The Broken Presidency
Earlier this year (2016) journalists and pundits were falling all over themselves declaring the Republican Party to be “broken.” Now, after the disastrous and terrifying results of the election, the same voices are now describing the Democratic Party with the same word. Broken.
They have good reasons underlying their conclusions, but they are quite off target. It is not the party system that is broken, but Americans’ idea of the Presidency itself.
Let’s go back to 1964 to understand how this came about.
In 1964, Lyndon Johnson ran a sanctimonious campaign against Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, a man temperamentally unsuited to a national campaign. Johnson said Goldwater would get us into a war, but Johnson was actually planning our involvement in Vietnam as he was waging his campaign. There is irrefutable evidence to support this.
In 1968, Richard Nixon ran a sanctimonious campaign against Vice President Hubert Humphrey, whose biggest drawbacks were his nasal voice, his bulldog face, and his unflinching support for President Johnson’s efforts in Vietnam. Nixon lied his way into office, saying he had a “secret” plan to end the war. Nixon was planning increased bombing of North Vietnam even as he said this. In this election, Nixon inaugurated the politics of fear and resentment.
In 1972, Richard Nixon ran a sanctimonious campaign depicting him as a lover of peace, a bringer of law and order, and entirely reasonable. His opponent was Senator George McGovern, a kind, sweet, noble man entirely unsuited to running a national campaign. He wanted to end the war and run the country like FDR did. Nixon refined the politics of fear and resentment in this election.
In 1974, Nixon’s Vice President resigned over some issues related to malfeasance of office when he was Governor of Maryland. Later that year, Nixon himself resigned after it was clearly demonstrated that he obstructed justice as a matter of course over the term of his Presidency. America was not happy about this.
In 1976, Jimmy Carter ran a sanctimonious campaign against Gerald Ford, who, to everyone’s dull surprise, was named President after Nixon’s resignation. Carter promised to bring dignity and honor back to the Presidency. He is best remembered for ordering a failed rescue mission of Americans held hostage by so-called students in Iran. Think of Jimmy Carter’s Presidency and crashing helicopters come to mind.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan ran a sanctimonious campaign against Jimmy Carter. Ronald Reagan promised his orders would not end in crashing helicopters. Reagan said that government was not the solution but the problem. He got people believing that you could cut income and increase income simultaneously. That is, cut taxes and expect the economy to respond in such a Pavlovian way that more money is in the economy, with more money paid in taxes despite the lower rate. It did not work, and Reagan apparently was upset, so he raised taxes more than anyone ever had before, yet he is best remembered for cutting taxes. Odd that few Reagan supporters remember the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon, resulting in 241 deaths and our immediate withdrawal, like scared puppies with our tails between our bloodied legs. But Reagan was an actor; Carter wasn’t.
In 1984, astonishingly, Reagan was re-elected. This time he ran a sanctimonious campaign against Walter Mondale, a man who could have done wonders for insomniacs, had he a bit more of the entrepreneurial spirit. Reagan promptly set about laundering money with Iran’s help while Iran looked the other way in sending weapons to right-wing guerrillas in El Salvador who were best known for dragging a well-known priest out of church during Mass and cutting his throat. When news of this hit the airwaves and print media, it resulted in a storm of controversy. Nothing happened. Lots of people thought he should have been impeached, but: never mind.
In 1988, Reagan’s Vice President won a sanctimonious campaign against (yes, I had to look this up) Mike Dukakis, Governor of Massachusetts. Dukakis talked about the “Massachusetts Miracle” — which was nothing other than a bunch of factories that had lots of defense orders because of Reagan’s military buildup. It was about to stop being a miracle, but he didn’t know that the Soviet Union was about to collapse. Bush waged the most scurrilous and vile campaign to date, with campaign chair Lee Atwater directing the religious vote, the white racist vote, and the overall idiot vote in such masterpieces of YouTubable videos as the Willie Horton revolving door lie. Bush won.
