It’s time to look back and have a little talk about what happened in March. By now, I’ve already discussed the trends of the Angry White Voter, record-breaking Republican turn-out, and badly behaving supporters. So, let’s shift our attention to the real problem with 2016: the candidates.
It’s a common complaint. Every election cycle, voters bemoan the lesser of evils, or complain about the lack of good choices. Often, these complaints are exaggerated and reflect a frustration with politics and politicians in general.
This year though, there’s a hot streak of validity running through the collective malaise of the electorate. Our choices for president haven’t been acting very presidential. Less time is being spent on policy issues, and voters are being distracted by inconsequential events. To be fair, hotly contested campaigns are nothing new. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams traded malicious insults in an election so contentious that the House of Representatives voted 36 times before they declared Jefferson the winner. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson ran a series of television ads suggesting a Goldwater presidency would kill children.
As common as attacks and insults may be to the election process, 2016 is devolving into an adolescent popularity contest full of hormones and teenage angst. It’s getting embarrassing and both parties are to blame.
After months of attempting to ignore Donald Trump, establishment Republicans decided to meet him at the playground and play by his rules.
At a rally on the final day of February, Marco Rubio stepped up his personal attacks on the frontrunner, criticizing Trump for having small hands and presumably wetting his pants during an earlier debate. Trump responded with an ad lib imitation of the Florida senator drinking water and repeatedly using the moniker, “Little Marco.”
As criticism of these tactics mounted, Rubio defended his insults by telling Dana Bash at CPAC: “Even before he was the front runner, Donald would offend someone personally, he’d make fun of a disabled reporter, or attack a woman journalist, and he would dominate news coverage. Of course he’s gonna get all this attention.”
The implication of course, was that all the insults were simply a ploy to attract media attention.
Maybe, but more than likely Rubio and the establishment’s strategy is better explained by our conventional pop culture wisdom that tells us the best defense against a bully is standing up to a bully.
Remember when George McFly and Daniel-san stood up to Biff and Cobra Kai? Yeah, those are great stories, but they’re stories; fantasies created by someone trying to bring redemption to the world through art. The reality is that fifteen days later, Rubio lost his home state of Florida to Trump by nineteen points, and was forced out of the race.
With Rubio out, Trump redirected his focus to Ted Cruz. When calling him “Lyin’ Ted,” failed to phase his opponent, Trump threatened to, “spill the beans,” on Cruz’s wife. The two candidates then participated in a war of memes after a Cruz related Super Pac posted an image of Melania Trump to Facebook.
On the other side of the aisle, the second half of our two-party system is engaged in a fierce debate over just how far left the party should go. Underneath it all is an undercurrent of cruelty that looks a lot more like Mean Girls than Karate Kid.
From the beginning of his presidential run, Bernie Sanders promised not to go negative. However, by the time March rolled around, it became apparent that the main strategy of the Sanders camp involved a political slut-shaming of Clinton reliant on rumors, innuendo, and spurious correlations.
Two weeks into the month, the Sanders campaign circulated a ten year old photo of the Clintons at Donald Trump’s wedding on social media. Sanders then made veiled references to the wedding at campaign events.
Besides pointing to Clinton’s past engagements as proof of promiscuity, Sanders also spent the month of March demanding that Clinton release transcripts of paid speeches she gave to Goldman Sachs. The tone of this demand has turned to taunting, with Sanders telling a large crowd on Thursday night, “I think if you’re going to be paid $225,000 for a speech, it must be a fantastic speech. A brilliant speech which you would want to share with the American people, right?”
By mid-month Clinton had already falsely claimed Sanders was absent from her health care stint in the 90s. Outside of this one incident, she had managed to avoid any childish conflicts with her opponent, but as the month came to a close, her resolute calm waned.
After a gaggle of Sanders supporters interrupted her stump speech, Clinton’s frustration boiled over. In a moment of juvenile weakness, she teased the protesters with her primary delegate lead and popular vote counts. Later, at the same event, she wrongly accused a Greenpeace activist of being a Sanders surrogate. A petulant spat over the tone, time and place of a debate before the New York Primary has overshadowed any substantive discussions of policy.
What’s happening in the primary isn’t catastrophic, but the overall tone of the candidates lacks a maturity that recognizes the importance of the presidency. Our potential nominees are acting more like adolescents than grown adults prepared to lead the world. Why?
Part of the problem is that new people are coming into the process. Young people and first time voters are being courted by anti-establishment candidates. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are more than willing to take advantage of the pervasive naiveté that runs through an inexperienced electorate. They’ve catered to the worst aspects of popularity politics. Nothing it seems, is off limits.
Democracy’s greatest weakness is its inclusive nature. Voting requires no test or experience in politics. The rules of running for office are abstract and unspoken. So, a raw flush of new voters are easily manipulated by distraction and misleading information. Add to that the mob mentality and childishness of the Internet, and you have a recipe for nonsense.
Not that we don’t want people to participate. Our country will certainly be better off in the long run. However, in the short term, we may have to suffer the growing pains of their political pubescence. Should they choose a fringe candidate that speaks to their clique, or the next generation of activists, that’s fine. We all stumble through our adolescence one way or another, and are eventually made better by that experience.
Eight years ago, America was inspired by a candidate that promised to end the partisanship in politics, lead us out of our perpetual wars, and change the way Washington works. Under his banners of “Hope” and “Change,” the only thing that exceeded our optimism was our idealism. We were convinced his leadership would usher in a new era.
Today, we understand those lofty goals were more about message than reality, and the reality is that no one person can change America. No matter who ends up being president, the challenges America faces will only be solved by what happens after the election. Obama didn’t fail us so much as we failed him.
That’s the lesson we learned. This new generation of political activists and first time voters will face their own challenges, their own stumbles, and their own lessons to learn. Those of us that know better should stand back and let them figure it out on their own. Sometimes people have to learn the hard way. Just like we did when we were new to this process.
In the meantime, our presidential candidates can hasten the intellectual growth of the electorate by acting like grown adults. It’s time to end the bullying, the name-calling, the rumor spreading, slut-shaming high school drivel. To be president, they should be able to accomplish this with minimal effort. If this truly is the most consequential election of our lifetime, then the people running for the highest office in the world need to set the inconsequential aside. America and its citizens deserve better than high school politics.