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The new rules

Campaign 2008 | Two predictions about this unprecedented presidential campaign

Issue: "Ideal Idol," June 2, 2007

It used to be a pretty good way to describe an opinion that was worth absolutely nothing. "My thoughts on that," we used to say, "along with 20 cents, will buy you a cup of coffee."

Now, of course, it takes all my best thinking-plus $1.50-to get a good cup of coffee. In other words, it's only coffee that has gone up in price. Good thinking still doesn't count for much.

Which may be why, as I travel around the country, people are so cavalier in asking me: "So have you decided who should be our next president?" It's a question that means little enough in January of any election year-and even that is seven months away. But to be asking the question 17 full months (nearly a year and a half) prior to a presidential election-that's like going to Starbucks and being told that, sorry, the only thing they've got for the foreseeable future is decaf.

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So, no, I have no wisdom on the subject, and no one to recommend in either of the two major parties' big fields of candidates. I do, however, have two predictions:

First, watch for at least one or two front-runners in both parties to stumble, crash and burn, or just wear out even before next January. America has never experimented with so long a political campaign, and the odds are that there aren't six people among us (assuming three leaders in each party) who can sustain the cost in energy, money, management, and honesty that such campaigns demand.

Stumbling involves saying something dumb, trying for a few days to defend it, and then finally conceding that it's all over. Crashing and burning means having something revealed about you that everyone knows the public won't accept. Wearing out speaks for itself-and already, some of those faces look pretty worn and weary.

Second, watch for indicators that this will develop into so nontraditional a campaign that absolutely no one will be capable of predicting where it is going. First big sign of that, I believe, came in mid-May with the unprecedented and popular video developed by an unannounced candidate-Republican Fred Thompson, a former senator from Tennessee. Thompson, who has had something of a second career as an actor, had been roundly and publicly challenged by radical filmmaker Michael Moore. But rather than responding with a press release or a news conference, Thompson-resorting to his most natural skill set-quickly assembled a memorable 38-second film clip that over the next few days was watched by hundreds of thousands of viewers across the country on YouTube.

What made the little video unusual, though, wasn't so much its content-although Thompson did give notice that he can serve up a zinger like no one else in the field has done. What was so unusual was that this zinger got immediate nationwide distribution, absolutely free of charge. And it was folksy and funny enough to earn untold repeat showings. "Did you see Fred Thompson's response to Michael Moore?" thousands of viewers were asking their friends through the weekend. "Let me show it to you." Nor were all these people Thompson loyalists; they just enjoyed a good little piece of political repartee.

Might this be the political media of the future? Just imagine a candidate producing a series of weekly barbs, funny but pointed in their message, and leaving folks everywhere talking all the time about the newest version. "Have you seen it?" "Not yet, no." "Well, you've got to." It's a marketer's dream. Especially when the next line is: "I've got it, right here on my laptop."

Not every candidate, of course, can do it. Fred Thompson reportedly did it-this time-without preparation and without a script; there's nothing that says he can repeat that performance.

But when someone masters all that, the $100 million price tag of the presidency has suddenly changed. And so has everything else about presidential politics. Who knows? Someone might be serving fully caffeinated coffee again for a mere 20 cents.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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