The Popularity Paradox

Woody Allen has always made a point never to read reviews of his own films.  The way he sees it, you cannot accept compliments without also accepting criticism, and since he has no desire to indulge the latter, he has opted to disregard both and just keep chugging along on his own terms, heedless of how the rest of the world might react to the finished product.

While one emulates Woody Allen at one’s peril, his philosophy of not being preoccupied with others’ opinions is a sound one—an idea that perhaps ought to be taken more to heart by the average American, and especially by not-so-average Americans like the one currently living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

As things stand, if there’s one thing we know for sure about Donald Trump, it’s that he only cares about what other people think.  In every facet of his life, our president is essentially a human mood ring whose hue is perfectly synchronized with however his adoring public seems to perceive him at a given moment:  If they’re happy, he’s happy.  He quantifies all Earthly success in terms of ratings, status and wealth, and it has become abundantly clear that assuming the presidency has had absolutely no impact on this profoundly amoral view of the world.

While this dynamic worked beautifully for Trump as a candidate—“My poll numbers are bigger than yours!”—the fact of actually being commander-in-chief has introduced an unattractive complication into Trump’s perceived cult of infallibility:  At this moment, scarcely one-third of the country thinks he’s doing a decent job, and whenever he tries to make good on his core campaign pledges, his efforts are thwarted by either Congress or the courts.

This sure ain’t what Mr. Winning had it mind when he signed up.  Much as how Richard Nixon famously articulated, “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal,” Trump entered this job figuring that he could get away with anything so long as a majority of the public approved it—and that if the public didn’t approve it, he could simply claim the polls are wrong, as he did throughout the latter half of 2016.

In effect, he thought he could be an American Mussolini—ruling by executive fiat and steamrolling Congressional opposition through direct appeals to his base—and many of us had full faith that he would succeed, or at least give it the old college try.

Amidst all this fear that Trump would destroy American democracy as we know it (which he still has ample time to do, of course), we didn’t necessarily give much thought to what might happen were Trump to falter—how he would respond to a sustained period of fecklessness and public ennui, which we seem to have entered following last week’s aborted GOP healthcare bill, to say nothing of the ongoing Russian intrigue that has been piling up since before January 20.

Supposing this stench of failure doesn’t dissipate anytime soon, how does Trump justify his continued existence in government?  In the absence of being liked—nay, in the absence of “winning”—what exactly does Trump stand for in his own mind?  In the teeth of widespread public antipathy to his performance as America’s head of state—and “performance” is definitely the right word—what is the guiding principle that’ll carry him from one conflict to the next?

See, when there was a clear sense of what specific actions would sate the reptile minds of his minions—say, imposing a travel ban on Muslims or building a wall along the Mexican border—Trump could confidently put pen to paper and congratulate himself on a job well done.  Easy peasy.

What he didn’t count on—obvious as it was to everyone else—was that half of his campaign promises were unconstitutional, while the other half were fiscally insane.  Accordingly, short of torching both houses of Congress and crowning himself emperor (perhaps he’s saving that for the second term?), Trump was destined to face serious pushback to his agenda within minutes of “making America great again.”  Now that a major chunk of his policy portfolio is on life support or worse, he may need to decide whether playing to the angry mob was such a hot strategy after all.

Historically, presidents with exceptionally low approval ratings have taken the Woody Allen view—that is, to effect a conspicuous detachment from the passions of the unwashed masses, appealing instead to future historians as the ultimate arbiters of the rightness of their executive decisions.  As we know from such men as Harry Truman and George H.W. Bush, there is some credence to the theory that being unpopular in your own time doesn’t necessarily preclude you from achieving immortality—or at least respectability—a generation or two after the fact.

The catch, however, is that Truman and Bush were men of decency, conviction and patriotism:  Even in their lowest moments, they believed to their boots that they were trying to do the right thing and were prepared to defend their records until the last dog died.  In acting against the will of the majority, they evoked the classical ethos—championed by no less than the Founding Fathers—that the short-term desires of the people must occasionally be overruled in the long-term interest of the public.  In the long sweep of history, leaders who risked their reputations for the greater good of the country have been viewed very favorably, indeed.

Donald Trump is no such person.  Day in and day out, for 70 years running, our current president has only ever concerned himself with, well, himself.  Whether on top of the world or with his back against the wall, he prioritizes Trump first, the Trump family second, and everyone else not at all.  Matt Taibbi was perhaps being cheeky when he mused in Rolling Stone that “Trump would eat a child in a lifeboat,” but the image rings true:  In Trump’s eyes, no human being has value except for what he or she can do for Donald.

