Are We Serious?

In the wake of their resounding victories in New Hampshire, the excitement emanating from the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump campaigns is palpable. Both (old, white) men are populist leaders. Both have built their campaigns on the promise of what they can do for the people, though in somewhat different ways – Sanders by getting the government to fund everything from your health care to your college education, Trump by using his force of personality to revive the economy and stop illegal immigration.

Even if you disagree with Trump and Sanders, which I emphatically do, it’s not hard to understand their appeal. Both men are unapologetic “straight talkers” who claim to be beyond the influence of big corporations and their party’s establishment. In fact, both men only recently joined the parties they are now vying to represent.

I get it. People are fed up with Washington. They’re fed up with Wall Street. They’re tired of both parties, let down by Bush and Obama. Voters are sending the message that they will not be controlled. They will not dutifully line up behind their party’s Chosen One. This year, people are choosing passion over pragmatism.

And perhaps this is not an entirely bad thing. Party leaders who would prefer to bypass the people will now have to persuade them. In a democracy, this is where all power originally resides. But the same can be said for a lynch mob. What keeps our system of government from descending into mob rule, anarchy, and despotism? Respect for the rule of law, certainly, but also the virtues of moderation, prudence, and humility. In embracing Trump and Sanders, I fear we have abandoned both.

My question for America after New Hampshire is, are we serious? Do we realize that we are choosing someone to do a job here, the most important job in the world? This is not reality TV, and it’s not a popularity contest. We are not deciding the next American Idol here, but the leader of the free world.

The next President of the United States will have to work with Congress to pass legislation that the American people will accept. Not a passionate quarter of the electorate, but the whole country. You might love the idea of socialized medicine, but guess what? The rest of the country doesn’t. You may want to deport all twelve million illegal immigrants currently residing here, but this is never going to happen.

The main task of the next president will be to deal with the international crises that have been accumulating over the past seven years, as well as any others that may arise. These include, but are not limited to: the Syrian Civil War, the spread of ISIS, deteriorating security in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russian and Chinese aggression, the threat of a nuclear Iran, saber-rattling in North Korea, and European democracies threatening to buckle under the weight of millions of Muslim refugees.

And yet it is on foreign policy that both Trump and Sanders are at their weakest. Trump offers few specifics beyond “getting along” with Putin, killing the families of terrorists, and doing “much worse” than waterboarding. For all his tough trade talk on China, he erroneously identified them as part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. Sanders is even worse, preferring to ignore foreign policy altogether. I don’t doubt he would dissolve the military entirely if it meant being able to fund his domestic agenda. When Sanders does address the issue of global terrorism, it is to utter something truly idiotic, like the claim that ISIS is the result of climate change.

I know that a good chunk of the American electorate would prefer to ignore the rest of the world and focus on things here at home. I recently had a Bernie Sanders supporter tell me that ISIS doesn’t matter because more people die from car accidents than terrorist attacks. But whether we like to think about it or not, these are dangerous times. In an era of globalization and terrorism, the distinction between domestic and foreign policy is increasingly blurred.

Just think beyond the rallies and debates and campaign trail euphoria, and imagine an actual Trump or Sanders presidency. Do you really want to see either of these men in the Oval Office? Do you want them representing America, negotiating with Congress, and handling all the inevitable crises and surprises of a presidential term?

I realize the Democrats don’t have much of a choice here, as a Hillary Clinton presidency would be no better. Their rejection of Jim Webb, the only Democratic candidate qualified to do the job, is truly disturbing. But Republicans still have options. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are conservative alternatives to Trump, though I still don’t see how Cruz gets elected. Even Jeb Bush and John Kasich, though too moderate for my liking, could do the job of commander-in-chief.

You wouldn’t choose a doctor, a pilot, or even a dog-walker on the basis of their rhetoric alone. Why are we treating this election with less seriousness?

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Rubio’s Night Not as Bad as Reported

The big story being reported by the media this morning is that Marco Rubio had an awful debate. Marco Rubio did not have a bad debate. He didn’t say anything offensive, there were no “gaffes,” and he never even appeared flustered. He had a bad ten minutes of what was otherwise a solid performance.

