Saturday, 20 June 2015

send in the clowns

I’ve followed every US presidential election since 1960, and I can make two observations that have applied to every contest since then. The first is that whatever the result, it will have an effect on my life, as it will on the lives of billions of non-Americans, even though none of us will have had a say in the outcome. The second is the incredulity I feel when I contemplate the sheer mediocrity of many of the candidates.

The problem, of course, is that because this is a contest to determine who will be the next person to wear the label ‘most powerful person in the world’, it attracts contenders whose most striking asset is the size of their heads. I’ve long believed that the criteria for candidates—must be born in the USA; must be at least 35 years of age—should exclude anyone who actually wants the job. In case anyone thinks that I’m lecturing the United States on how to run its politics, I happen to believe that such a rule would bolster the democratic credentials of any country that adopted it, including my own.

There are actually two types of US presidential election, and the political landscapes that characterize the two are strikingly different. The first type is an election where neither of the candidates has any prior experience of the job. This type is comparatively rare—only six of the seventeen presidential elections held since the end of the Second World War have not involved an incumbent president—although the election to be held in 2016 will fall into this category.

Only three of the eleven elections involving a sitting president resulted in that president being booted out. And in two of those cases, there were significant factors that militated against the re-election of the incumbent (Gerald Ford pardoning Richard Nixon; Jimmy Carter failing to resolve the Iran hostage crisis). It is even possible that George Bush lost in 1992 because a third candidate, Ross Perot, received almost 20 million votes, more of which would have gone to Bush than to Clinton had Perot not been standing. It really does seem that a president has to perform spectacularly badly in office to fail to win a second term, although there may be another factor that bears on the result: the quality of the challenger.

I’ve begun to wonder whether there is a tendency by whichever party does not hold the White House to field an obvious no-hoper against the man in power. Republicans may, looking back, regard Barry Goldwater (1964) as a good conservative candidate, but from the other side of the Atlantic, he was seen as a lunatic likely to trigger a nuclear war.

The Democratic candidate in 1972, George McGovern, was a single-issue politician who had no chance against a slick operator like Richard Nixon, while Mitt Romney in 2012 was a rich man with no idea of what it is like to be poor. Bob Dole in 1996 might have seemed like a good choice, especially given the impeachment of the incumbent, but Bill Clinton was able to ride the crest of an endless wave of good economic news, and I was left wondering whether Dole was handed the nomination as the reward for a lifetime of service to the party, given that the party was unlikely to win.

I do sometimes wonder whether Ronald Reagan was this stooge in 1980, and it was only Jimmy Carter’s problems in Iran allied to Reagan’s undoubted skills as an actor—in B movies, lest we forget—that upset the usual order of things.

It seems that the Democratic Party is more likely to field a strong candidate against a sitting president—former vice president Walter Mondale in 1984 and John Kerry in 2004 are recent examples—but this doesn’t explain why the party fielded probably the weakest candidate to represent one of the major parties in an election not involving an incumbent (Michael Dukakis in 1988) during my lifetime. Adlai Stevenson may have been a reasonable choice to go up against Eisenhower in 1952, but the Democrats must have been short of potential challengers in 1956 to give him a second go following his landslide defeat in the previous contest.

In fact, with the exception of 1988, elections without an incumbent president have been fought between strong candidates on both sides, and I expect next year’s election to be no different, although it isn’t yet clear who those candidates are likely to be. Given the low approval ratings of the current president, I expect the Democratic Party candidate to lose, which is probably a good thing if Hillary Clinton is that candidate.

“Wouldn’t you like to see a woman president?”

This has been a prominent slogan since Clinton began her campaign for the presidency, and it is hard to gainsay. Some people will vote for her merely because she is a woman, without examining her credentials, her suitability for the job. I couldn’t help but notice how much was made of the sheer distance she covered around the globe as secretary of state, as if this is somehow a reflection of how well she did the job. Meanwhile, I noted her public haranguing of China, which marks her out as a grade-one ignoramus.

However, a Republican victory would also be a bit of a worry. There is the possibility that the next American president will believe that the Earth was created a little more than 6,000 years ago and will encourage more public schools to teach ‘creation science’ instead of real science. Some of the current crop of Republican hopefuls wear their religious convictions like badges of honour and do their best to repudiate the intentions of the founding fathers that church and state be kept separate.

Is John McCain standing again? I’m certain that he would have won in 2008 had he not been lumbered with a running mate who made stupid people seem clever, but that is yet another reason to be worried about the Republican Party. Sarah Palin remains a star as far as the Tea Party movement is concerned, and you have to worry about any candidate chosen by such people.

What the party needs is a white knight who will ride to the rescue. And, guess what? It has one. After several electoral cycles during which he toyed with the idea of putting his name forward before deciding against it, Donald Trump has declared his candidacy this week. I haven’t yet found the time to listen to the entire proclamation, but the following brief extract gives a flavour of what this embodiment of the American dream is likely to sound like on the campaign trail:
…How are they going to beat Isis? I don’t think it’s gonna happen. Our country is in serious trouble. We don’t have victories anymore. We used to have victories, but we don’t have them. When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say, China in a trade deal? They kill us. I beat China all the time. All the time.
Send in the clowns? Don’t bother, they’re here.


  1. Fortunately the first out of the box are not always the winners. God protect us from another Bush!

    1. Another Bush could be the least of our worries Peter.

  2. I don't know for sure, Dennis, but I think some of my countrypersons are comforted by the thought that if we go down, we will take the rest of the world down with us. Wouldn't the Donald consider that a kind of victory?

    The election is still a long way off. Common sense (accidental though it may be) could win the day. Stay tuned, my friend.

    1. Great to hear from you Bruce. It may be a comforting thought, but it’s also a mistake. America won’t take the rest of us down with it. It will simply be left behind. Your country needs leaders who understand this. Your country has got out of worse positions before.

  3. I agree. I think I always end up agreeing with you.

    1. Steady on there Bruce. Agreeing with me should carry a health warning.


Please leave a comment if you have time, even if you disagree with the opinions expressed in this post, although you must expect a robust defence of those opinions if you choose to challenge them. Anonymous comments will not be accepted.