Thoughts on the Election

My dad recently bought my mom a Nintendo Wii. The first time I was at my parents’ house playing it with them, I never imagined I’d eventually find a political metaphor there.

After playing a Wii long enough, a message will pop up on the screen with a friendly suggestion: “Why don’t you take a break?” Wiis, after all, are built around the idea of grasping handheld controllers that transmit your movements to the screen, a video game experience that encourages lots of motion and little couch-sitting.

Play a Wii long enough, and your arms are liable to get tired. You throw lazy punches. You make stupid mistakes. Your clock gets cleaned too easily.

I thought about that suggestion to “take a break” when the results came in Thursday night and Steve Cohen crushed Willie Herenton by a margin of almost 4 to 1.

Stars and champions long to go out on a high note. Or at least end things on their own terms. After winning an unprecedented five consecutive terms as Memphis’ mayor, starting with his historic squeaker in 1991, that’s what Herenton did.

Sort of.

His departure was preceded by an on-again, off-again retirement. The indictment that never came. Constant sparring with local media.

I’ll never forget the day the City Council was downstairs at City Hall and engaged in a serious and prolonged debate about whether Herenton was serious about his retirement. I grabbed a camera and went upstairs to the seventh floor.

Boxes lined the hallway outside the mayor’s office. 90 percent of his office contents were already packed away, or about to be.

“Look out all this – I’m pulling out man!” was his exclamation to me. One more surreal reminder of the literal political hemispheres at City Hall.

At that point, a message was flashing on the video game console of Herenton’s political career.

“Why don’t you take a break?”

No one could say he hadn’t earned it.

And yet, Herenton immediately poured himself into a head-scratcher of a run against an entrenched congressman who’d already deflected several challengers and racially-tinged campaigns.

The former mayor is not the flat-footed street fighter of a politician he comes across as in media reports. He’s some of that, but he’s also more complex than that.

He reads the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. He attended a meeting of the Shelby County Young Republicans not long after his retirement and denounced some of Obama’s stimulus program on the grounds that he (the former mayor) was more free-market than that.

My wife spoke to him at Davis-Kidd one day, where he was buying a few things for himself to read.

In hindsight, this was the wrong race at the wrong time for Herenton.

Democrats may be in for a drubbing this fall, according to polls frequently cited in national headlines. Steve Cohen is as progressive a Democrat as they come, yet Herenton tried to beat him by running to Cohen’s right and falling back on a race-based plea.

In a post last month, one local blogger, Leftwingcracker, co-opted Herenton’s campaign slogan of “Just One” to urge that Democrats return Cohen to Washington so that the Tennessee delegation has “Just One” hardcore Democrat.

And that’s what they did.

Cohen is likely headed back to Washington. A tenuous political majority in the House may be up for grabs, and who knows what that will mean for political efforts to reverse the nation’s gloomy jobs picture.

Herenton, meanwhile, will soon wake up to a future with no immediate political race in front of him. The political landscape has shifted, a fact Herenton acknowledged in his concession speech. He may finally be ready for his own equivalent of Hawaiian shirts and hanging out at the golf course.

If he’s not, my advice is this.

Why don’t you take a break?