Donald Trump isn't the surprise frontrunner he's made out to be. He is the result of a long trend line, heading downwards, in American politics. I wrote a book on the '96 presidential campaign (Campaign America '96), about the second-term election of Bill Clinton running against Bob Dole. Clinton, himself, is an example of the accidental president, insofar as he wouldn't have been elected in 1992 without the wacky intervention of the slightly be-crazed third-party campaign of Ross Perot. Perot dropped out of campaigning and dropped back in at the end. And we think Trump is unstable? Perot, evidently, hated George H. W. Bush and effectively did him in.
George H. W. Bush, Reagan's veep, ran as Ronald's running mate to
heal divisions their primary race had caused within the GOP. Bush won
his own presidential race in 1988 against the accident of Michael
Dukakis, an unfortunate campaigner. (Tank photo, Willie Horton.)
Bush picked Dan Quayle as his veep, a strategic choice, given that it
was made to help his sons down the road, since Bush Senior knew the
Vietnam War cohort had to be vetted and Quayle would serve as the
lightning rod for that debate, after his experience guarding the golf
courses of Indiana during his national guard service. Quayle took the
heat and made the subject of required military service less
inflammatory. Unfortunately for Bush, in '92 he ran against Bill
Clinton, the draft-dodging, etc., but Quayle had made all that history
less toxic for the Vietnam generation. George W., though, eventually
profited from his father's foresight. W was an accidental president,
too, since he lost the popular vote and had to be elevated to the office
by the Supreme Court.
Elections aren't necessarily always a roll of the dice, but the
vagaries of pure chance are often quite spectacular. President Obama's
election history demonstrates this: his 2004 Senate race was aided by a
sex scandal that knocked out his white Republican opponent, Jack Ryan,
and the local Republicans came up with a last minute replacement, the
carpetbagger Alan Keyes, who had a bit too much
beamed-down-from-the-mothership in his makeup. Recall that Obama had
lost his previous primary election bid to congress in 2000.
Keyes had been Bill Kristol's roommate at Harvard. Kristol, of
course, played a similar role when Obama ran for president. The default
candidate of the Republicans in '96 and 2008 had been an older maimed
war veteran, Bob Dole and then John McCain. McCain's fate was sealed
when Kristol, among others, recommended the irrepressible Sarah Palin
for vice president.
A lot of slips between cups and lips in presidential races. Now, for
2016, we have the new Trump-istan brewing, his chance of being the
Republican nominee growing, but The Donald, setting aside his appeal to
the angry and alienated, has been, and continues to be, aided by the
strange coincidence of two Cuban-Americans (or one Cuban-American and
one Cuban-Canadian) making it possible for his dedicated followers to
win battles and state primaries no one thought he would win. Who can
make this stuff up? Yet, very few horse races have seventeen animals in
the starting gates.
Vulgarity in presidential politics, unfortunately for Hillary
Clinton, began with Bill Clinton and his Oval Office trysts. Consult
the Starr Report paperback for all the graphic details. It's a doozy.
Ceci n'est pas une cigar, as Magritte might have said. Now
that Trump's pictorial similarities to Il Duce have been widely noticed,
The Donald, our own Herr Mousse-olini, has his followers doing
stiff-arm Sieg Heil pledges. It is a little much. Trump is certainly
leaning in. But look who he is running against, the two die-hard
gusanos, and the placid Ohio governor, splitting the vote disastrously.
The GOP deep bench is laughable. Not that the Democrats have any
sort of bench to speak of. Beyond the short-lived campaign of the
former white mayor of Baltimore, Governor Martin O'Malley, Democrats
have two septuagenarians running. One reason Bernie (U.S. Senator
Bernie Sanders) won't be Hillary Clinton's veep is that he is too old.
What has happened to both the major parties? I do have a clue. In my
1996 campaign book, I quote an acquaintance saying that the presidency
is now middle management and that is why you don't get the best people
running for the job.
Back in the Bill Clinton days, Beltway types would refer to
"President Rubin," the former secretary of the treasury. Now he had
some power. President Obama, after holding office for a while, was
quoted as saying one thing he was allowed to do had made him "really
good at killing people."
Of course, there are a few other things a president can hope to do. And
the American people have seven more months to decide just who that
president might be.