The fact that, based on recent polls, Hillary Clinton is in a statistical tie with the likes of Donald Trump and Ben Carson, is not merely a reflection of her political problems. It also stems from the collapse of politics as a empirically based structure – candidates typically reaching the top because of a history of service to community and/or nation – as well as to the decades long desertion by the Democratic Party from its own policies, principles and values.
Television played a major role in this for two reasons. First, image became more important than a candidate’s actual record and voters’ memories of it. Second, you didn’t need voters or a record to create this image, only money.
The two first top beneficiaries of this shift were JFK and Ronald Reagan, but even Kennedy had been a senator for seven years and even Reagan – among other things an image for Chesterfield cigarettes – had also been a governor.
In fact, to this date about one third of our presidents were formerly the vice president, 19% were governors, and more than another third had filled the role of top military figures, cabinet members or senators.
In over two centuries there has not been one president who was previously a real estate tycoon who also owned gambling casinos and the Miss Universe Pageant, nor a brain surgeon who was also a Seventh Day Adventist.
This latter aspect of Dr Ben Carson’s resume – curiously absent from almost all his media coverage – raises valid questions about, for example, his ability at rational decision making. For example, an Alabama news chain reported last year:
Any science teacher who teaches evolution without couching it in a literal seven-day creation as described in the Bible doesn’t belong in a Seventh-day Adventist school, the president of the 17.9 million-member worldwide denomination told a gathering of science teachers …
In fact, President Dr. Ted Wilson told the international invitation-only gathering of about 350 Adventist high school and college science teachers, those teaching science in an Adventist school who do not believe that the Bible’s account of complete creation around 6,000 years ago by God of the Earth in a literal 24/7 earthly week should not even call themselves “Adventist.”
… “We believe that the Biblical creation account in Genesis 1 and 2 was a literal event that took place in six literal, consecutive days recently as opposed to deep time. It was accomplished by God’s authoritative voice and happened when He spoke the world into existence.”
So clearly, this election is different. Even on the Democratic side, image has so far triumphed over reality. In more than 50 years of journalism, I have never seen politicians who managed to create an image of themselves so remarkably at odds with their actual history than the Clintons. And while this is now on shaky grounds, it should be noted that the image version of the Clintons survived for over two decades. The power of image may not be immortal but is certainly impressive.
The second factor affecting the Democratic campaign is that about the same time that the Clintons first came to the fore, the Democrats began dumping the very policies that had made them so successful earlier. Bill Clinton was a role model of what these new advocates of transforming the party into GOP Lite were seeking. So was Obama, although he tried to hide his relationship to the Democratic Leadership Council that had played such a key part in Clinton’s early success.
Although Democrats like to point to Bill Clinton’s presidential victories as proof that the shift to the right worked, what is missed is that he won by less than half the vote in both his elections – 43% and 49% – and that it was really Ross Perot who got him into office. And while Obama did better, it might be argued that this was because he pretended to be more liberal than he was.
In any case, over the long term, playing GOP Lite has not worked well for the Democrats. For a once widely assumed easy winner to be in as much trouble as Hillary Clinton is a strong sign that the strategy was not what it claimed.
There are, to be sure, a few bright lights in the distance. For example, there is the argument that I have made over the past several years that the Republicans – thanks in part to their average age – may be on their way out and have seized a dramatic but not particularly effective evangelical approach to rescue themselves, much as the ghost dance cult spread across native American culture as actual Indian strength waned. And then there is the remarkable explosion of support for Bernie Sanders – neatly paralleled by developments in the British Labor Party – that may hint that these are merely the last bad times before some good ones take over.
Still, presidential elections are too important to just rely on theories. Here are a few practical ideas that might work right now:
– Get some more candidates in the Democratic race. The Democrats helped blow this one from the start by making it a Clinton coronation, thus sending all the media over to the 17 Republicans who were far more fun to cover on a daily basis than what HRC might be thinking that morning.
For example, there is Rocky Anderson, former mayor of Salt Lake City and decent minded fellow, who might be enticed back into the party he left because it bugged him so much. Or Brian Schweitzer, the former governor of Montana whom David Weigel wrote about last year in Slate:
Democrats inside and outside of Montana loved Schweitzer. The liberal “netroots” held him up as a model for other candidates, a bolo-tied Neo who’d cracked the culture-war code. Schweitzer gave a rolling, mocking speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention that won more praise than the official keynote address. He won re-election with a vote margin that he can recite from memory.
“Sixty-five-point-six percent,” says Schweitzer, talking on the phone this weekend before heading to Washington to appear on ABC’s This Week.
– The Democrats might let people know what they believe. They haven’t had a clear policy on anything of major importance in several decades. Whatever one thinks of Obamacare, for example, it was politically a disaster fueled in no small part by excessive complexity.
– It’s fine to support gay marriage and abortion but those should not be at the top of the list. It is economic issues that cut across religious, geographical and cultural lines.
– Shut up about gun control at least until after the election.
– An excessive federal bias in its legislative approach has hurt the Democrats. A practical way to change that is to share decisions in major legislation with governments at the state and local level. Increasing the more local role doesn’t have to weaken legislation and it certainly can make it more popular.
– Give voters some candidates you can actually like. That is part of Bernie Sanders’ secret – not just his platform but the fact that you feel you can trust him. And part of Joe Biden’s secret – one of the few national politicians worth having a beer with.
– Make fun of Donald Trump rather than treating him as a dangerous god. Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker tells how Barack Obama did this at a White House Correspondents Dinner in 2011:
[He] acutely mocked Trump’s presidential ambitions: “I know that he’s taken some flack lately—no one is prouder to put this birth-certificate matter to rest than the Donald. And that’s because he can finally get back to the issues that matter, like: did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And—where are Biggie and Tupac?” The President went on, “We all know about your credentials and breadth of experience. For example—no, seriously—just recently, in an episode of Celebrity Apprentice”—there was laughter at the mention of the program’s name.
Obama explained that, when a team did not impress, Trump “didn’t blame Lil Jon or Meatloaf—you fired Gary Busey. And these are the kinds of decisions that would keep me up at night.”
What was really memorable about the event, though, was Trump’s response. Seated a few tables away from us magazine scribes, Trump’s humiliation was as absolute, and as visible, as any I have ever seen: his head set in place, like a man in a pillory, he barely moved or altered his expression as wave after wave of laughter struck him. There was not a trace of feigning good humor about him, not an ounce of the normal politician’s, or American regular guy’s “Hey, good one on me!” attitude—that thick-skinned cheerfulness that almost all American public people learn, however painfully, to cultivate. No head bobbing or hand-clapping or chin-shaking or sheepish grinning—he sat perfectly still, chin tight, in locked, unmovable rage.
In short, the Democrats have to rediscover themselves and their humanity. They’ve let themselves be taken over by media mavens, policy perverts, technocratic turds and image incubators and all it’s really done is provided some more jokes for Saturday Night Live.
Even these days, reality eventually intrudes. This is what has happened to the Clinton campaign and it’s a good warning. Get real, give good deals and have some real appeal.
It’s what politicians used to strive for and it still works.