Judging the Candidates for the Presidency

Not the happiest lot to choose from, Hillary Clinton is the best of the lot.  She is highly intelligent and experienced, as the pundits, even those not favorably disposed toward her, concede.  She is also possessed of an often overlooked quality: the virtue and sometimes the vice of listening.

Her campaign began with a listening tour, unfairly derided by commentators as an affectation. The evidence of her subsequent campaigning is that her listening results in the shaping of her policies.  An example: she advocates the raising of the federally mandated minimum wage to $12 an hour in contrast to Bernie Sanders’s advocacy of a more generous $15.  She has clearly been influenced by the liberal Princeton University economist Allen Kreuger (a former Obama advisor), who argues that the $12 figure better minimizes the unintended consequences of job loss than does $15.  When criticized for advocating less than does Sanders, she made a welcome qualification, as she should have made earlier, that states should feel free to raise the minimum to $15, reminding us of the differences in cost of living among the states, for instance between New York and Mississippi.  Clinton’s politics reflects a respect for complexity missing from Bernie Sanders’s politics that depends for its success on the strident simplicity of his message.  Clinton’s politics also has a strong admixture of opportunism, for instance in her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which she had earlier supported, clearly a concession to the hostility toward the pact by the liberal base of the party.  The shaping of policy by listening to constituents is admirable when it doesn’t entail a surrender of conviction.  In the case of the minimum wage, Clinton behaved admirably, not so in the case of the trade pact.

Clinton has liberal convictions, but not “the vision thing.”  George H. W. Bush was not entirely wrong in his scorn for it.  It becomes suspect when on the campaign trail it turns into a few phrases endlessly and monochromatically repeated in stump speeches. In every speech Sanders invokes the Wall Street demon, the 1 percent millionaires and billionaires again and again to a cheering crowd, however with little detail of how he plans to dramatically reduce the gap between the 1 percent and the rest of us.  Sanders has the facial demeanor of an angry self-absorbed man with a reluctant smile.  His physical posture is hunched forward, his forefinger pointed and waving in condemning the enemy. He comes across as a perpetually indignant and hectoring personality.  He promises what he can’t deliver without cooperation from those who disagree with him, a Congress controlled by the opposing party.  Only “a political revolution” (i.e. the overthrow of our constitutional system?), a mantra in his stump speeches, or the unlikely prospect of an extreme congressional makeover would make possible the fulfillment of his promises.  Even then there’s the question of whether his vision reflects economic reality. He is not a listener, or if he listens it is only to refute his critics. Convinced of his rightness in all matters, he does not give the impression of a capacity to admit mistakes.  Clinton has the capacity, though with reluctance. (George W. Bush lacked the imagination of error and the capacity for self-criticism. Obama in contrast is exemplary in his ability to acknowledge error and failure, for instance, failure to explain persuasively the content of his policies and failure to plan the future of Libya after the fall of Gadaffi.)

Sanders seems increasingly to be performing the role of Ralph Nader in Bush versus Gore.  Nader at least was a genuine political outsider and ran as a third party candidate without obligations to the Democratic party.  Sanders is battling for the Democratic nomination, and if he loses fair and square, as is apparently the case, he must have a good reason not to back the winner, especially against an opponent as noxious as Trump.  His reason is nothing short of demagogic.  In an interview with George Stephanopoulus, he had this to say: “I don’t want to see the American people voting for the lesser of two evils.”  When challenged by Stephanopoulus about whether in his view Clinton was a lesser evil, Sanders demurred and said no, but that was the public view.  Why then did he express it, and in a manner that suggested sympathy with the view?  Pure disingenuousness from the candidate touted for his integrity. Since Clinton and Sanders are not far apart on the issues of inequality and economic justice, it is hard to understand his demonizing of her and making her more vulnerable in her race against Trump.  Does she need to become a mere echo chamber of his views and policies to receive his support and that of his supporters when she is nominated?  Or perhaps he is more interested in winning the nomination than having the causes he advocates prevail.

Is he right in his complaint that the primary rules are unfair, that they do not reflect the will of the people?  The fact is that Clinton is ahead by 3 million votes and pledged delegates, having won in the larger primaries and lost to Sanders in a number of caucuses, a less democratic electoral medium that he accepts without complaint. He would dispense with the super delegates, who are active members and officials of the party and keep it functioning, in effect depriving them of a role in deciding who the party nominee should be.  An independent with no record in the party, he wants the rules, which he implicitly accepted in entering the race, transformed on his own terms; he wants independents and party registrants to have equal access to the primaries as if party membership counts for nothing.  If he doesn’t get his way, the convention may become “messy.”  What should we make of his claim that he deserves the nomination because polls show him to be a stronger than Clinton against Trump?  The polls are the creation of private companies and the media.  They are samplings of volatile public opinion at a moment of time hardly deserving comparison with the actual electoral activity of millions of people.  To follow the polls at the expense of the actual votes in the primaries would be to disrespect the democratic process.  Sanders has been the Teflon candidate. It is time for demystification.

