Compared to the rest of the world, presidential campaigns in the United States are long. They weren’t always such—once upon a time they were Hemingway-long, but now they are Tolstoy long. When you live in a state with a primary or caucus, outlasting the endless stream of political ads isn’t quite as challenging as surviving a Russian winter, but it’s close.
Which is not to say a long campaign doesn’t serve an important purpose. Being President of the United States is the toughest job in the world, and a thorough vetting of the candidates is essential, though it does seem the media’s tendency to focus on matters that tell voters little about someone’s ability to govern is expanding.
The media’s role in the process of selecting a president is akin to the role of the author in the publication of a book. It hands the voting public a stack of words and it’s up to us to be editors and make sense of them.
But before any of that happens, campaign staffers are hard at work shaping the image of the candidate to the media. This has been especially true in the electronic age. Way back in 1968, the reporter Joe McGinniss wrote “The Selling of the President” which detailed how aides to Richard Nixon sold him to the American public. Nixon was, in effect, turned into a product on the advice of his staff, led by a young Roger Ailes. It worked.
Unseemly though it may be, it is now an article of faith that political candidates, from president on down to the school board are marketed like detergent or automobiles. Yes, politicians are brands like Clorox or Chevrolet.
Forever whispering into the media’s ears, campaigns work extremely hard to define themselves on their terms and occupy a unique space in voters’ minds. Failing at this is usual fatal to a candidate’s hopes. There is no better example in this election cycle than Jeb Bush, who was labeled “weak” and “low-energy” by Donald Trump and tried to fight back, blasting the reality show star and trying to brand himself as a true conservative. But, Bush’s debate performances only reinforced Trump’s words, and, after leading early polls, the former Florida governor is out of the race.
Now, we are left with seven characters in two separate storylines, which will coalesce over the summer. Clinton, Sanders, Trump, Cruz, Rubio, Kasich, and Carson are all distinct personalities (i.e. brands) which should make for an entertaining few months. Whether or not this is good for the republic is the subject for another post.
Like a novel, how the characters play off each other, create and respond to plot twists will determine the quality of the story. It would be hard to imagine a more compelling campaign than 2008, but this year’s may actually top it.
Our first storyline, with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, could be borrowed from Jane Austen. We have Clinton as the heir apparent, a matriarch set to assume power after decades of loyalty, patience and perseverance. enter Sanders, a rabble-rousing outsider from the snowy north, shaking his fist at the very system that has elevated our dear matriarch to the precipice of the highest office in the land. He’s unkempt, gruff and (gasp!) popular in a way the matriarch never was. Worse yet, his legions of followers are often just as unruly as he is, and seem to take glee in disrupting the natural order of things.
But the matriarch has a steady hand and hard-won wisdom. She presents a dignified air to be sure, but let’s not pretend she’ll slink away from a fight. She may even throw the first punch should the occasion call for it. Keep an eye on the courtyard.
On the Republican side, the tale is pure Shakespeare. The prim and proper Grand Old Party, weaned on low taxes and limited government, has devolved into farce. Lear-like, the Republican kingmakers were poised to select a winner from among three choices.
First, there was the fresh face in the form of Marco Rubio, who, with his understanding of the nuances of the modern era, wants to lead the country through an uncertain future to a glory not seen since the days of Lord Reagan of Hollywood. But often, Rubio seems to personify the future he welcomes, in that he is robotic.
The last governor standing, John Kasich is respected if not fawned over. A capable technocrat with a long CV. But alas, he does not stir the passions like his competitors and seems destined to also-ran status. Will his solid Midwestern bearing be enough to outlast the others?
In elections past, the likes of Ted Cruz would be awarded a win in Iowa and then he and his band of God-loving, fear-mongering supporters would be relegated to the sidelines. But not this time. Cruz has made it clear he will not pass up a chance to take offense nor will he be above the “dirty tricks” that make politics unsavory for so many.
Off to the side there is Ben Carson. Once thought a wise man, now relegated to the role of bemused onlooker.
The stage appeared to be set for a competition between the rookie (Rubio), the religious (Cruz) and the rational (Kasich). And then along came the ridiculous (Trump).
Mouths agape, the other leading men have been helpless to thwart the rise of Trump. The pronouncements that would cause reasonable men to wince; the proclamations that contradict the party’s long-term goals; the provocations that create needless enemies. None of it has derailed Trump. Having slayed his competition in New Hampshire and South Carolina, he is bent on taking his to points west.
It’s a plot twist no one could have predicted.