In America, the saying goes, anyone can grow up to be president. Well, “anyone” did, and now it seems like everyone else wants to try.
One of Barack Obama’s few accomplishments as president is that he has substantially lowered the bar for future aspirants. In retrospect, it is still mindboggling that citizens of the most powerful nation on earth, presumed leader of the free world, risked its governance on a community organizer of little note, a less than one term Senator with no legislative achievements to speak of. It would be like the Mets deciding to pitch in the opening game of the World Series a soccer player with an attractive personality. It should not be a surprise when the country that elects such a neophyte struggles with tepid economy, a smaller work force, and a global environment in which former US allies look to Russia for leadership and vision. Indeed, today’s news that Russia is trying to eradicate any vestige of US influence in the region suggests the triumph of Putin’s craftiness over Obama’s bluster and naiveté.
Any one of the Republican nominees would be superior, and a few dozen others could also serve quite capably. Another part of Obama’s legacy is the surprising popularity of the three non-politicians in the race. It is as if the American people have realized that if “experience” has produced today’s political climate, then we might as well try a different type of inexperience. It can’t be worse, can it? Probably not, as long as the novice politician retains a sense of humility, a willingness to admit mistakes and learn from them, and an openness to diverse sources of information. Of the three novices in the Republican race, two – Dr. Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina – certainly qualify from that perspective. The third – the Donald – does not, and awakens ghosts from the distant past.
Almost all presidents have ascended to the office after serving as Vice-President or Governor. Obama is the first Senator since JFK to become President directly from the Senate and only the third in history (Harding was the other). Eisenhower was the last President who entered office as a non-politician but he had merely been the Supreme Commander of the Allied forces that won World War II. Ross Perot was the last non-politician to mount a serious campaign for the presidency, and probably cost George Bush (I) his reelection in 1992, although analysts spin the numbers both ways. But Trump replicates another individual who sought the presidency as his first elective office, and the similarities are fascinating.
Wendell Willkie was also a former Democrat and a successful businessman (frequently described as a “Wall Street titan”) who wrested the Republican nomination for the presidency in 1940 from several better known competitors, famed politicians all: Senators Robert Taft (Ohio)and Arthur Vandenberg (Michigan), and Thomas E. Dewey, then District Attorney of New York County. (Dewey gained the nominations in the 1944 and 1948 while serving as New York Governor.)
Willkie had the misfortune of opposing a sitting President – FDR – but the 1940 campaign saw FDR running for an unprecedented third term, with an economy still struggling, and Nazi Germany rampaging through Europe. It was a winnable election, but Willkie, while a likable chap, was not an especially enthralling campaigner. He also labored to find the right message that would balance the Republican Party’s isolationist tendencies with its internationalist wing. Notwithstanding that Willkie and FDR had almost identical views on World War II – full support for the Allies short of entering the war – Willkie was lambasted by FDR’s running mate Henry Wallace as the “Nazis’ choice for president.” Dirty campaigning is not a modern invention. Ironically, Wallace himself was later exposed as a Communist sympathizer. Willkie never did connect with the voters.
In the end, Willkie won more votes than any Republican in history to that point but lost to FDR 55%-45%. Even more oddly, Willkie died suddenly in October 1944, so had he won the election, he would not have completed even one term (and his running mate died eight months earlier in 1944!).
Willkie did not have strong roots in the Republican Party and that certainly cost him in the general election – a note of caution for Mr. Trump. Lacking a political base, he was unable to overcome the master of appealing to disparate voting blocs, FDR.
Yet, the differences are also dramatic, starting with the political environment. Politics has always been raucous, but today’s widespread exposure of candidates, the incessant campaign season, and the “president-as-celebrity” that has both dumbed down politics and precipitated Obama’s elections have brought all campaigns into uncharted territory. Politicians nowadays have an enormous capacity to bypass traditional media and communicate directly to the people, not only through speeches but also YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and other such dominant entities. Trump’s real fame is not as a businessman – he has had ups and downs like most businessmen – but as an entertainer. I once thought that people who want an entertainer or beer buddy or perpetual candidate as president do not vote, but I have been proven wrong. Trump’s appeal is that he can speak in bombastic generalities to an audience that, to date, is largely intrigued by it.