Unlike the media, which begin every report of the election campaigns with Trump, I save him for last, where he belongs.   Trump’s political and moral identity can be quickly summed up: bigoted, ignorant, incoherent, vulgar and authoritarian.  His appeal requires a fuller accounting.  Here is my characterization of that appeal in an earlier essay, “The Politics of Anger.”  “Trump…appears[s] authentic in the eyes and ears of his supporters and even of many who hold in contempt his language, its tone and ‘substance.’  He is uninhibited in his profanity; he speaks in a voice that ranges from contempt and anger, directed toward rivals and holders of office. His is a language that has never been consistently used before in political campaigns; it would simply have scuttled the efforts of candidates in earlier times.  What makes it seem authentic is the apparent risk taken in using it.  We are so bored by scripted political speech that Trumpspeak, even when it is outrageous or because it is outrageous, commands attention.  [His listeners] wake up from the torpor of listening [or not listening] to his scripted rivals when he speaks.  He both amuses and disgusts, but we actually listen and remember what he says.”  An example: he has a Homeric gift for epithet: “lyin’ Ted,” “little Marco,” “low energy Jeb” and now that he has effectively won the nomination “crooked Hillary.”  It is the gift for defining the adversary.  Even if you resist the labeling, the characterizations stick in the memory.

Perhaps the most revealing moment in Trump’s campaign has been what he later characterized as a joking remark: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”  Commentators for the most part seem to have simply let it pass as an example of bad taste.  They have missed what it tells us of both Trump and his loyal supporters in fantasy: they are antinomians, a religious term for the conviction of being above the law.  Believing they are in a state of grace, they feel free in imagination or in action to commit crimes to advance their interests.  Imagine the risks of having an antinomian as the leader of the free world.   What assurance would we have that the person with the exclusive power to push the nuclear button would not act out the fantasy?  That’s no joke.  Trump has already demonstrated his defiance of all the rules of civilized discourse; what will keep him from defying rules of civilized action. More alarming than the prospect of a Trump presidency is an electorate inspired by the prospect.  The moral obtuseness of the Republican establishment (with few exceptions) shows itself in its emphasis on Trump’s apparent lack of credentials as a true conservative and not on his dangerous megalomania.

Style and character, which I have been describing, do not fully account for his success. As both the Sanders and Trump candidacies demonstrate, this is apparently a time for populism, and Trump has cannily combined right-wing populism (a white male working and middle-class nativist resentment toward immigrant competition for jobs), misogyny, and a pervasive fear of Islamic terrorism.  The extreme proposals of building a wall to prevent illegal immigration from the south and banning Muslim entry into the country have the resonance of decisive solutions to problems.  In normal democratic politics, solutions to problems tend to come slowly and incrementally through negotiation and compromise and the solutions are usually not total.  In our chaotic time, domestically and abroad, there seems to be little patience for the incremental that proceeds from thoughtfulness. Even the pundits speak with condescension toward those who think and act in the incremental mode and conflate impatience for immediate radical change with the visionary, when what is needed is an overcoming of gridlock and the spirit of negotiation and compromise that would make for actual change.

Trump, himself a media figure, is the obsession of the media, Sanders a not so distant second, and Clinton, though at the time of my writing a favorite to win the presidency, a distant third.  It is not the only paradox of the 2016 campaign.  Whereas the main cause of anger and frustration of the electorate with the party elites is the polarization of the parties and dysfunctional gridlock of the legislative process, the candidates who command the greatest attention are potentially the most polarizing figures, Trump and Sanders.  There are major differences in the way they polarize our politics, but each of them would provoke extreme opposition to their signature proposals.  If elected Trump’s plan to build a wall on the Mexican border would enrage not only the Hispanic population, but also white liberals and even many conservatives.  His plan to ban all Muslims from foreign countries from visiting the United States would also provoke general outrage at home and abroad.  Sanders’s demand for single payer health coverage and free tuition at public colleges and universities would meet with almost certainly insurmountable opposition from a conservative controlled Congress as well as from liberals who are convinced that the economy can’t afford it.  The one candidate who proposes policies, to be sure liberal policies, with the desire and expectation to negotiate and compromise with the opposition is Hillary Clinton. She has been dismissed by the pundits as the least impressive and least persuasive of the candidates.  It is hard to recall a single memorable phrase of her campaign.  She has not caught fire even with those who support her—in part because the liberal policies she proposes are tempered by a moderate tone that suggests willingness to compromise if necessary. The candidate favored to win the election is the least charismatic, the least compelling.

