We’re now knee-deep into the next U.S. Presidential election cycle. To say that the race is interesting is quite an understatement. With huge personalities and even bigger issues, the next fourteen months promise the political ride of our lifetimes.
But it isn’t just theater. If you pay close attention, you can tell a lot about where we are as a society by the goings on. We’ll take it left to right.
Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist who finds the Democrat party too conservative for his tastes, is drawing surprising crowds. (A recent Los Angeles event exceeded 27,000.) Maybe this would be less remarkable if he was a fresh dynamic face a la the 2008 Barack Obama. But Sanders turns 74 next week and is saying the same things he’s said for years. Yet even young people are responding to him.
Perhaps it’s that they simply can’t get their arms around the current Democrat front-runner, Hillary Clinton. Her largest gathering to date has been 5,500. But she has something Bernie does not (aside from fame) – a massive political machine that has been consolidating and building power for 30 years.
Despite that she is not the shoo-in most assumed. She is a deeply flawed candidate, lacking the communication effectiveness and likeability that served her husband so well and burdened with the baggage of decades of near-constant scandal. She retains strong support among those who don’t follow current events – they are accustomed to her surname, they fondly recall her time as First Lady as one of relative peace and prosperity, and heck, it’s time for a woman President, right?
But those who pay closer attention know that she may not remain viable. If the justice system worked with integrity and consistency, she would have already been indicted for egregious breeches of national security in order to conceal her communications when she was Secretary of State. Perhaps in the end she will dodge this bullet. She has all the others. But she won’t if the Obama administration decides that it would be best for its legacy to back someone else. Even if they don’t, she is dying a political death by 1000 small cuts as the drip-drip-drip of illegally hidden emails continues to emerge in big batches. They may hold no massive revelations, but it is a constant reminder of her ethical and decision-making shortcomings. And there are five months of it yet to go.
Democrat party insiders are seriously worried that she is becoming unelectable and that her nomination would mean handing the Republicans victory next November. The problem is that they have a thin bench. The handful of other potential candidates, Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee (don’t be hard on yourself if you’ve never heard of them, hardly anyone else has either), do not seem to hold answers. It appears likely that Vice President Joe Biden, if he can muster the energy himself at age 73 for such a massive undertaking, will enter the race. If he does, he will likely be the nominee.
The Republicans, in stark contrast, have the opposite problem. There are so many (16 at the moment) vying for the nomination they can’t even fit them in the same debate. The Republican Party bosses desperately want Florida’s ex-Governor Jeb Bush to get the nomination, as this would extend the reliably pliable Bush family insider legacy.
Their problem? Nobody else does. In fact, the mood of republicans is to get as far away from professional politicians as possible, especially entrenched-in-Washington types. This is why Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina, none of them ever having held public office, are gaining steam. In a Monmouth University poll of likely Iowa caucus-goers, the three of them together represented a 56% majority, with Trump at 23%, Carson at 18% and Fiorina at 10%.
Donald Trump adds particular zest to the show. He defies accepted Presidential political calculus. He makes all sorts of verbal mistakes, over-simplifies issues, and self-aggrandizes. He’s abrasive to those he doesn’t like, he’s evasive, even testy, when confronted, and as a billionaire he doesn’t exactly check the “knows how I feel” box.
The Washington machine, an unholy conglomeration of the vested interests of the current power structure, prefers their political theater a bit more refined and predictable. They see him as a sideshow or distraction – certainly not serious – a candidate who is bound to fizzle. It’s very possible. But they don’t speak or act like they understand the dynamics behind his rise.
This is because they are elitists. They don’t respect the will of the people. They prefer their oligarchy to representative democracy. Americans hate this. It’s not the founding vision. The resentment is the force behind the Tea Party, the most significant grassroots political movement in over 100 years. The Tea Party has handed the Republicans two landslide elections, one in 2010 and one in 2014. Their message was clear – stop the Washington juggernaut. The Republican Party response has thus far been: “thanks for the votes and the suggestion, we’ll think about that.”
They continue to ignore the message at their own peril. If the Republican machine selects Bush, it will be the end of the Republican Party as it is now constituted; they will go the way of the Whigs. It shouldn’t surprise the insiders that their political ship is listing. But they fall into the same trap as everybody – they can’t see past their paradigm. This always blinds us to reality.
Trump is tapping the vein of discord. Sanders may be as well. Both men speak plain. They say what they really think and they mean what they say. In Trump’s case, he’s a tough and strong advocate for American interests. Sanders shows integrity as he stands on issues even if they have historically been unpopular. Americans are unused to seeing these qualities in their leaders. They are responding with real enthusiasm.
I find the rise of neither Trump nor Sanders, but that of Dr. Carson to be the most interesting and refreshing development thus far. Like Trump, he breaks the mold. Unlike Trump, his style is soft-spoken and humble. He is reluctant to make matters about personalities, his or his opponents. So what might be propelling his growing support?
I hope it is this: he is a man of obvious and unassailable principle and character. He has bedside manner. Like Sanders does with Clinton, this contrasts sharply with Trump.
Americans are not only disgusted with business as usual, they sense real danger. Maybe they’ve seen one or more of the growing number of predictions of impending doom and collapse. (Or they watch The Walking Dead.) Maybe they’re afraid as President Obama’s deal with Iran looks like it will pass through Congress. They fear that if Iran, and by extension Islamic terrorists, obtain nuclear weapons, it spells trouble with a capital “T.”
Maybe they don’t like their investments bouncing around like a Super Ball. Race relations seem to be going in the wrong direction, and now it looks like “Black Lives Matter” advocates are inciting violence against police. The Washington machine is unwilling to close the southern border. All of these, and other factors, are straining our system.
Against this backdrop, people feel desperate for strong leadership. A guy like Trump provides precisely the tenor that attracts frightened people – a strong leader they can trust to slay the dragons for them. The problem is that it doesn’t usually work out so well. Leaders like that eventually slay dragons you like too.
Dr. Carson is not a dragon slayer. He is a healer. He doesn’t fit a previous Presidential prototype. This is also one knock against him – people mistake gentleness for vulnerability. They suspect his lack of political experience means that he will find himself chewed up by the machine. I doubt that. Principle is principle. A person who lives by their principles is not easily dissuaded or defeated, no matter the foe.
We need to talk more about the principles that unite us. We must clarify why they matter and how they should be applied to today’s challenges. Someone thoughtful, courteous, well-spoken, and respectful may be best positioned to lead this conversation. The media certainly won’t. While I’m not at the point of saying that Dr. Carson should be the Republican nominee or the President yet, it’s encouraging that he is doing well.