark Leibovich, a journalist and veteran of presidential campaigns, wrote a few months ago that, of all the campaigns he’s covered, this one has felt the most “joyless.” At 22, I obviously have fewer points of comparison than Leibovich, but I can understand the sentiment. This election has felt especially mean-spirited, petty, and deceitful in a way that, when I look back, the last three presidential elections did not.
Maybe this is just nostalgia. Presidential elections have never exactly been examples of humanity at its finest. There was the “palling around with terrorists” nonsense in 2008. John Kerry got Swift Boated in 2004. Even 1800, one of this country’s first contested elections, saw its fair share of ugliness: John Adams supporters took out newspaper ads labeling Thomas Jefferson an atheist, and supporters of the latter countered that the former was a monarchist. Perhaps history glosses over these darker moments in presidential elections, and maybe in four years, even this campaign won’t seem so bad.
Or maybe I grew up in the generation whose view of politics will be forever romanticized to an unrealistic extent by The West Wing. No one inspires quite like Jed Bartlet. “Every time we think we have measured our capacity to meet a challenge, we look up and we’re reminded that that capacity may well be limitless,” President Bartlet said. “This is a time for American heroes. We will do what is hard. We will achieve what is great. This is a time for American heroes and we reach for the stars.” Granted, it’s easier to be president in a fictional world, but still: good stuff.
Either way, this campaign has disappointed. For me, some of the most frustrating moments came during the debates when we heard plenty of questions, but few real answers. Sure, there were the obvious examples of this: Barack Obama sidestepped the question about the Libyan embassy being denied enhanced security and Mitt Romney is still yet to name a specific tax expenditure he will eliminate to pay for his tax cuts.
But the sad thing is that practically every question went unanswered, and it happens so often and egregiously that no one really notices anymore. There was, for instance, a question in the second debate about whether the candidates believed it was the job of the Energy Department to keep gas prices low. That’s an interesting question about the role and scope of the federal government, but neither candidate wanted to touch it. Instead, they spouted a few truisms and statistics, then disputed each other’s statistics, and then tried to move on. And that, in a nutshell, is pretty much what presidential debates have become. They are a spectacle unlike any other human social interaction. (And if you want to see for yourself—in the words of the President—read the transcripts here, here, and here.)
As Bill Clinton said, “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.” That feeling has been all too common throughout this campaign, but I have generally opted for the laugh option. And so, I thought, what would happen if we took the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney that showed up for the debates and put them into any other social setting? How would two people who are hell-bent on not directly responding to any question fare in the real world? I figured it would sound something like this.
It is a typical, busy morning at Starbucks. Guests sit at tables with books and computers. A customer is paying for a drink at the register. Behind the counter is a woman with shoulder-length brown hair and tan skin in her 60s. At first glance, she looks an awful lot like Candy Crowley. And that is because she is CANDY CROWLEY, 63, and she wears a name tag that bears her first name.
CANDY Thank you, your drink will be ready in a moment. (a beat) Can I help the next guest in line?
The customer walks away, as a tall, thin African-American man comes into the shot. BARACK OBAMA, 51, the 44th President of the United States is about to place his order.
CANDY What can I get you, sir?
OBAMA Well, Candy, first I want to thank you for taking my order. (addressing the Starbucks patrons) And I want to thank all of you people for taking the time to be here today.
Candy looks nervously from side to side. What the hell is this guy doing? A few of the guests look up skeptically at the man ordering coffee, but most continue with their business.
OBAMA Let me begin, by saying that coffee is one of our most important commodities. It fuels our economy both literally and figuratively. Believe me, there are days when my staff and I would not be able to get anything done if it were not for coffee.
He pauses as if waiting for a laugh from the audience. None comes.