Which leads us to arguably the most essential, inescapable fact about Trump as president:  Because he does not view human relations in moral terms—because he is a textbook sociopath with zero capacity for emotional growth—he can never be counted on to do the right thing, unless he does it by accident.  Unlike virtually all past presidents at one point or another, he will never face down his staunchest supporters and say, “I know you won’t approve what I’m about to do, but trust me, it’s for your own good.  Someday, you’ll thank me.”

What will he do over the next four (if not eight) years?  Presumably, what he always does:  When his approval rating is solid, he will sign whatever bill will keep those numbers up (e.g., the Muslim ban).  When his popularity tanks—as it has done pretty much this whole time—he will publicly throw a tantrum while privately using the executive branch as his own personal graft machine.  And when he manages to be both unpopular and ineffectual (e.g., failing to repeal Obamacare), he will do what he does best:  Pretend nothing happened, lose interest and walk away.

That’s what you get when you put an emotionally needy charlatan in charge of the largest economy on Earth:  Instability, immorality, ineptitude and intransigence.  A bumbling, crooked train ride to nowhere.

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Keep Calm and Carry On

Well, you can’t win ’em all.

If history proves anything, it’s that America is an ideological pendulum, swinging back and forth every four-to-eight years, rarely allowing the same political party to rule the executive branch for more than two presidential terms in a row.  Indeed, only once since 1945 has the electorate diverged from this pattern—namely, when George H.W. Bush was elected in 1988 on the coattails of Ronald Reagan.

Considering how inherently divided our country is, there is a certain beauty to this arrangement, since it guarantees that no individual citizen will feel bitter toward—and underrepresented by—his or her government for more than eight years at a time.  It means that by age 30—if not sooner—every American will have felt both the joy of victory and the sting of defeat—and, more crucially, the experience of living, day-to-day, as a member of both the political majority and the political minority.

At 29, I can now affirm this theory from personal experience, having endured eight awful years of George W. Bush only to be enraptured by Barack Obama for nearly the same amount of time.  (If that isn’t the definition of “night and day,” I don’t know what is.)

Understanding that I can’t get everything I want every minute of every day—and that half my countrymen do not share many of my core values—I’ve had no illusions that I would always be as lucky in my commander-in-chief as I’ve been since January 2009.  It just wouldn’t be fair to everyone else.

So I can accept—intellectually, at least—that my least-favorite candidate prevailed in the 2016 presidential election, and that even though I didn’t vote for him myself, he will nonetheless be the leader of all of us and we’re just gonna have to deal with it.

I say this, of course, as a way of dancing around the giant, orange elephant in the hall, which is that the next president of the United States is arguably the least-qualified and most temperamentally inappropriate person to have ever sought the presidency, let alone win it, and his victory does absolutely nothing to change that fact.  From a cursory view of American political history, only Andrew Jackson comes to mind as someone whose violent temper and flamboyant flouting of basic social mores are equal to those of Donald Trump.  (We could also add Richard Nixon to the mix, although he did a slightly better job of hiding it.)

And yet—after the longest and most surreal night of any of our lifetimes—I am somehow reluctant today to re-litigate, for the gazillionth time, all the ways that Trump is a Category 5 disaster for the United States and the world.

Not that we shouldn’t start right up again tomorrow—or, at any rate, on January 20, 2017.  Of course we will continue to defend the principles of free expression, civil rights, diplomacy and all the rest against a vulgar demagogue who cares about nothing but himself.  Of course we will fight tooth-and-nail for the America we believe in against a man who represents its absolute antithesis.  Of course we will hold Trump to account for every appalling, stupid decision he makes over the next four years.  And of course we will not be intimidated by any and all efforts to suppress our Constitutional right to dissent.

But today I just want to rest, and reflect that democracy—still the greatest political system on Earth—requires yielding the floor to people with whom you violently disagree when the election results say that it’s their turn to take charge.

Maybe that’s a recklessly sanguine attitude for a liberal like me to strike.  Maybe I’m just so exhausted and relieved about the election being over that I can’t quite think straight.  Maybe—no, definitely—the fact that I’m white and male has partially insulated me from the raging existential panic and sadness that have swept across the entirety of Blue America throughout the day.  Maybe the magnitude of last night’s results, like a death in the family, hasn’t yet fully sunk in.  Or maybe I’m just a much more optimistic person than I realized and have faith that a President Trump will somehow not bring ruin to America’s most cherished institutions and dial our culture back to an era when life was absolutely miserable for all but rich, heterosexual white men.

To be sure, I can’t say I’ve ever felt more ashamed of my Y chromosome or my pale complexion, and I don’t begrudge my fellow liberals for refusing to play nice for even a moment, and/or for feeling that this might be the worst day of their lives and that the next four years will be one horrible nightmare after another.

