NOTIONS: Variations on the theme of March Madness

March 10, 2008

March Madness is upon us-that glorious season born in a Springfield, Mass., peach basket and now headquartered, literally and spiritually, in the Hoosier state.

That means, of course, high-pressure conference tournaments; Big Dance brackets and pairings; controversial selections and exclusions; friendly wagers; blowouts; upsets; scoring runs; dry spells; lead changes; come-frombehind victories; heartbreaking defeats; and last-second, game-winning three-pointers.

But in only the first week of the third month of the Gregorian calendar, it's clear-from personal life, to the recession (er ... slowdown), to the campaign trail, to the General Assembly-that basketball's not going to be the leading source of madness this March.

On the personal front, yet another friend let me know this week that some cells in her body have gone bonkers. They've formed a tumor. The tumor is malignant. And it will require surgery and to-be-determined follow-up treatment.

The survival rate for my friend's kind of cancer is incredibly high. She caught it early. The prognosis is excellent. But it's frightening, nonetheless. So all the other madness mentioned in this column pales by comparison.

The most prominent national source of madness this March (with the possible exception of the deteriorating U.S. economy) is the U.S. presidential campaign, particularly on the Democrat side. This contest began with a bunch of wannabes chasing the Candidate of Inevitability, former first lady and current U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. One by one, having failed to find traction in the primaries, and having run out of cash and hope, the wannabes fell by the wayside. Except for the junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, who dared to seriously challenge The Inevitable One and not wait his turn. Somehow, against all odds, he jumped out to a lead in Iowa. Somehow, against every expectation, he managed to sustain and build upon it. And so, as the campaign headed into the month of March with Obama sailing along at the head of the delegate parade, Republicans and Democrats-led by Clinton and presumptive GOP nominee John McCain-suddenly found themselves harmonizing on the same "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" show tune:

Stop that man, I gotta stop that man ... cold Or he'll stop me. Big wheel, big rocket, Thinks he has the world in his pocket. Gotta stop, gotta stop, gotta stop that man ... That man.

And the Strange Bedfellows emerged. In the run-up to March 4 primaries in Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont, Clinton attacked Obama. McCain attacked Obama. Clinton staffers said they'd employ "the kitchen sink" strategy-throwing everything at Obama. They urged the media to throw things at Obama. The media happily complied.

Far to McCain's right, conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, fresh off months of bashing the presumptive Republican nominee, directed his dittoheads (aka devoted listeners) to cross over to Democrat primaries and cast ballots for Clinton.

His rationale: If Clinton beat Obama in those primaries, it would prolong the Democratic contest while McCain focused on November. What's more, as a polarizing political figure, Clinton would be easier for McCain to beat in the fall. (And besides, if Clinton wins, Limbaugh can pillory Hillary all summer long-his favorite blood sport).

The morning after her primary victories, Clinton took an unusual step. Appearing on broadcast network morning shows, she figuratively linked herself to McCain-her potential fall opponent-in her quest to draw distinctions with Obama.

"We're the experienced commander-inchief candidates," she seemed to say to bothersome little brother Barack, "and you're not."

There's risk for Clinton, of course, in making experience the key criterion. Compared to McCain's major league all-star military and Senate status, Clinton has pulled bench-warming sandlot duty.

There's also risk in linking herself to McCain in any way. In so doing, she ties herself to the Bush-Cheney-McCain All-Iraq, delivered-us-into-recession, taxcutsfor-the-rich administration she loves to bash and hopes to usurp.

March Madness. Or what Obama called "the silly season in politics." And brought to you locally by your Indiana General Assembly.

As this column went to bed, the Indiana Legislature was in its 11th hour, still trying to agree on a solution to the Mother of All Issues for this session: property-tax reform.

Even if a compromise is reached, legislators apparently will pass no significant local government-reform measures. As a result, we'll cut local government revenue without giving local government officials new tools and flexibility to cut expenses and govern more effectively.

It also appears the Legislature will once again do nothing to significantly reduce health care costs by discouraging tobacco use and exposure to secondhand smoke. The result of that negligence: More tumors and other ailments for more of my Hoosier friends and more health care expenses for state government and my fellow Hoosier employers.

March Madness. I think I'll stick to basketball.

Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.
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