The long and bitter election campaign is over and now we await a new president and a new Congress to lead the country on an uncertain path through the dangers of an economic recession and a pair of Middle Eastern wars. As this is written, I don't know who won or lost, or if the winners at the top of the tickets had "coat tails" that sometimes help pull in others - from governors to mayors and city council members. But we are well aware of the problems that face the country and what the candidates promised they would do, so it's worthwhile to take a brief look back at the campaign that was.
How things have changed! Just a year ago, Sen. John McCain was given little chance to win the Republican nomination with a campaign that was short of money and a candidate who, at times, seemed dazed and confused. Mitt Romney, an ex-governor of Massachusetts, and Rudolph Giuliani, an ex-mayor of New York, were getting most of the attention in the GOP race. South of Juneau, you would have had trouble finding someone who even knew that Sarah Palin was the governor of Alaska. On the Democratic side, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was expected to waltz through a weak field of primary challengers to be crowned as the "nominee-in-waiting." Her opponents in a huge field included Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware and a first-term senator from Illinois by the name of Barack Obama - otherwise known as "Barack who?"
As always, once they hit the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary, they started falling by the side of the road, though the country got to know some of them better than it wanted to. However, for the fire-rescue service, there was one hopeful sign in the midst of the chaos: the finalists all had records of support on legislation that was important to firefighters. That had rarely happened in past presidential elections and could be especially important as the country faces an uncertain future in the grip of an economic recession.
You could sense the uncertainty as members of Congress left Washington last month to campaign for their own re-elections. Reluctantly, a majority had supported the President's economic bailout plans that, in many cases, ran counter to their political beliefs. But, they were returning to states and districts where people are hurting and have been devastated by the loss of jobs, homes and retirement security. The economy finally had become the overwhelming, dominant issue in this election at every level of government. While the federal government has to rescue the banking and finance system, local government has to figure out how to provide fire and police protection after budget plans have crashed into the basement because of the shortfall in revenues and taxes.
It gave added importance to the federal fire programs. Thanks to the hard work and bipartisan approach of the Fire Caucus and the major fire organizations, most of the programs survived. The FIRE Act grants were funded at $565 million, an increase of $5 million. The U.S. Fire Administration was reauthorized at $45 million with a mandate to finally upgrade the nation's fire-reporting system. The SAFER program to hire more career firefighters was given $210 million by Congress after first being threatened with extinction by the administration - as it is every year. As usual, the House, Senate and Office of Management and Budget carried out their annual ritual and, in the end, the fire programs were passed and funded as they always are. But now there are big questions and a legitimate cause for worry if the nation's economic condition fails to improve.
In the final month of the long campaign, it seemed as if the presidential candidates had become irrelevant. All they could do was talk while it was up to others to take action in an economic crisis. The Congressional Republicans were gloomy and fearful that the combination of recession and an unpopular war would cause them to suffer major losses in the House and Senate. Democrats were optimistic about their outlook across the board and both sides engaged in a new level of mud-slinging. The candidates, at times, tried to show restraint, but seemed unable to control their campaign staffs and senior advisors from taking cheap shots that had a high risk of backfiring.
This may not have been the dirtiest modern campaign, but it will do until the next one comes along. We know that campaign tactics were much worse in the 19th century, but it took longer to distribute the filth when all you had was newspapers and magazines. Today, any blogger can reach a national audience in a matter of seconds and the Internet makes it possible for the filthiest lie to have an immediate impact. Once again, I must quote Finley Peter Dunne's legendary Chicago saloon keeper, Mr. Dooley, who when asked about a dirty campaign sagely observed: "That ain't bean bag they're playing out there."
HAL BRUNO, a FirehouseÂ® contributing editor, retired as political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is a director of the Chevy Chase, MD, Fire Department and recently retired as chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.