But this morning I re-read David Wong’s October 12 article on the website Cracked, titled, “How Half of America Lost Its F**king Mind,” and really understood—maybe for the first time—the perspective of, say, a struggling working-class man from the Midwest who has become so alienated by his government—indeed, by his very society—that he felt he had no choice but to roll the dice with a human Molotov cocktail, buying into Trump’s sales pitch, “What the hell do you have to lose?”

I think that perspective is misguided—that Trump represents everything that blue-collar worker should fear and detest about both government and human nature in general—but I cannot deny the logic of it from the eyes of those who really have been stiffed by their representatives in Washington, D.C., and are resentful that liberal bastions on America’s coasts are getting all the attention and having all the fun.

Trump’s silent majority (or whatever he’s calling it) represents a group of Americans who have felt let down for far more than the eight years that most of us are used to, and while Trump is most certainly not the answer to their problems, his victory demonstrates how very wrong we elitist city folk were about what kind of country this really is.

Trump has forced us to reconsider things that we thought we knew for sure, and while none of those revelations are good—indeed, only in time will their badness become fully apparent—at least they have humbled us into recognizing that there is more than one way to see the world and that nothing can be taken for granted.

We liberals had our moment in the sun for the last eight years, and now it’s time for conservatives to have theirs.  Eventually, inevitably, the pendulum will swing back in our direction, and hopefully we’ll be there to seize it when it does.

What Might Have Been

During the second debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, journalist Jeff Greenfield tweeted, “All year, I’ve told people who asked about an alternate history for 2016: ‘This IS the alternate history.’”

Yes, indeed.  And as this bizarro fever dream lurches toward its conclusion—likely in the form of a smashing Clinton victory—it’s hard not to fantasize about what might have been.  To mentally play out the 2016 election in a plane of reality devoid of Clinton and/or Trump.

To be sure, Americans have wistfully indulged in “What if?” scenarios for pretty much every election in history—if not every major news event, period—understanding, as we do, that one tiny hiccup in the space-time continuum can have a transformative effect on the course of human events.  Since reality itself is unknowable until it becomes known—and sometimes not even then—alternate reality has an otherworldly allure tailor-made for those who’ve had it up to here with the truth and would rather reside in the warm, reassuring embrace of pure fiction.

In 2016, that describes just about everybody, doesn’t it?

Let us begin, then, with Bernie Sanders and his vision for a more economically egalitarian way of life.  Had he somehow prevailed in the Democratic primaries—say, by attracting more African-American voters or by more aggressively attacking Hillary’s most vulnerable policy positions—would his general election campaign against Trump have been measurably different from Clinton’s?

Damn straight, it would.  For all the substantive agreement between the two Democratic candidates, Sanders would’ve presented as an entirely different species of opponent for his Republican counterpart—a simpler target in some ways, while a considerably more vexing one in others.

Most conspicuously, perhaps—particularly in light of recent events—Trump could not credibly have attacked Sanders on issues of character.  Unlike Hillary, Bernie hasn’t a whiff of scandal or corruption about him; he has rarely, if ever, altered his views for political expedience; he has not engaged in “pay-to-play” shenanigans with lobbyists or big banks; and he has not, in any case, been a party to the so-called “rigged” system that both he and Trump have vowed to fix.

As well, for all his theatricality in front of a crowd, Sanders is an utterly decent and morally serious person who went to extraordinary lengths to avoid a dirty primary fight against Hillary and presumably would’ve tried to comport himself similarly against Trump.  What’s more, even if he had chastised Trump for all the terrible things he’s said over the years—as he has been wont to do as Hillary’s loyal surrogate—what exactly would Trump have lobbed back in response?  We all know how much the Donald depends on projection to get his message across, but would anyone really have bought into the idea (if Trump floated it) that Bernie Sanders is a “liar” and a “bigot,” or that he has “tremendous hate in [his] heart”?

In other words, Trump’s attacks on Bernie would’ve come from an entirely different playbook from the ones he’s using on Hillary, and our imagination can only get us so far in picturing just how that might’ve panned out.  In all likelihood, as a 25-year far-left member of Congress, Sanders would’ve been painted as a feckless insider and/or an extremist loony toon—a line of attack that would surely be more effective from a messenger who is not, himself, a raging, unprincipled nut job.

In short:  If the last few months have taught us anything, it’s that Trump would’ve found a way to disqualify himself regardless of his Democratic opponent.  He can’t help it:  He is just too good at being bad.

But what if we removed Trump from the equation altogether?  What if Republican primary voters hadn’t gone totally insane last spring and, instead, nominated a comparatively normal (i.e. electable) candidate like Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush?

In other words, what if this election made any sense at all?

For the answer to that, we would do well to consult history, beginning with this rather remarkable piece of data:  Since 1945, 11 different men have been elected commander-in-chief, and of those 11, only one was picked to succeed a member of his own political party.  Except for 1988, when Republican George H.W. Bush took over for Republican Ronald Reagan, every presidential transition since the end of World War II that was not triggered by the president’s death or resignation involved a switch from a Democrat to a Republican, or vice versa.