What both Trump and Clinton have in common is the alienation of a significant portion of their party and its supporters, which they need for success in the general election.  Trump is the outsider who has taken over the party from its established leadership and is not viewed as a true conservative; Clinton is the establishment candidate who is the object of suspicion of the left base of the party and the millennials who are drawn to Sanders.  They do not see her as a genuine progressive, unfairly in my view.  Conventional wisdom is that in running for office you play to the base of your party and in the general election you move to the middle.  Clinton is in a bind.  While moving to center, she has to prove her left progressive credentials to Sanders’s supporters in the general election.  Her problem is that “progressive,” according to Sanders’s dogmatic understanding of the term precludes  “incremental” change and the spirit of moderation, terms that are at the core of Clinton’s politics.  Being progressive and being moderate are not mutually exclusive, Sanders’s contrary view notwithstanding.  Trump has said at the time of this writing that he will stay true to his outsider status and not succumb to the demands of the Republican establishment at the same time seeking its support.  Both Trump, despite his self-branding as a deal maker, and Sanders, each in his own way, would only exacerbate the gridlock that already exists in our national politics.

Why is it conventional wisdom that after the primaries successful candidates move to the center, in effect distancing themselves somewhat from the base of his party to which they appealed in the primaries?  The obvious answer is that as a prospective president they must show that they represent the interests and wishes of the whole of the nation, including the supporters of the opposing party.  They do not have to surrender or compromise their convictions, but they do have to declare themselves willing to listen to and negotiate with those on the other side of the aisle.  The place where negotiation and compromise takes place is at the center.  It is the place where center-right and center-left meet.  Without being in thrall to an ideology (a set of fixed ideas and sentiments), those at the center are presumably freer to experiment with solutions and to give up on an experiment when it fails as well as to embrace it when it succeeds.  In economic matters, policies about taxation, income redistribution, government spending and regulation need not conform to an ideological standard, whether it be the free market or government control.  Which is to say that one should not be reduced to choosing between the market and government intervention. Negotiation entails dialogue or debate about their necessary roles in the economy.  One would think that a candidate of conviction who at the same time shows himself or herself open to the ideas of others would be the desired candidate of the moment.  But if enthusiastic support for a candidate is now the measure for success, this seems not to be the case.

With Trump’s capture of the Republican nomination and Sanders’s ambition to redefine the Democratic Party on his terms, there is much talk about the possibility of the unmaking or the remaking of both parties or the possibility of new parties, but little attention given to the effect the upheaval would have on solving the nation’s problems and overcoming the anger and frustration that has come to define the country’s mood.  There is little mystery about the domestic problems that need to be addressed: more jobs, stagnant wages, deteriorating infrastructure, interracial tension if not outright conflict. (I’ll leave aside the more difficult and complicated problem of foreign policy.  More difficult because it depends on external factors and agencies of over which America has less control.)  My own view is that what is needed is an unmaking or remaking of the Republican Party in a direction away from its intransigent extremism.  The Democratic Party remains viable as a vehicle of progressive change.

We know from experience that an effective candidate does not necessarily make a good president.  An unimpressive candidate generally doesn’t get elected, so we can only guess whether one who succeeds in being elected will be effective as president.  Rhetorical persuasiveness on the public stage is required of both candidate and president.  But other qualities are required: a deep knowledge of the issues, a respect for complexity and nuance, thoughtfulness and forcefulness in addressing problems and getting things done.  Success in politics is a combination of intelligence and will.  Despite his intellectual incoherence and the vulgarity of his rhetoric, Trump by his forceful presence has persuaded a sufficient number of voters to be the nominee of his party.  But he is singularly lacking in all the other necessary qualities.  Sanders has been clear and persuasive in his rhetoric and forceful in addressing issues; missing from his campaign, however, is a respect for complexity and nuance or, for that matter, evidence of a deep knowledge of the issues.  Clinton has the deep knowledge and the respect for complexity and nuance.  She promises to be forceful, a quality missing from her candidacy.  Whether she will keep her promise and get things done depends in large part on a political environment, which is currently very unfavorable to getting anything done—by anyone.  Without the audacity of hope, I will vote for Clinton.