It’s definitely not politics as usual. The presidential campaign often produces surprises, but this campaign’s twists and turns are so frequent that where we end up is anyone’s guess.
Hillary Clinton is the establishment candidate. If the election were about who has the best resume, greatest cash flow, and the most well-developed ground game, she would be the winner. No question. Her main obstacle is that she first has to beat Bernie Sanders, a Washington insider running an anti-establishment campaign. Sanders is not telling voters “elect me and I’ll reform the system,” he’s trying to enlist people in a revolution against government corruption. An anti-establishment campaign, like his, is not novel–many politicians position themselves as reformers and talk about changing Washington. What makes Sanders unique is that his message has been consistent forever, ever since he was an organizer with SNCC and CORE. He’s not railing against the state to get votes; he believes every word he says.
While many Republicans have argued over the years that we need less government, and they promised to dismantle one part of the federal government or another, Sanders wants more government. He wants a government, however, that’s radically different. Sanders promotes big ideas that are attractive to many. His vision of the future is focused on fairness and the middle class. He’s a modern-day Robin Hood. The democratic primary is not so much about the social issues, which Clinton and Sanders largely agree on; rather, it’s about whether the Democrats want a candidate who will try to manage the existing system or if they want the riskier option of a candidate who will take on all the powers that corrupt the political process.
The democratic voters have a few questions to answer. Can Hillary manage the existing system while carrying all her baggage? Can Bernie, an aging critic, convince people that he can be a president capable of taking on the rich and powerful who are tough to defeat because they are, in fact, rich and powerful? At the moment, Hillary looks like the winner of the democratic primary. But don’t count Sanders out–he attracts idealists. The oldest politician in the race attracts the youngest voters, generates enthusiasm, and energizes the crowds. Ironic, isn’t it? Granddad’s leading the charge. Martin O’Malley, the remaining Democrat on the ticket, hasn’t figured out how to make his voice heard. The Clinton-Sanders clash makes too much noise. He won’t get called off the sidelines. O’Malley would be good vice-presidential material if he were governor of a large purple state. But, unless he can make enough noise of his own and have a good showing in some contested states, he will remain governor.
On the Republican side, Donald Trump’s staying power has surprised many. He knows how to attract and maintain media attention. His message, like Reagan’s years before, appears to be a positive one. He won’t or can’t say how, but he promises America will be strong again. The future, argues emphatically, is bright. Part of his appeal is that America has been through some tough times lately with the Great Recession, the never ending military failures in the Middle East, and the exportation of jobs. Some Americans, white males in particular, are nostalgic for times past. And many are afraid. Trump evokes emotions, creates controversy, and then steps back. The media push other candidates to react to his stand. He makes these candidates tackle issues they would rather not talk about. Trump looks like a half-wit for a moment, but people love him because he speaks his mind and sets the agenda. It’s as entertaining as the Jerry Springer show. Trump is also good at the blame game. He picks on the weakest parties and tries to make them America’s scapegoats. Americans like simple problems and easy solutions. Trumps answer to every problem is simple; the solution is Trump. Trump also taps into the anti-government sentiment. He’s an outsider, a non-politician. His vast wealth would normally disqualify him as a candidate (Americans don’t like the rich unless they are athletes or movie stars), but his supporters admire him for his wealth and argue his billions make him incorruptible. The effects of his positive message, however, are diluted as he offends group after group of people he blames for the country’s problems. He doesn’t tell us how he will make America Great Again; his promise is that He (capital letter intended) will make things better. After all He’s a winner!
Quite a few contenders have fallen by the wayside after The Donald attacked them. Bush was the first to go. He was the front-runner at one time. Jeb had the money, political experience, network, and family name. But, he was trumped by The Donald. In a typical campaign, Bush would still be leading. But Bush looked like a lost puppy, eager to please while wetting the floor, during the first debate. To take him down, Trump voiced what many were thinking: Bush lacked energy, passion and charisma. Jeb never knew what hit him. He had no idea how to restore his image. Cussing (which he tried) did not make him seem more manly; it made him seem desperate. Carson attracted the Evangelical vote, but questions about the truthfulness of his biography and Trumps attacks on his sleepy demeanor made people question his leadership potential. Fiorina managed to deflect Trump’s insults, but she had a hard time being likable, and her HP success story did not stand up to scrutiny. Her misstatements about the Planned Parenthood video and unwillingness to admit that she was wrong about the source of the videos caused her campaign to terminate prematurely. I wondered what she was doing there in the first place.
Trump and Cruz, former friends, are leading many polls. They are on top right now, so they are going to battle it out. Cruz refrained from attacking Trump in earlier debates, hoping that Trump’s light would dim as people started trying to truly picture him as president. Cruz hoped he could build upon his Tea Party support, draw some Evangelical voters from Carson’s supporters, and get some of Trump supporters’ votes when they tired of his vulgarities. He thought he’d gather enough votes to win the Republican nomination if he was patient. Cruz thrives on political in-fighting. The establishment Republicans (at least those who hold office) hate him, but his rise in the polls suggests he could win the nomination if Trump’s support dwindles. The other candidate still in the race is Marco Rubio. He has become the establishment candidate. He has been fighting with Cruz lately, defending his position on immigration and attacking Cruz for flip-flopping. Rubio’s hope is that Republican voters will conclude that neither Trump nor Cruz can win the general election, making him the first choice of those who would argue for “anyone but Clinton.” He is young, and as one of the students in class today said, “he’s not crazy.”
All elections seem to come at perilous times in world history. What makes this campaign noteworthy is that it’s not politics as usual. Mud slinging, dirty tricks, and attempts to rig elections began soon after Washington stated he could not tell a lie. In today’s politics, Trump has been a game-changer. One of our most cherished beliefs that “anyone can be president” may, unfortunately, be proven true. The results in the early voting states will intensify the attacks and counterattacks. The media will love it as things heat up. Who knows whose goose will get cooked as the political cauldron boils. Pick the next president or wager on the Powerball. The odds seem about the same. Feeling lucky?