If there is a central fact about the American electorate, it’s the desire to throw the bums out as soon as their natural term is up.  Although we have lately made a habit of re-electing the incumbent—itself something of a historical anomaly—we have shown an innate aversion to having a single party control the executive branch for more than eight years at a time—an inclination that explains why virtually every successful candidate in modern history has run on a platform of “change.”

Which is all to say that a Republican should’ve been elected president in 2016—or, barring that, that the race should’ve at least been quite close.  With 26 days until the polls close (thanks to early voting, many have already opened), it appears that neither of those things will happen, and the explanation for this really can be boiled down to two words:  Donald Trump.

In a Trump-less universe, could Rubio or Bush—or John Kasich or Chris Christie—have defeated Clinton?  Sure, why not?  All the anti-establishment momentum would’ve been in his favor, Clinton’s own shortcomings would’ve remained glaringly evident to all, and—most obviously—none of those other candidates (except perhaps Christie) would’ve been so completely crushed by the weight of his own ego.

As we learned in 2008, Hillary Clinton is hardly an infallible candidate.  For all her knowledge and experience, she can always be relied upon to get in her own proverbial way by being needlessly secretive, paranoid and/or outright dishonest.  It was her unbelievable good fortune to be pitted against the most cartoonishly unqualified opponent on planet Earth, and the fact that this election wasn’t over months ago is a testament to how much trouble she might’ve found herself in against a Republican foe who actually took this job seriously and wasn’t busy fighting off multiple accusations of sexual assault.

So if we are to write an alternate history of the 2016 campaign—or, as Jeff Greenfield would have it, the non-alternate history—we would require either a version of Donald Trump that was everything the current version is not, or a Republican electorate with the basic common sense not to tether itself to an unelectable thug.

Like I said:  Fantasy.

Continuity with Change

Out there in the über-liberal, anti-Hillary, Bernie Bro corner of the interwebs, the following challenge has been posed:

“Convince me to vote for Hillary Clinton without mentioning Donald Trump.”

As with so much else about the #NeverHillary crowd, it is unclear whether the above is a genuine, good-faith inquiry or just a snarky dig at Clinton’s supporters’ supposed moral bankruptcy.

It’s a rather bizarre question, in any case.  If it’s meant as pure rhetoric—a way of pointing out how the leading justification for Clinton’s presidency is that it would prevent a Trump presidency—then we can take the point while also acknowledging its childish assumption that competing candidates could ever be judged independently of each other—as if choosing one option didn’t also mean rejecting the other.

However, if the question is meant seriously, then it’s just a stupid question.

Can liberals identify reasons to elect Clinton that don’t involve her not being Donald Trump, you ask?  Are there really other liberals who think the answer is “no”?

There are dozens of ways to support Hillary’s candidacy without regard to her Republican opponent.  Many of them are identical to those that led millions of future Bernie Bros to support Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012—and, naturally, many of the same traits also applied to Bernie Sanders during this year’s primaries.  There are also reasons to endorse her that are sui generis, applicable to her and her alone.

Broadly speaking, Hillary is an enthusiastic subscriber to virtually the entire Democratic Party platform—thus, anyone in ideological agreement with Democratic principles is, by definition, in general alignment with Clinton on what we sometimes refer to as “the issues.”

For instance, she would clearly support and defend—and, if we’re lucky, expand and streamline—the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, overruling every last congressional attempt to kill it once and for all.

She would affirm the recently-established right of any two consenting adults to get married, have children and live happily ever after, while also ensuring those same people cannot be fired or otherwise discriminated against for unconstitutional reasons.

She would continue President Obama’s fight against global warming and his attempts to make the country more energy independent.

She would pledge solidarity with Muslims and other religious minorities against persecution by violent Christian extremists.

She would shape a Supreme Court that would vote in favor of a multitude of issues that liberals care passionately about—voting rights, women’s rights, transgender rights, you name it.

She would try to do something about gun control and—if the stars are aligned just right—maybe even succeed.

In addition to being the first female chief executive, she would appoint a record number of women to her cabinet, not to mention a boatload of ethnic and racial minorities spread throughout the executive branch, thereby inspiring countless young people to consider public service for the first time in their lives.

She would hold meetings and actually listen to what the other people have to say.

She would forge relationships with every last member of Congress, knowing that someday she might need their support for something important.

Long story short, she would essentially be a slightly more mature—but slightly less exciting—version of Barack Obama.  In effect, she would represent Obama’s third term in office, for better and for worse.  That’s the argument for electing her president.  Take it or leave it.

