Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Now There Are Two

The Republican and Democratic presidential primaries have ended. Thankfully, mercifully ended. There were originally 22 recognized, official party candidates for the nomination of their Party, five Democrats and 17 Republicans. Can you possibly remember all of their names? This was said to be the deepest pool of candidates ever, but some of them were politically unrecognizable. Once their campaigns started, others made you wonder: what were they possibly thinking – about themselves and the presidency – that had them imagining themselves as President of the United States of America? The “kid’s table” at a presidential debate became a new part of the political lexicon, testament to the implausibility of some candidates.

In a time when numerous serous issues scream out for serious discourse about directions, alternatives and plans, there has been a dearth of such a substantive discussion. The first half of the Democratic debates had some quality discussion on policies and programs, but once the voting started, the campaign went to the usual arguments about personalities and respective qualifications. The Republican debates never had an illusion of policy substance, as from the outset all conversation was centered on the latest outrageous comment from Donald Trump. It is hard to have a serious conversation in any setting when the loudest mouth in the room can speak only in insult, ridicule, and self-promotion. We have all personally experienced people who never allow someone else to share in a conversation. It may be somewhat entertaining in the moment; after a while, no one wants to invite the loud-mouth back again.

In the end, two candidates – Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, two 70ish-year olds in a year expected to be of new faces – appear to have emerged on top of their respective Party. All that remains are the formal roll calls in July to make it official. That said, both candidates are burdened with the two highest unfavorability ratings in history as of clenching their nominations. It is hard to make sense out of that paradox, even in this year that defies believability.

Hillary Clinton breaks the gender hurdle with her apparent nomination, 30 years after Geraldine Ferraro’s nomination for Vice President. Whether or not Clinton can crack the final gender barrier – becoming president – remains to be seen. Regardless, she deserves to be congratulated for her accomplishment thus far. Gender alone will not – and should not – entitle her to the presidency. Qualifications and competency still matter (hopefully). Clinton has been in public service for 30 years: First Lady of Arkansas; activist First Lady of the United States; United States Senator; previous candidate for President; Secretary of State. She has generally been acknowledged as smart and effective in promoting her political views, even with people who have disagreed with the specifics of those views. She has also inherited a bucket-load of negativity from longtime opponents of her husband. Caught in that vortex, combined with her penchant for privacy and her general distrust of press and politicians, it leaves many feeling her to be unknown, untrustworthy, and secretive. Yet it is hard to understand the reflex negativity many people have about her. The adjectives are spoken; the negativity is personal; rarely is offered actual reasons or proven specifics of anything she has done to so anger people. Is it simply style, or is it substance? It is unlikely we will hear any future substance when a bumper sticker slogan or Twitter quote more easily passes for political dialog.

Certainly we will have no substance from Donald Trump, who has never spent one day in public service. For almost one year, the man has spent minimal time on policy discussions or specific proposals. “I’m gonna build a beautiful wall” is neither idealized policy nor pragmatic action. (How deep does that wall have to go to block the underground tunnels that will be built under it?) What passes for “telling it like it is” is in fact nothing but shoot-from-the-hip, unfiltered thought-to-mouth utterances devoid of any previously thought-through principles and developed ideas. The man struggles to speak a coherent sentence, much less an intelligent paragraph. Instead of ideas to consider, we get an endless soliloquy of insults, demeaning nicknames, assurance of full self-confidence, and unproven reminders of how successful and wealthy he is. Given how thinned-skin he is, and unaccustomed to being questioned, challenged or held accountable, the insults have plenty to draw from,  That is, when he is not inciting ethnic hatred and violence while disclaiming any responsibility for same. (“Hit him; I’ll pay your legal bills.” “Ban *****.” [fill in any particular foreign or religious group.]) Trump’s proven talent is in “branding” and marketing the Trump name. He also excels at manipulating the legal/financial codes to insulate himself and avoid any personal responsibility or loss from his succession of business failures. With Trump, “Do unto others” comes out as “Do it to others.”

What Donald Trump, and Bernie Sanders in a vastly different way, have thankfully done is to fully expose the deep anger that infuses voters against political ineffectiveness and self-interest. An anger justified after 21 years of a total focus on partisanship politics, non-action / non-results, and hypocrisy. For Republicans, they are now endorsing their presumptive nominee while concurrently distancing themselves from their candidate’s words as they agonize over the condition and future viability of their fractured Party. But it is a conundrum they brought on themselves by continually (and erroneously) preaching about an America in decline, which they promised to correct – promises gone unfulfilled. And now they are surprised when a loud-mouthed bully, completely independent and disdainful of the established political structure, comes along promising to “shake things up” and finds great success with rank-and-file Grand Old Party voters.

Of course, in this election year that is unlike any other, when virtually any imaginable scenario seems possible, there is still a chance that Mrs. Clinton’s and/or Mr. Trump’s name will be missing on the November ballot. Trump thus far has shown no ability or structure for running a national presidential campaign, has no real base of support within the Republican Party organization or elected politicians (phony endorsements notwithstanding), and must now give up his vaunted “self-funded” mantle to take Party and big-donor money to fund his campaign. Which will make him just like every other politician. Will the delegates revolt at the convention and dump him if he looks like an inevitable loser in November – potentially extending to myriad other “down ticket” Republican candidates? And if he is destined to lose, will Trump pack it in and quit the race (under some pretense), given his long expressed disdain for “losers”? In which case, who then shows up on the ballot? Nothing is a given.

Then there is Clinton. She knows how to organize and run a campaign, and will have a strong Party team to back her up. But her “email scandal” still looms. If the Justice Department finds cause to indict her for mishandling secret intelligence, pragmatically her nomination is over. In which case, who then shows up on the ballot? Nothing is a given.

Our general election year is not yet over, and a badly needed “pause and reset” is not in sight. If it is Trump versus Clinton, it is likely to be a very long five months of the dirtiest and un-substantive campaign in our 228-year presidential history. Welcome to the “new normal” – soundbite campaigns in the Twitter Age. Sitting home on Election Day is not an option. But is this really the election campaign, the candidates, the triviality we asked for? I doubt very much that this is what James Madison and his cohorts in Philadelphia expected us to do with their treasured handiwork two centuries later.

©   2016   Randy Bell