2016: From Peculiar to Worrisome

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Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Scott Walker, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul at the first prime-time presidential debate hosted by FOX News and Facebook in Cleveland, Ohio, August 6, 2015

The presidential campaign has gone from peculiar to worrisome. This isn’t only because of who’s ahead in the polls at the moment, but also what an accumulation of polls and anecdotal evidence tell us about the state of the electorate, and what that portends. In both parties, voter support is sharply divided between candidates who might be called “governors” (not the heads of the states but those whose mindset is on how to govern) and those who pitch their appeals to the “anti-government” crowd and who give every sign of becoming the dominant voice in this campaign. Bernie Sanders is gaining on Hillary Clinton, and while the socialist certainly believes in government, his followers are against conventional politics—as of course are those of the candidate now dominating the conversation, Donald Trump, who is also moving up against Clinton in the head-to-head matchups of possible nominees. And Ben Carson has been coming in second or third in recent polls. What’s going on here?

As chance would have it, the long-expected leading figures in the two parties—Clinton and Jeb Bush—are viewed not just as “governors” but also as standing for much that the anti-conventional politics rejects. As I noted in June, both of them come across as having calculated answers to a number of questions. Bush, partly by the circumstances of his birth, has proceeded in a cloud of confusion about Iraq and what to do about the spreading disaster in the Middle East. This week in New Hampshire, Trump, who opposed the Iraq war at the time, proceeded to slice up Bush for his muddled explanation of his Iraq policy. Clinton has put forth some specific and thought-out programs—for example, about college tuition and economic policy—but has disastrously handled the email crisis, with the result that it’s closing in on her, and she continues to hedge on issues that divide her party. In late July, having been pressed on where she stands on the Keystone pipeline, Clinton said, “If it’s undecided when I become president, I will answer your question.”

Sanders appeals not just to the ideological left but also to a wider group of progressives who are put off by plodding or tricky answers on difficult issues—if they’re answered at all. Though he’s all for big government, Sanders comes across as anti-political. He doesn’t sound programmed or focus-grouped. He speaks in simple declarative sentences, and he echoes and conveys the anger and frustration felt by so many people about the yawning gap between the wealthy and everyone else in this country, and about the failure of the political system to begin to close it. That his programs probably don’t add up, or would have to be financed by tax revenues he may never see, doesn’t matter to his followers. As in the case of the anti-government candidates on the Republican side, this isn’t just about ideology; it’s about attitude and presentation. Sanders himself said recently, “My supporters are ordinary people who are sick and tired of politics as usual.” He might have been describing the followers of Donald Trump.

Around mid-August, rival camps and the political press and various commentators began to take Trump’s candidacy seriously. It seemed to come down like a clap of thunder last Sunday, with a great many of these people gathered at the Iowa State Fair, that Trump might not be just a summer phenomenon—that he might even win the Iowa Republican caucuses—and in the following days the idea took root that Trump could conceivably go all the way to the nomination. (But that’s a long way and time off.) Not unlike Ross Perot, Trump is the super-successful businessman who can get things done. His enormous wealth conveys to people that he is incorruptible, a point that Trump himself emphasizes—he’s an unexpected antidote to the corruptive campaign finance system. Many successful businessmen may have zero feel for politics, but Trump’s business has heavily depended upon his talents as a showman and his ability to sense what will appeal to masses of people. His vulgarity doesn’t perturb his followers; they’re far more interested in his self-description as a strong leader who will take charge, rip up opponents, and make big problems go away. That Trump may not have the greatest verbal discipline and causes conniptions on the part of Republican officials only add to his luster for those who are fed up with traditional politics. We cannot know yet whether a decisive number of Republicans will ultimately conclude that Trump’s serial exaggerations, excessive claims of what’s possible, changes of position in order to run as a Republican, or simply his outsized personality make him unfit for the White House.

In the first poll after the August 6 Republican debates on Fox News, Jeb Bush slipped to single digits, behind Trump at 25 percent as well as Ben Carson and Ted Cruz—every one of them an anti-government candidate; the other “establishment” candidates, Walker and Marco Rubio, were also in the low single digits. In a new poll released this week, by CNN/ORC, Trump came in at 24 percent with Bush eleven points behind him. In the same poll, Trump trailed Clinton by only six points in the general election match-up, generating much excitement that Trump was now seen as a competitive finalist.

Though he wasn’t given much time to speak, Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon with no political grounding, got the most out of the debate, nearly doubling his support to 12 percent in the Fox poll. Carson was also voted the most likeable, which had to do with his quiet yet firm delivery. Coming across as the reassuring doctor, he says outlandish things, such as that the president doesn’t have to implement the Supreme Court decision approving gay marriage; and he avoids stating any exceptions for banning abortions.

John Kasich entered late but made up a lot of ground and managed to be among the top ten candidates as measured in the polls to get into the main Fox debate. He’s been betting on New Hampshire, where his conservatism-with-a-heart and his backing by some major state figures are supposed to help him. Kasich has so far gotten good press because he’s been a popular governor of Ohio; and a lot of Washington-based reporters, who covered him during his time in Congress, regard him as smart and funny (if a little goofy). In the debate, he came across as having good sense, a scarce commodity on that stage.