Now, it’s true enough that Clinton herself has never explicitly said, “Vote for me, Obama’s third term!”  However, it doesn’t require a great deal of reading between the lines to grasp the subtext of all of her major policy positions, which can be summed up as, “If you’ve enjoyed life under Obama, you’ll enjoy it under me.”

I realize this is an inherently uninspiring message—a tacit admission that things probably aren’t going to change very much over the next four-to-eight years—but it’s also admirably fresh and realistic—a means of subtly lowering our expectations to a level at which we might actually want to re-elect her four years hence.

Every president in history has needed to confront the gap between what he thinks he can accomplish and what he can actually accomplish, and Hillary Clinton stands apart from most previous candidates in her deep understanding of this fact.  Among the many differences between her and Donald Trump—a man whom, you’ll note, I haven’t mentioned in quite some time—is that Trump apparently thinks a president can do literally anything he wants, while Clinton knows full well that the job is extraordinarily limiting and depends on a great deal of teamwork to get anything meaningful accomplished.

In 1961, John F. Kennedy intoned to the American people, “Let us begin.”  When Lyndon Johnson succeeded Kennedy in November 1963—albeit under unusual circumstances—he said, “Let us continue.”  That’s the dynamic between Obama and Clinton:  They are so compatible in their basic worldview and value systems that we can expect an exceptionally smooth transition from one to the other (this time without an assassination in between).

I don’t know about you, but I have quite enjoyed the Obama administration.  It has followed through on a plethora of progressive actions that were utterly lacking under George W. Bush, and I can say unequivocally that my own personal corner of America is infinitely better off now than it was eight years ago.  If Obama were eligible to run for a third term, I would vote for him a third time.

But he can’t, so I’ll settle with Hillary, instead.

Many Republicans will be familiar with this sense of depleted enthusiasm, since they elected George H.W. Bush in 1988 by pretending he was Ronald Reagan, an incumbent who was term-limited after eight years of making many conservatives’ dreams come true.  In the end, Bush proved a capable but ultimately lackluster follow-up act, keeping some promises while breaking others, and is today admired as much by liberals as by conservatives.

History could easily be in the process of repeating itself on the other side of the ideological spectrum, and that is roughly what we should expect.  Hillary Clinton has drifted to the left on numerous issues as of late, but the intractability of Congress and Clinton’s own cautiousness will surely limit the reach of her administration’s most ambitious goals, resulting in exactly what her most clear-eyed advocates have promised:  Modest, gradual progress through compromise—a variation of Selina Meyer’s campaign slogan in Veep, “Continuity with Change.”

Sounds pretty good to me.

Losers

Quick question:  Will a Republican ever be elected president again?

I don’t mean to be flippant in asking.  I’m completely serious, although, as a liberal, I can’t pretend to despair at the prospect that the answer might be “no.”

Historically speaking, the odds of such a thing are just a hair north of zero.  Indeed, if the past several generations of elections have taught us anything, it’s that American voters can stand one party in the White House for only so long before swinging the other way and throwing the bums out.

In the last 63 years—that is, since the election of 1952—only once has the same party won three presidential elections in a row—namely, two by Ronald Reagan and one by George H.W. Bush.  On all other occasions, the executive branch has seen a transfer of power from one party to the other within either four or eight years.

Fundamentally, the country is split down the middle when it comes to political ideology, with the small group of folks in the middle ultimately determining which way the wind blows.  The last seven elections have been won by a margin of less than 10 percent, which is rather remarkable when you consider that five of the preceding nine were won by more than 10 percent.

So it stands to reason that—if only to satisfy statistical norms—a Republican will, in fact, win the presidency in 2016 or, at the absolute latest, 2020.

That’s before factoring in the legacy and current standing of the man whom our next president will succeed.  From a composite of recent polls, President Obama’s approval rating sits at 44 percent.  While by no means catastrophic—George W. Bush ended his presidency at 34 percent—it’s not exactly reassuring to a Democratic Party that might otherwise want to capitalize on Obama’s successes in anointing his heir apparent.

If Obama’s current levels of (un)popularity hold, he would be in roughly the same shape as George H.W. Bush, who couldn’t save himself in 1992, and in considerably worse shape than Bill Clinton, who was at 60 percent on Election Day 2000 and still couldn’t save Al Gore.

As if that weren’t bad enough, there was the media’s reminder earlier this month that, for all the Democrats’ dominance on the national level, the Obama era has seen sweeping victories for Republican candidates on the state and local levels.  There are ten more Republican governors today than in 2009 and, as reported in the New York Times, “Democratic losses in state legislatures under Mr. Obama rank among the worst in the last 115 years, with 816 Democratic lawmakers losing their jobs and Republican control of legislatures doubling since the president took office.”

In short, the 2016 race is the GOP’s to lose.  But they’re going to lose it, anyway.