In 1992, Bush ran a sanctimonious campaign against Bill Clinton and lost. Bill Clinton? Governor of Arkansas, but nobody important. He had a very selfish message: I’m gonna do something about welfare and get the economy roaring for the average American. What he didn’t know was that China was entering a new phase of its history, creating a market economy that had the potential to change the world. Oh, and he didn’t know much about the Internet, either, which has had the biggest impact on daily life since the invention of the printing press. Both China and the Internet made Bill Clinton’s Presidency one of incredible good luck, but he screwed it up royally by his sexual promiscuity. The idiot. Nobody would have noticed if he hadn’t forgotten to put a sunset date on his appointment of Kenneth Starr, right wing lawyer extraordinaire, whose job was supposed to find out if the Clintons had done anything wrong in the Whitewater real estate deal. (They hadn’t, but Starr didn’t want to leave a cushy little job like that.) Republicans, whose sanctimoniousness knew no bounds, took to the airwaves to describe the semen stain on Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress. Never before had the word “semen” been heard on radio and television. Seamen, yes, but semen, no. This caused a profound change in how Americans saw the Presidency. No longer was the Presidency an office with honor and dignity. It was now on the level of your town dog catcher.
In 1996, Clinton easily won re-election against Bob Dole, whose angry countenance was incredibly out of touch with the overall sentiment of America in 1996. Clinton’s sunny assurances that everything was gonna be okay overwhelmed Bob Dole’s workmanlike Republicanism. Clinton may have won re-election, but he was not respected by about 90% of the population — even among those who loved him, the old respect was gone.
In 2000 and again in 2004, George W. Bush ran a nauseatingly sanctimonious campaign against Al Gore, then John Kerry. I think I’m not going out on limb here in saying that George W. Bush was among the worst, most divisive Presidents we have ever had. The attacks on America in 2001 showed us that the President cannot protect us any more. The trauma of this was exploited by Bush and his cronies as they passed the U.S.A. Patriot Act: 342 pages long, changed 15 major laws, and was passed overwhelmingly just six weeks after September 11. Even the most trusting Americans began to wonder how a bill like that could be written, printed, and thoughtfully analyzed by legislators in just six weeks. A lot of people began absolutely hating the President, believing he had destroyed the dignity of the Presidency with his torture policy, his quagmire wars, and his cowboy arrogance.
In 2008, Barack Hussein Obama became President in a campaign promising hope and change. Americans wanted change, for sure; but then they changed their minds and elected a solidly Republican majority that was able to thwart every major initiative President Obama brought forward. In a masterful performance, Obama seemed to be unperturbed and supremely confident as President, but both his supporters and detractors knew he was a lonely man surrounded by hate.
Obama was re-elected in 2012 in a very muted campaign that very few remember. The Republicans put up Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts and a private businessman of some repute. He may well have lost because of a video someone took of him telling a group of wealthy supporters how he viewed the Presidency, among other things:
“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax.”Romney went on: “[M]y job is is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
How can you respect an office that buys its way into power by throwing other people’s money at fat bastards who are laughing at you?
In 2016, Donald J. Trump won the most implausible, most disgusting, most hallucinatory campaign in American political history. He ran against Hillary Clinton, former Senator, former White House spouse, former Secretary of State. Neither of them talked much about what they would do as President, at least not much that was realistic. Because, really, nobody believes in the Presidency any more. People who elected Trump did so largely because they thought, “Well, here’s a guy who says he can do what everyone else says is impossible. Let’s make him President and see if he can do it.” You don’t fiddle around with an office that you respect. You respect your spouse: you wouldn’t bring home a loudmouthed alcoholic who wants to masturbate in front of you both and think, “I did this because I love and respect my spouse.”
No. There is no respect for the Presidency any more. America doesn’t care who they make President because they don’t believe the office is viable. We are witnessing, in Donald Trump, the setting of the sun on our representative form of government. The nights will get colder.