Though Ted Cruz, third in the Fox poll, is a United States senator, he can definitely be counted as an anti-government candidate. Cruz is without doubt the most disliked member of the Senate—the feelings against him are unusually strong—but popularity in Washington isn’t what he’s about; his loner status in Washington puts him in good standing with the Republican base. The Texan breaks the crockery on various occasions, whether it’s bringing on the unpopular government shutdown in 2013; threatening another shutdown this fall over defunding Planned Parenthood; or, speaking on the Senate floor, calling Senate Majority Leader McConnell a liar. As the incumbents in Washington tut-tut over Cruz’s rude behavior he grows more popular with the base.

Even the bump in the polls for Carly Fiorina on the basis of a widespread—but far from unanimous—view that she did the best in the junior varsity debate, the debate that Fox put on in the late afternoon for candidates who didn’t make the top ten, has a lot to do with her not being a politician. The fact is she didn’t have much competition. By forming complete sentences and having honed sharp lines about Hillary Clinton and some of the issues, Fiorina was widely acclaimed to have shone; some who were impressed noted she’d been in charge of a major company. In fact, Fiorina’s stewardship of Hewlett-Packard came to a disastrous end and she was fired amid a plummeting stock, thousands of layoffs, and general chaos over an ill-conceived merger.

But Trump is setting the pace and those who hope to inherit large numbers of his followers—on the assumption that at some point he’ll collapse—don’t want to get too far from him on issues. His Reaganesque motto emblazoned on his puffy red cap “Make America Great Again”—and his comment that “either we have a border or we don’t have a country” appeals to the American people’s deep streak of patriotism and fear of immigrants. His exploitation of racism and nativism doesn’t trouble the voters in the Republican nominating process. His immigration plan, first disclosed last Sunday amid the State Fair whoop-de-do, went beyond the boundaries of the outrageous by specifying that people born in the United States of illegal immigrants would no longer be granted automatic citizenship, and blithely promised to deport all eleven-some million illegal immigrants in this country. The next day Scott Walker told a reporter that he agreed with Trump about the citizenship issue, saying that we have to obey “the law of the land.” But the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution has granted automatic citizenship to people born in the US since 1868. Not untypically, Walker and his campaign hastened to clean up his remarks, leaving it unclear where he stands.

In many ways, the Republican Party brought this anti-politics rebellion upon itself. By deciding even before he was sworn in to oppose everything President Obama wanted to do, and by foreswearing compromise, the Republicans guaranteed paralysis of government. Further, the Tea Party members of Congress led their followers to a dead end—with promises they couldn’t fulfill, such as repealing “Obamacare.”

As of this moment, Clinton remains a strong favorite for the Democratic nomination. Though Sanders has drawn enormous crowds—in some cases 10,000 or even more—these rallies have essentially been held in liberal enclaves such as Seattle and Madison, Wisconsin. Nate Silver wrote recently, “In Sanders, Clinton has drawn an opponent who is relatively well suited to New Hampshire and Iowa. The reason is simple: Sanders’s support comes mostly from white liberals.” Which means that there is probably a ceiling on how well Sanders can do throughout the long slog of the nominating process. Blacks overwhelmingly support Clinton.

But Clinton is now facing an unpredictable and volatile situation. The email issue metastasizes by the day and an ordinary citizen could be in serious legal jeopardy over the kind of careless handling of classified material that Clinton apparently engaged in. It’s now known that someone attempted to wipe the server before it was turned over to the FBI. Clinton’s efforts to brush aside the criticism of her failure to adequately protect her official emails as partisan politics—when the matter is being investigated by the FBI, the Justice Department, and the Inspector General of the intelligence community, all obviously part of the Obama administration—and her strained and obviously false claim that she turned over her emails to the State Department “out of an abundance of an attempt to be helpful” have only worsened her situation. People in her own campaign as well as within the Obama White House have been telling reporters that they’re appalled by her carelessness with sensitive government messages and the way she has dealt with what, through her own doing, has become a crisis for her campaign.

I don’t think she would be subjected to the same intensity of scrutiny and criticism over this issue if it weren’t a reminder for how she had behaved in the Clinton White House—resisting investigators’ demands for documents. The episode also raised concerns that no one around her had persuaded her—if they tried to—of the riskiness of the course she took with the private server. Clinton maintains that what she did with the server was legal—but that’s now in question. (A majority of respondents has for some time been saying that they don’t think Clinton is trustworthy.) The point is that by using her own private server—which was recently disclosed to have ended up being stored in a bathroom closet in a Denver condo owned by an official of the small company whom she entrusted with her and the nation’s secrets—she had rendered them vulnerable to hackers. It will be a while before Joe Biden discloses whether he will enter the race, but Hillary Clinton’s mounting problems must make it all the more tempting to do so.

The fact that a number of candidates who have no business being there are taking up time and attention and possibly siphoning off votes from more serious candidates reflects one of the dangers in this election. The collapse of the political parties has left a vacuum into which even the most preposterous candidates can put themselves forward. And if some of them, armed with SuperPACs, stay in the race long enough, they can divide the vote in a way that produces a nominee who doesn’t actually represent a consensus of the Republican voters. But it’s hard to see how the parties could close the system back up to what are considered the most plausible candidates.

Of big concern is whether there can be any mediation between the “governors” and the stronger-than-ever anti-government forces. Will whoever is elected be able to govern? There’s no clear answer to that at this point and there may not be one before the next president takes office.