Why?  Because Republican voters are determined to do so.

You don’t need me to tell you which GOP candidate is currently—and enduringly—ahead in the national polls.  Nor, for that matter, do I need to explain why this is such a spectacular moral farce.

However, in light of how close the Iowa caucuses have become and how little the polls have changed over the last several months, it is entirely worth spelling out this travesty in full, just in case the full force of it hasn’t yet sunk in.

Lest we forget that, for all his popularity with GOP voters, Donald Trump remains the man who ridiculed John McCain for having been a prisoner of war.  The man who said a Black Lives Matter activist deserved to be “roughed up” at one of his campaign rallies and that a pair of supporters who assaulted a Hispanic homeless man were “very passionate” people who “love this country.”  The man who is so hilariously thin-skinned that he picks (and loses) Twitter fights with people whom most Americans haven’t even heard of—including, most recently, a reporter whose physical disability Trump gleefully mocked onstage.

It has gotten people asking:  Is there anyone left in America whom Trump has not tacitly (if not personally) offended?

Apparently there is, because (at the risk of repeating ourselves) he remains the top dog among his party’s base, with his numbers consistently in the mid-to-upper 20s in a 14-person contest.  Much can still happen before Iowa and New Hampshire (to be held on February 1 and 9, respectively), but for now GOP voters have made their views clear, and the rest of us have no choice but to acknowledge it.

Once we’ve done that, however, we can proceed directly to the next self-evident truth, which is that Donald Trump will never, ever, ever in a billion years be elected president of the United States.

It’s not just that he’d barely get a single vote from Hispanics, whom he has tarred—directly or by association—as rapists and drug dealers.  Or that he’d garner zero interest from African-Americans, whom he affectionately refers to as “the blacks.”

Nope, in the end, his downfall may well come at the hands of the whites.

Should he secure his party’s nomination—following a demolition derby of a primary season, no doubt—he will discover that there is a good chunk of moderate, independent white voters who, despite conservative or libertarian worldviews, just cannot bring themselves to support a man who behaves like a real housewife of Beverly Hills.  Who is so emotionally unstable that he throws a spontaneous fit whenever anyone says anything unflattering about him, and so intellectually insecure that he name-drops his alma mater almost as frequently as his net worth.

For all their fickleness and inscrutability, American voters are cognizant of the image they project to the world when they elect a commander-in-chief.  While we are certainly susceptible to leaders who project strength through swagger and machismo (see Bush, George W., 2004), we are not so weak and panicky that we will surrender the Oval Office to a fellow who would enshrine religious and ethnic discrimination (back) into law.  We don’t mind sacrificing some of our privacy in the interest of fighting terrorism, but we aren’t prepared to sacrifice all of it.  We appreciate a chief executive who indulges in social media, but not necessarily at 4 o’clock in the morning.

We could go on and on about what a child Donald Trump truly is, but that would unfairly let the rest of the GOP off the hook.  As anyone paying attention to national politics knows, Trump is not the only “serious” candidate with a knack for behaving like a petulant toddler.  On Friday, for instance, the New York Times ran an amusing story chronicling the off-the-charts use of profanity by candidates throughout the campaign season, noting that employing four-letter words is perhaps the most promising way to draw attention to oneself and hopefully experience a bump in the polls.

Is there anything more pathetic than that, let alone more childish or un-presidential?

More broadly, the GOP in Washington shows no particular interest in shaking its reputation for obstructing every last Obama proposal for no reason except that Obama proposed it.  As the recent struggle to find a new House speaker demonstrated, Republicans in Congress have long since transitioned from a governing body into a gang of hyperactive, nihilistic know-nothings whose ambitions are limited to negating every major piece of legislation the previous few Congresses have passed, while spending the rest of the time calling each other names and screaming about the end of the world.

With a legislative branch like that, are we really on the verge of anointing an executive branch that’s on the exact same page?  To paraphrase Trump, how stupid are we?

The silver lining here—for Republicans and the country alike—is the theory that primary voters will eventually come to their senses and nominate one of the alleged grownups in the field—someone like Marco Rubio or John Kasich, whose experience and relative sanity could plausibly give Hillary Clinton a run for her money.  Trump supporters are, after all, a slim majority of all eligible voters and would be hugely outnumbered if only Trump non-supporters could reach a consensus as to which non-Trump candidate they prefer.

It could happen.  The 2016 general election may well end up as a variation of 2012, with two flawed but serious contenders who both see the world more or less as it actually is.  It’s not too late.