First of all, Rubio gave the best answer of the night on foreign policy, explaining with force and nuance a clear strategy for defeating ISIS. He articulated an intelligent and appealing definition of conservatism’s three pillars – limited government, free enterprise, and strong national defense.

He also gave a good answer on abortion, with a particularly memorable line that he would rather lose an election than be wrong on the issue of life. He was brave to defend all life, even life that results from rape (a crime of the father, not the child). He was pragmatic enough to accept signing a law that limited abortion even if it kept these exceptions. However he also accepted the faulty premise that abortion pits the rights of a pregnant mother against the rights of her unborn child. But, otherwise solid and principled.

Rubio did have a shaky start. It usually takes him about twenty or thirty minutes to settle in and move beyond his talking points. In the past few debates I thought Rubio started off too fast and took a tone that was too angry before he was able to relax and be more natural. But this time, Chris Christie was waiting. He pounced on Rubio early, and kept hitting him hard.

When asked about the question of his limited experience and accomplishments, Rubio smoothly rattled off a list of accomplishments before pivoting to his message, that Obama is a failure because of his ideology, not his inexperience. Christie interjected that Rubio was too inexperienced to be president, as all he had were canned stump-speeches. Rubio responded, most unfortunately, with a canned stump speech.

Now, usually it is smart politics to repeat yourself, to hammer your message home. Think Trump’s “build a wall” and “make America great again.” Your message needs repetition to stick with voters. You also don’t want to be seen as retreating from your points. However, this was the one moment when Rubio desperately needed to speak off the cuff. He needed to appear authentic, not automatic. This was his moment to shine the spotlight on his ideas, his record, and his potential, not rehash Obama’s failures. Instead he repeated, almost word for word, his previous answer. Then he followed with a pretty weak attack on Chris Christie, that the New Jersey governor didn’t want to go back to his home state to deal with the recent snow storm.

Chris Christie may be feeling pleased with himself for drawing blood, but he did himself no favors. If anyone benefits from a Rubio slide, it will be Kasich and Bush in New Hampshire, and possibly Cruz in the long-term. Chris Christie is a bully with baggage who will not be the nominee. His “I’m a tough guy, I don’t care what people think about me” persona is much better-suited to his former job as a prosecutor than it would be to President of the United States.

Still, the ten-minute exchange did hurt Rubio, and that’s unfortunate. Rubio is the brightest young star in the GOP. He has stood up to pressure in a way that Bobby Jindal and Scott Walker have not. Ben Carson would love to be able to deliver a stump speech with Rubio’s ease. His answers may be more impromptu, more “from the heart,” but they are often too stilted to really follow, and he always looks on the verge of falling asleep. Rick Perry would be happy to just remember all three points to his three-point plan. He may have been an effective governor, and he can pull off the “average guy” demeanor, but voters also want a good communicator. This is an asset for Rubio, not a liability.

Rubio might emerge from last night’s debate bruised, but he is not broken. If anything, he will be hurt more by overblown reports that he “lost the debate” than what he actually said or didn’t say. Remember, Cruz also had his worst debate of the campaign before going on to his greatest victory in Iowa. Once again, we will have to wait until the results come in from New Hampshire to know for sure.

Still, I doubt we are about to witness a major resurgence for Kasich, Bush, or Christie. The biggest criticism against Rubio is that he is “too perfect,” not real enough, a GOP version of Barack Obama. But that is far less troubling than Cruz’s personality (and equally inauthentic tone), Jeb’s legacy issues, Kasich’s moderate mushiness, and Christie’s Bridge-gate scandal.

If this were an NBA game, I’d say Rubio turned the ball over early, but then recovered to score a solid 20 points on 10/18 shooting. Unfortunately, politics is not sports. What matters isn’t the score at the end of the debate, but the moments that will survive beyond it, and the impressions they leave. Still, if this is a Rubio “bad night,” then that just goes to show what an All-Star he is. 20 points from Kobe Bryant or Lebron James is a “bad night,” but for other players it would be a career-best. In sports as in politics, it is easy to play the Monday-morning quarterback. It is something else entirely to actually go out and perform.

Maybe GOP voters should remember that, despite his youth and inexperience, Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton in 2008. Don’t Republicans want to beat her in 2016?