OBAMA And that is why, during my administration, we have expanded free-trade agreements with countries around the world, so that we can import many varieties of delicious coffee beans from all corners of the globe. In the last four years, coffee prices have gone down, and coffee consumption, both at home and abroad, has gone up. Do we still have a long way to go? Are there still under-caffeinated folks out there, working long hours? Staying up at night, wondering when they’re going to get their next coffee fix? Worrying whether their kids are going to have just as many Starbucks in their neighborhood strip mall as they did? You bet. And you know, four years ago I pledged that I would never forget about those people. And I have kept that promise. And if you give me another four years, I promise to continue going to work every day for those Americans.
An odd drink order indeed. But Candy handles it with the unerring grace of a skilled barista.
CANDY Okay, Mr. President, we will get back to you in just a moment to finish your order, but first, I’m going to go to our next guest in line.
Obama takes a step to the side as MITT ROMNEY, 65, the former governor of Massachusetts walks to the counter.
CANDY Governor Romney, what about you? What would you like to drink?
ROMNEY Thank you, Candy, I’m delighted to be here this afternoon. (to Obama) And thank you, Mr. President, for coming to this Starbucks today.
Obama gives a curt nod.
ROMNEY The bottom line is that the President has had four years to order a drink from Starbucks, and he hasn’t delivered. When it comes to ordering coffee, we need real leadership, and I have a five-buck plan… (taking out a five-dollar bill) …to make sure my drink comes through. Most importantly, I want my beverage in a special cup—one with a broad base—so that I can bring coffee levels down.
CANDY Governor Romney, I would like to, if I may, follow up on something you just said. Some have been critical that your drink order lacks important details. Specifically, what beverage do you propose serving in this broad-based cup?
ROMNEY Well, Candy, I’ve said all along that, once elected, I want to work with both parties of Congress to figure out what specific beverage to order. But I’ve set forward the general guidelines that I want my drink to fulfill. First, I’m going to broaden the base of my cup so that I can bring down the level of coffee in it. Second, I’m going to cut the coffee-level on top of that by 20 percent, so that I can put milk in my drink. Third, as I’ve stated in the past, adding milk to my drink will be calorie-neutral. Now how do I do that? Well, I could use low-fat milk. Pick a number: 2 percent, 1 percent. There’s a way to accomplish all of these goals, and I’m going to work with Congress to get it done.
OBAMA Look, I’d just like to point out that an independent, non-partisan barista has looked at Governor Romney’s order and concluded that you simply cannot reduce the coffee-level by 20 percent, add milk, and still be calorie-neutral. The numbers just don’t add up.
ROMNEY Well of course the numbers add up. Look, there are lots of baristas out there. You have a barista that says that. I have six baristas who have looked at this and said it’s possible.
OBAMA You know, we’ve tried Governor Romney’s plan before. The American people have had years of drip coffee, and found that these trickle-down drinks simply aren’t effective. They leave a bitter taste in your mouth, and the American people deserve a sweeter deal.
CANDY It seems that we’re not making much progress on your drink orders, and we need to get to other customers—
ROMNEY Hold, on Candy, President Obama got the first chance to make a drink order. I think the rules say I get the first say on what pastry I’m going to get.
OBAMA I don’t think so, Candy.
ROMNEY Look, when it comes to pastries—
CANDY Governor Romney—
ROMNEY Ultimately it’s a choice between cinnamon rolls and coffee cake—
CANDY Governor Romney you’ll get an opportunity—
ROMNEY This is important, Candy, it’s about cinnamon rolls. They’re—
CANDY Yes, Governor Romney, you’ll—
ROMNEY Cinnamon rolls are the bread and butter of my breakfast plan.
CANDY Yes, Governor Romney, you will certainly have the opportunity to order cinnamon rolls if you like, in a moment, I promise. But right now I want to move on to the next customer.
A long beat. Candy, Obama, and Romney look towards the line expecting another customer to walk to the counter. But at the front of the line, there is only an EMPTY CHAIR. Behind the chair, an elderly gentleman with white hair shifts restlessly.
CLINT EASTWOOD (to the Chair) Excuse me! Could…do you think you…will you order already? Some of us are in a hurry.