But if that doesn’t happen—if the GOP goes insane and nominates someone who is manifestly unacceptable to 55-60 percent of the country—then the next four years will probably look an awful lot like the last eight, featuring an ideological civil war within the party, during which its two major factions will debate, yet again, about whether the GOP should retain its extremist Tea Party bent and remain ideologically “pure,” or whether it should entertain such heretical concepts as moderation and compromise, which might include recognition of climate change, same-sex marriage and the consequences of white supremacy and lax gun control laws.

Shortly after Obama was first inaugurated, blogger Andrew Sullivan predicted that, with respect to the GOP, “It will get worse before it gets better.”  The past six-and-a-half years have certainly vindicated that assessment, although we are still waiting for an answer to the natural follow up:  Will it ever get better, or will the party ultimately disband and start over again from scratch?  It’s a crazy, outlandish scenario—one that hasn’t happened to a major political party since the death of the Whigs in 1856—but we may well have found the crazy, outlandish goons with the power to make it happen.

Popularity Fallacy

Jeez, can we knock it off about Bill Clinton’s amazing popularity, already?

You see the talk everywhere these days, including most recently in a column by Maureen Dowd in Sunday’s New York Times.

“As Hillary stumbles and President Obama slumps,” Dowd writes, “Bill Clinton keeps getting more popular.”  As evidence, Dowd cites a Wall Street Journal poll from June ranking the “most admired” presidents of the last 25 years (Clinton won by a mile); a YouGov survey measuring the perceived “intelligence” of the last eight commanders-in-chief (again, Clinton finished first); and a May Washington Post poll putting Clinton’s overall “favorable” rating at a 21-year high.

Indeed, strictly to the question, “Do most people today like Bill Clinton?” the answer is an indisputable “Yes,” and it hardly depends on the meaning of the word “like.”

However, I would argue the question itself is a silly and fairly useless one, as it is with regards to every living (or recently dead) ex-president.

Of course Bill Clinton is more popular today than he was, say, during the “Gingrich revolution” in 1994 or the Lewinsky fiasco in 1998.  Of course he enjoys more general goodwill than President Obama or possibly-future-President Hillary Clinton.

Bill Clinton left the White House on January 20, 2001.  Know what he’s been doing in the 13-and-a-half years since?

Not being president, that’s what.

George W. Bush, for his part, ended his presidency with an approval rating of 34 percent.  Today, that number is 53 percent.  What has Bush been doing these past five years to merit such a rise in stature?

Not being president and painting.

Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, also clocked approval numbers in the mid-30s during his final months on the job.  Today, he is nearly as admired as Clinton.  What’s he been up to?

Jumping out of airplanes, fishing, and (all together now) not being president.

Of course, I am being a tad unfair and simplistic.  America’s modern-day ex-presidents have, to varying degrees, done a great deal of good work after leaving office, for which they deserve kudos and a second look.  (Jimmy Carter has probably accomplished more in “retirement” than half our presidents did while in power.)

What is more, my “not being president” theory doesn’t even begin to address the large variance in overall perception among the many former presidents under examination (e.g.  Clinton ranks considerably higher than Carter), and the myriad possible explanations for it.

But the fact remains that nearly every president in modern history has become more admired in retirement than he often (or ever) was while in office.  To this extent, I think my reductionist hypothesis holds, and I’m sticking to it.

Consider:  To assume the presidency is to become the servant of each and every citizen of these United States, and to be personally responsible for their well-being (as far as they’re concerned, at least) and that of the country as a whole.  To be president is to be constantly photographed and broadcast, to be forever seen, heard and discussed, and to be drenched in a bottomless well of gripes and crises from every corner of the known universe.

However, the moment your term expires, all of that goes away.  To become an ex-president is to be freed not only from the duties and burdens of the office, but also from any expectations of leadership.  You can disappear into the woods, and no one will go looking for you.  You can play golf and eat junk food and no one will give you a second thought.  Constitutionally-speaking, a former president doesn’t have to do a damn thing for the rest of his life, and many have been quite happy to oblige themselves.

Long story short (too late?), we Americans approve of our former chief executives because we have no immediate or compelling reason not to.  Because they no longer wield supreme influence over our daily lives.  Because they are no longer on every TV screen every hour of every day.  Because they have transitioned from celebrities with power to mere celebrities.  Because their every move and every word are no longer of any relevance to our own existence, and maybe—at least in some cases—because we have forgotten the days when they did.

Today, Bill Clinton’s long-windedness and snark are adorable.  Would we feel the same way if he were employing them back in the Oval Office on the public dime?

George W. Bush has garnered near-universal praise for his marked disinterest in the nuances of foreign policy in his time away from Washington, even though this same quality yielded a decidedly different response when he was squarely in the middle of the action.

Time may not heal all wounds, but it can certainly numb them and render them moot.  As Paul McCartney said, reflecting on his years with the Beatles, “You always forget the bad bits.”

