Thursday, March 10, 2016

Accidental Presidencies

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.

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