The first thing you might notice is the silence. It’s not an empty office; people hover amid cluttered desks and gray cubicle walls and piles upon piles of unclaimed campaign paraphernalia. But the low-ceilinged, fluorescent-lit space prickles in its muted hum—and with nothing to drown it out, a laptop’s thin audio draws attention. That audio is the focus of a huddled few, and their moods are darkening.
It’s December 3rd, and this small group—cloistered in Herman Cain’s campaign headquarters in Urbandale, Iowa—is learning of their boss’ exit from the race via streaming video. It’s shocking, certainly, as yet-unaware staff members elsewhere in the building are still moving furniture to make room for staff from the national operation arriving to prepare for the caucuses next month. Volunteer sign-up sheets hanging on the wall indicate names slotted to work through the upcoming week.
Reporters on hand to witness these last official moments from within Cain HQ describe only tempered grief from paid staffers. But it’s a different story amid the volunteers. One woman who had supported Cain since January is described as “overcome with emotion” and her son, Thom Moore, speaks to a reporter with tears welling in his eyes.
“I feel like I’ve lost my best friend,” Thom says.
“I lost control of any capacity that I had,” Thom says.
“It’s taking everything in me not to fall apart,” Thom says.
This hyper-emo gut-reaction to a campaign’s end is distressing but hardly atypical. Certainly the fact that Thom’s heartache comes thanks to handsy dimwit Herman Cain doesn’t make for reduced pain. If anything, the rending of garments in Iowa and elsewhere gives Cain’s semiserious ego-cruise an air of tragic grandeur it never frankly deserved. But the passion it apparently created in his devotees is instructive.
Campaigns make for rough business. When people find themselves shoving their life’s priorities down a notch to work for free on behalf of a stranger, it triggers something approaching sacramental. With campaigns in a constant battle against time, volunteers often take on consistently greater commitments than they ever expected in a kind of Peter Principle of emotional availability. These true believers often don’t talk about anything save the campaign. Their near-pathological devotion causes them to live in an endless loop of Panglossian daydreams exploding with possible paths to glorious victory. And yet, at the end of all that energy and all that effort, just about everyone’s political messiah steps up to a microphone, waves, and admits that it was all for nothing, sorry. In the peak of a campaign, true believers can feel awfully alone; on the day their raison d’être goes extinct, that desolation becomes self-consuming.
In our modern political era, campaigns for president tend to emanate from the candidate—one who is either rich or charismatic, but usually both. These contests base themselves around the virtues of the person, and policy platforms simply follow along. This is true for the brief candidacy of Herman Cain—the man literally works as a motivational speaker—but also for success stories à la the movement around then Sen. Barack Obama. A candidate’s enthusiasts are obsessives of the individual first and foremost—and for these diehards, a loss is a drastic outcome akin to a death.
That brand of interminable, personal agony is a far cry from life among Washington’s federal employees. Working in this city offers up a more pragmatic milieu; once you’re in the suck, you can see the world for what it is. There are greater causes, bigger fights to be waged. Staffers move from congressmen to higher-ranking congressmen or from federal agencies to the White House and back, all striving for the same goal. It’s a thousand-year war that was here before we arrived and it will outlive our short stay. Which is all to point out that the world of national politics stands in pretty stark contrast from the individualized crusades found in your quadrennial primaries and caucuses. Look, we’re used to failure. Wizened D.C. staffers have a habit of locking their shoulders on the “shrug” setting. It doesn’t matter which party you belong to—amid all the compromised wins and temporary fixes, there is inescapable disappointment in D.C. But it is rare for Washington lifers to respond to disastrous outcomes in the manner of young Thom Moore. We’re frustrated like everyone else—more really, the inanity is truly terrifying up close—but our balled-up fists are directed more toward the rancid system than some toppling of a personal hero who promised to change the world.
To put it another way, we’re constantly approaching tragedy here—let me check my calendar for the next scheduled government shutdown—and we’ve learned to roll with it. Think about most folks’ virginal experience with national politics. They usually get their first bite at the apple working on, or at least caring about, a campaign. “I was never interested in politics until Candidate X came along,” they say. And, inevitably, as the more quixotic candidates start falling by the wayside, fanatics with their fervency-coated beliefs are destroyed by the loss. Sure, that feeling doesn’t go away; even hardened political operatives suffer badly after defeats. But for the uninitiated, the devastation seems to demand a force majeure clause to free them from emotional liability. For most defeated candidates, their exultant season on the national stage is gone. That moment for their volunteers is also past. In the end, it’s necrophilistic to spend too much time there.
At least, that’s how Washington works. To care too greatly about a loss or a disappointment or some specific renegade asshole in a position of power is an intensively seriocomic gesture. The world of campaigns is the place for idealist purity, as perhaps it should be. Yet the dirty secret of presidential politics holds that no matter which Republican wins the nomination, their governance—should they win the White House—would be essentially identical to each others’. (For the purposes of this discussion I am not factoring in a President Ron Paul, as I’m not sure but I think there’s a decent chance America would revert to a barter economy.) With any GOP win, party honchos will fill the administration with the same members of their establishment, put the same Supreme Court justice nominees on the bench, etc.—kind of like President Obama surrounding himself with the Clinton alumni network. And as Republican nominees abandon their hopes over the upcoming year, their followers will move closer to the cognitive restructuring they have coming their way, a melancholic drifting from differentiated perfection toward an inevitable systemic conformity. And in that sense, I sympathize with Iowa’s Thom Moore and his rapturous agony. Welcome to hell, kid.