Will they vote for him? Who knows, and here’s what has brought me to (almost) the point of revulsion: the campaign is just too long, and as it is too long, it lends itself to producing not the best candidate or potential president but the shallowest and most superficial (not to mention, best financed). There is something wrong when candidates drop out more than a half-year before anyone has actually voted! Yes, it is an endurance test, but why? In theory, a President need not be a great debater; Obama certainly isn’t, and the only times he was actually challenged publicly and in person by anyone (Paul Ryan and Binyamin Netanyahu come to mind), he just became snarky. But it’s not as if the next President will have to debate Putin, Merkel, Assad or anyone else. That’s not how policy is made.
In theory, too, a president need not be telegenic or even a good speaker. Abraham Lincoln was not especially handsome and he had a tinny voice (although a legendary way with words). These campaigns produce the best candidates but being a good candidate often has little connection with being a good president; the proof of that proposition dwells in the White House today and he still cannot resist making at least five stump speeches weekly even though he can’t run again.
The good candidate and the good president have almost opposite skill sets but today’s campaigns are almost designed to reward the better candidate and penalize the person who would be the good president. So the campaigns must be shortened dramatically – even six months seems too long – and the party conventions (four days of hot air and balloons) should be eliminated. Here’s the ideal campaign: no candidate can announce, raise funds or mention the word “President” until June 1 of the election year. Have one national primary – both parties, same day, in July – and one day for the election in November. (Or maybe September 1 and October 1, for the campaign beginning and the national primary.) The top two candidates are the presidential and vice-presidential nominees (unless the latter declines). Stop giving tiny states like Iowa and New Hampshire disproportionate influence over the outcomes of presidential elections. Campaigns would not be as expensive but would be more meaningful. And – I beg – eliminate all polling. Taking daily polls is like taking your pulse every ten minutes; it is both obsessive and worthless. It is mind-numbing – as is the daily punditry. No other country in the world has such an extensive election process. Bad process, bad results.
Everyone knows where this is headed already – so why not vote this November?? Hillary Clinton is ethically-challenged with a cackle that makes one’s skin crawl, and will struggle – thankfully – to overcome Joe Biden. It says something about the state of American Jewry that the first Jewish candidate to be leading the polls in several states this late in a campaign is an intermarried, unaffiliated Socialist. The Democrat candidates are weak, but weak Democrats have won in the past by drawing heavily from the fear chapter in the Democrat handbook. They’ll accuse Republicans – any and all – of being anti-woman, anti-black, anti-Hispanic, anti-elderly, anti-poor and anti-middle class and promise to hand out more free stuff. I would quite enjoy a Fiorina-Carson ticket being labeled anti-woman and anti-black.
The Republican slate is filled with qualified candidates. None are without flaws, but then, who is anywhere in life? Whom do the Democrats fear most? Judging by the level of attacks, the answers in no particular order would be Christie (for his campaigning skills, his ability to get things done with a hostile legislature, and his knack for communicating his positions in a way that voters understand); Rubio (bright, young, dynamic Hispanic with a keen grasp of the issues – and young almost always beats old in presidential elections); Kasich (for his record of achievement as a Congressman and as a Governor of a critical swing state; and, somewhat less, Jeb Bush (who is suffering from Bush fatigue but whose war chest will not allow the Democrats to steamroll him at any time during the campaign).
Democrats should fear Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina and even Donald Trump – the first two because they cut into indispensable Democrat blocs and the latter because, well, he is unpredictable and all the rules of politics have changed in the last decade. Trump will most likely flame out shortly after the voting starts. Democrats may wish for Ted Cruz because he is very conservative; be careful what you wish for, as there is no brighter, more articulate candidate than the Texas Senator. Win or lose, he will be around for a long time. Mike Huckabee is a sage and folksy presence, a good combination. Almost all the candidates project what is most needed in a president: firm, sensible convictions that are grounded in reality and a reasonable way of implementing them.
The shame is that there are so many quality people – Graham and Jindal, to name two other – that there are just too many people running for president to really get a fair hearing by the voters.
Down the road, we can evaluate each candidate’s approach and feelings towards Israel, if only to irritate Ann Coulter. For now, the race is on – even if it is just about a year too early.