As we now consider the supposed “inevitability” of Clinton’s leading lady in her possible campaign for president, let us bear in mind that Hillary Clinton’s own popularity—not as high as her husband’s, but certainly an improvement over President Obama’s—is largely the product of her nearly six-year absence from the rough-and-tumble world of retail politics.  Once and if she returns to the arena, are the Democratic primary voters who so loathed her in 2008 going to be able to forgive and forget this time around?  Or is the thawing of their icy hatred contingent on her present status as an above-the-fray figure?

I think it is all-too-obvious that our views of one famous person or other are shaped by that person’s role in our own lives, and that the more benign and unobtrusive such a person is, the more popular he or she tends to be.

So stop talking about Bill Clinton’s enduring popularity as if it’s some sort of anomaly or in any way newsworthy.  It’s not and it’s not.  Rather, it is exactly what you would expect, particularly for a guy who wants nothing more than to be liked and who will go to extraordinary lengths to make it so.

A world leader being relieved of his power and becoming less admired as a result?  Now that would be news.

One and Done

For whatever reason, April 2014 has swiftly become Living Ex-Presidents Awareness Month.  Whether by chance or design, the former occupants of the Oval Office are eating up newsprint everywhere you look.

You’ve got Jimmy Carter popping up on talk shows from coast to coast, promoting his new book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power.

There was the gathering in College Station, Texas, over the weekend to observe the 25th anniversary of George H.W. Bush coming to power, and to honor the legacy of Bush’s administration, on which there are several books in the works.

Over in nearby Dallas, there was a gallery opening at the George W. Bush Library, featuring oil portraits of foreign leaders by our most recent former commander-in-chief.

And Bill Clinton?  Well, since when has he ever taken a day off?

For my money, the most interesting of our living ex-presidents’ exploits at this moment concern Carter and the elder Bush—two men who, for all their political differences, share the dubious distinction of having lost their bids for re-election.  Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan in 1980 amidst the Iran hostage crisis and a lousy economy.  Bush lost to Clinton in 1992 in a three-way contest that also featured H. Ross Perot, in a campaign centered, again, on a lousy economy.

As duly noted by most people, to be a one-term president is axiomatically to be a failure.  Whatever one might have accomplished in four years as America’s chief executive, if one fails to be re-elected—for whatever reason—then nothing else really matters.  Sure, forging a lasting peace in the Middle East is all well and good, but if you can’t then secure 51 percent of the vote here at home, what have you really brought to the table?

Accordingly, most of these electoral rejects spend a great deal of their post-presidential years in a kind of defensive crouch, having to underline their successes against a chorus that seems only interested in reciting their faults.

Of the ten highest-ranked presidents in U.S. history—based on the average of 17 scholarly polls dating back to 1948—the first nine were elected to a second term.  Today, let us attempt to draw some wisdom from the tenth, James K. Polk.

The nation’s 11th president, serving between 1845 and 1849, Polk is periodically cited as among America’s most underrated chief executives.  Probably his biggest “legacy” concerns his gift as a land-grabber:  In the quest for expanding the official borders of the United States, Polk essentially picked up where Thomas Jefferson left off.  Following the annexation of Texas, the war with Mexico, and the Oregon Treaty with Great Britain, the United States under Polk secured more than one million square miles of new territory—an expansion greater even than the Louisiana Purchase.

You may well ask:  With such a titanic accomplishment to his name, why did Polk not get elected to a second term?

Answer:  Because he didn’t run for a second term.  In fact, he never intended to.  At the highly-contested Democratic convention of 1844, Polk made it abundantly clear that, if nominated and if elected, he would be a one-term president.  Period, full stop.

Whatever the political calculus was at the time, Polk made good on this campaign promise.  According to legend, he outlined four specific policy goals upon taking office and accomplished all of them within his four-year tenure.  As such, he could then depart the White House in March of 1849 with his head held high, his mission having been accomplished.  Polk retired to private life, died three months later, and that was that.

I wonder:  If Jimmy Carter and/or George H.W. Bush had announced at the outset that they would not seek a second term, and if their presidencies had otherwise shaped out exactly as they did, would we view their tenures differently than we now do?  Do we not lay far too much emphasis on winning re-election as an indication of presidential fortitude, compared to what one actually accomplishes while one is in office?

In the future, might the country be better served if more candidates took Polk’s lead by pledging a single term with a short, but clear, list of goals?  Such an approach would surely take most of the guesswork out of assessing whether a particular leader is a success, and it would lower the impossibly high expectations branded upon even our most modest commanders-in-chief.

Most important of all, self-imposed term limits would concentrate the mind and workload of the president in question, freeing him to tackle a specific, narrow and realistic agenda, rather than attempting—inevitably in vain—to solve all problems at all times.

It sure seems like an experiment that would be worth trying.  It’s not like it hasn’t been done before.