This is a presidential election campaign unlike any I've ever seen in more than 40 years of covering national politics. Most campaigns follow a fairly predictable pattern with a few surprises along the way. But the 2008 election has been a series of surprises with only a few normal developments. From the start of the Iowa caucus last January to this final month, it has been one of the most unusual and interesting contests in the history of modern presidential politics. Whether it's good or bad for the country is a question the historians will decide; as this is written, the only thing you can safely predict is that someone will be elected.
After months of arguing whether there is or isn't a "recession," most political leaders are now willing to concede that this is the real thing - a genuine economic disaster. If anyone had any doubts, last month's collapse of financial institutions that were supposed to be rock-solid forts provided the final proof. In fireground terms, they turned out to be "lightweight construction" with all kinds of hidden hazards like greed, incompetence, and a lack of supervision or self-discipline. Now the economic experts are debating what should be done to save them and how long it's going to last. And, as usual, they can't seem to agree on anything, except to tell us that there are hard times ahead - which most people already figured out.
For almost a year, we've been hearing stories of budget cutting by local governments that endangers firefighters all over the country. Once again, fire chiefs have to fight for every dollar to maintain minimum staffing on their companies, which in many places was substandard even before the recession began. However, in studying last month's FirehouseÂ® Magazine survey on staffing, I was encouraged by the number of career departments that were running with a minimum of four firefighters on every engine and truck. It has been a struggle to achieve that standard and now those gains are being threatened by this financial crisis. The truth is that the fire-rescue service has been caught in an ongoing budget squeeze for the last 30 years, with only brief periods of relief. This recession has the potential to undo the good that has been accomplished and rumors are flying over layoffs, "furloughs" and four-day work weeks - all of which means going back to under-staffed companies and putting others out of service.
History shows us that whenever there are bad economic conditions with widespread unemployment and insecurity, the economy becomes the dominant issue in a presidential race and always results in the party in the White House going down in defeat. The other issue that dominates a campaign is an unpopular war, with heavy American casualties and no end in sight. Again, the voters punish the party in power. This year, the Republicans face a double whammy of recession and war, making it difficult to see how the Democrats can lose. But they could and, as this column is being written, the polls show a close race that could go either way.
When it comes to politics and the serious business of electing our local, state and national leaders, no people on earth have more fun than Americans. By constantly "reforming" and tampering with the system, we have managed to turn it into a circus. Where else could you get a cast of candidates like Senators Barack Obama and Joseph Biden going against Senator John McCain and Governor Sarah Palin? And, where else could you have issues like "lipstick on a pig" or "the bridge to nowhere?" People almost forget that a historic breakthrough is taking place: no matter which ticket wins, we will elect either the first African-American president or the first female vice president.
As important as the presidential, congressional and statewide campaigns are, it's crucial for the fire service to pay extra-close attention to local races because those are the officials who have the most direct impact on what happens to your fire department. You want to elect a mayor or county executive who understands the firefighters' problems and is willing to give them the same consideration that goes to the police and the schools. You need city or county council members who support the fire department's goals and are willing to work together as a bipartisan political team that considers fire protection and emergency medical services to be a top priority of local government. An election is the chance to reward your friends and punish those who ignored or opposed fire programs.
Also pay attention to those mothers who drive their kids to hockey, soccer or baseball games and are running for office for the first time. Even if you're in a small, remote town, be kind to that lady trying to win a seat on the village board. Who knows? Under this system, she could wind up being a candidate for Vice President of the United States!
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.