As I write this column, former kibbutznik Bernie Sanders has an early lead in New Hampshire’s Democratic primary against a candidate with the best chance yet to become the first female president, and he is sure to become the first Jewish candidate to win delegates there.
Meanwhile, a former Jewish mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, is considering pouring a billion dollars or so of his personal fortune into an independent run for president because of his displeasure with the discourse on the Republican side. That ballot, for what it’s worth, defies the WASP image of the GOP with a couple of Hispanic senators, a black neurosurgeon and a female former Fortune 500 CEO.
The heavy turnout of voters in Iowa and New Hampshire indicates extreme excitement about the 2016 presidential election, yet Bloomberg reflects a common disgust at the overall quality of the field.
We’re less than three weeks from the March 1 primary in Georgia and other Southern states; neighboring South Carolina goes to the polls even sooner, Feb. 20. As many of us begin paying serious attention, what are we to make of our options?
First, a nation that elected nonentities Franklin Pierce in 1852 and Warren G. Harding in 1920 because they were pretty faces shouldn’t fear sinking to new depths in the quality of our candidates.
Second, a lot of the discontent with this field results from familiarity breeding contempt. The Internet, cable news, longer campaigns and an unprecedented schedule of nationally televised debates have given us more knowledge about also-ran primary candidates than we had about presidential winners in the 20th century. We can’t help but find a gaffe, a flawed policy position or an experience gap for every candidate, and it’s easy to throw our hands up in disgust.
The difficulty of reaching people without telephone land lines usually is blamed for the wild fluctuations and inaccuracies in polling, but I think the flood of information about candidates plays just as big a role. Our opinions about candidates are more pliable today because many of them are new to the national scene and we know we’re going to learn more about them until the moment we cast ballots.
Third, this could be a historic election, but not because of which demographic boxes the winner checks, but because of how we get there.
The United States is unusual among the world’s democracies in that our national elections are about personality, not ideology. Sure, we have hard-core conservatives and liberals (or progressives), but it’s no accident that while the United Kingdom chooses among parties labeled Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat, we pick between the malleably named Republicans and Democrats.
Presidents remembered for what they did in office, from JFK to Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, were initially elected because of likability and charisma. Bill Clinton famously followed James Carville’s dictum “It’s the economy, stupid,” to win the presidency in 1992, but the first thing he did after the election was hold an economic summit to figure out what policies to implement.
Maybe this year will be different. A general election between democratic socialist Sanders and hard-core conservative Ted Cruz would be all about starkly different visions for this nation and its federal government. For good or bad, we would have a choice of ideologies, not personalities, perhaps ushering in an era when we vote on ideas instead of looks.
On the other hand, we could wind up with Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump.