Candidates, hang yourselves! Nobody does it better than you.
The victories scored by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the April 26 primaries would seem to lock up Trump v. Clinton for the general election. (Yes, despite the unwillingness of Sanders, Cruz and Kasich to concede.)
What’s left is oh-so appropriate for our record-setting climate change era: a record-setting race to the bottom between two candidates with the highest negative poll numbers in history. And there is no less than everything at stake, of course: healthcare coverage for millions, abortion rights, partisan control of the Supreme Court for a generation …for starters.
While national polls have Hillary beating The Donald by double digits, there is plenty of time and opportunity for that to reverse itself by November. For one thing, Trump has passion (vs. questionable competency) while Hillary has the polar opposite: competency (vs. questionable passion) on her side.
Both of them will have ample opportunities to screw up with no help from anyone else. Take this rope. Take it!
Here is irony: what we really need from government is calmness to the point of boredom. Excitement belongs on vacations and weekends and in fulfilling work, not in duck-and-cover exercises.
I found the movies Doctor Strangelove and Failsafe every bit as riveting as the real-life Cuban Missile Crisis. (They were all of that era.) I’d be quite happy to confine heavy drama to fiction.
But no. Every four years, we choose our leader, the so-called leader of the Free World, based on raging, manipulated emotion.
Here is tragedy: Winning your party’s nomination means playing to its hardened core. And that means wading deep into extreme political positions that are probably unpopular to the electoral majority. Swing voters, who actually decide the election, are asked to hold their noses and vote for the lesser of two evils. No wonder we have such low voter participation.
Here is the fickle finger of fate: all candidates carry the rope to their own hanging wherever they go. It has nothing to do with qualifications. I was a teenager when Maine Senator Ed Muskie ran for vice president in 1968. Nixon/Agnew won that election of course, but as a Maine native I recall a popular bumper sticker that identified Muskie as “The Only Candidate Qualified to be Vice President.”
He was still qualified in 1972 but his promising candidacy died after he choked up during a news conference, in response to the Nixon campaign’s “dirty tricks” and attacks on his wife. Look at the video and wonder along with me: how could something that benign kill a campaign? Could it happen now?
The chances are excellent that a candidate doesn’t even know he’s carrying rope. Watch Howard Dean’s enthusiastic scream that ended his promising shot at the Presidency, and wonder how such an innocent act could do such fatal damage.
A candidate can kill his chances in just a few seconds, with a comment caught on a cell phone, then uploaded and replayed endlessly as an internet meme. Watch Mitt Romney’s infamous “47% gaffe” at a private dinner.
Or worse, a candidate can stage a public relations coup that backfires instead. Watch a commercial the Republicans made out of Michael Dukakis’ silly tank ride. The image of Dukakis looking completely stupid in that helmet still makes Democrats cringe.
Or watch Romney’s false accusation that President Obama had not called the Benghazi attacks an “act of terror.” Obama had called it that, and reporter Candy Crowley corrected Romney on it live, on national TV. That needs to happen a lot more often. Not the lies, mind you. No problem keeping them flowing. Accountability needs to happen. An interviewer’s ability, and will, to push back on a candidate’s lie in real time.
You can fail with bad optics. Watch Bobby Jindal’s long walk down a dark hallway before his Republican response to Obama’s first State of the Union address. Watch Marco Rubio looking guilty grabbing a drink of water during his shot at the Republican Response a year later. Watch speaker after speaker trip over himself looking dumb…
How else to fail? You can have a brain freeze and do the exact wrong thing at the exact wrong moment. Watch Marco Rubio repeating his “Obama knows he’s destroying America” claim, four times word-for-word. With Chris Christie calling him on it in real time.
More irony: you can get into trouble for saying the truth. Watch Illinois Senator Barack Obama noting, with some sensitivity, that some Pennsylvania residents cling to their guns and religion in 2008. That video vilified Obama, even though the very same insulted people would agree a moment later that yes, they did cling to their guns and religion. And how dare an outsider point it out!
I recognize all of those banana-peel moments and keep wondering when Trump will wander into his. The resiliency of his supporters may be the answer: they are loyal but they are limited and not a majority. The majority of voters don’t like him.
A majority of voters don’t like Hillary, either. Consider a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that found these negatives with the public: Trump: 60%, Clinton: 52%.
And yet. Tuesday night after winning all five northeastern states, Trump called himself “the presumptive nominee” out loud. That’s not inconceivable any more. But it’s not written in stone either. With the Indiana primary on May 3rd being called Cruz’s last stand, that state hasn’t been so important since singer R. Dean Taylor ran afoul of the law there in 1970.
If you think what’s happened so far is wild and crazy, I must laugh. That stuff was just the warm-up. The campaigns will get stranger from here on out. Consider that conservative billionaire Charles Koch speculated in an interview that Clinton would make a better president than Trump or Cruz. And he didn’t stop there.
Koch rated Bill Clinton a better president than W—by the very Republican standards of money spent and government grown! He then pulled a Trump, immediately backing and filling that he wouldn’t favor Hillary unless she changed her goals considerably.
Koch claims that he and his brother have not contributed a penny to any specific campaign. True enough: you don’t need to get specific; just gorge those post-Citizens United superPACs with your cash. Remember that the Koch brothers were early supporters of Scott Walker. That couldn’t have been cashless moral support. Remember also that Walker was the very first candidate to flame out, after a mere 70 days in the race.
Here is hilarity: one article called the Kochs cheap for doling out less than half of the $889 million they’d promised to Republican causes last year. Between now and the election, they could easily spend the other $445-or-so million. And they probably will. We just don’t know on who yet…
Meanwhile, Cruz and Kasich still think that somehow Trump will lose the nomination, clearing the way for one of them. And so they struck up a classic Survivor-style alliance: they’ll pretend to support each other against their common enemy, while calculating the best time to stab each other in the back.
Trump called the arrangement a certain sign of weakness and he’s right. Years ago, Richard Nixon told his aide Pat Buchanan: “Whenever you hear about a ‘stop X’ movement, bet on X.”
Personally, I hope Trump doesn’t make it to 1,237 delegates before the Republican National Convention. I would watch every moment of that reality show!
Political Survivor #40