Liar. Con artist. Lunatic. Misogynist. Bigot. Maniac. These are some of the names presidential candidates have called one another this year. And these are just the names Republicans have called Republicans. Wait until this fall, when you hear what Democrats call Republicans and what Republicans call Democrats.
Rough hazing of presidential contenders is nothing new. Candidates throughout history — Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan — all took hard knocks. National politics has always been a brutal business, clearly not fit for the faint of heart or maybe even the sound of mind.
What’s new is the universality of attack politics and the proliferation of attackers. At one time, only candidates and their campaigns did the attacking, and they were often reluctant to go too far for fear of looking nasty. But now, the battlefield is crowded with more and more combatants, from less restrained party committees to less inhibited media commentators to less policed super PACs.
Deceptions, slurs and innuendos — in addition to valid, fact-based attacks — are ubiquitous in today’s world of endless cable and online chatter. Attacks are no longer meant to just take votes from the opposition; they’re increasingly aimed at destroying their legitimacy and credibility. Worst for the country, they’re also meant to impair their ability to govern should they win.
Presidential elections are meat grinders. To get to the White House, you have to throw yourself into a pulverizing contraption fueled by cynicism and malice. Everybody gets to press the buttons and pull the levers — from average citizens and professional journalists to ambitious adversaries and online character assassins.
It’s time to take stock of how our political system is operating and to ponder a deadly serious question: Will the next president be so badly damaged after the election that he or she won’t be able to govern?
The next president must have a vision and the standing to carry it out. The new commander in chief will need to span deep divides, build complex coalitions and unite warring factions — at home and abroad. The next president may, at some point, need the moral authority to summon us to war or to ask for national sacrifice. After this bedeviled election, how will the next president be able to do these things?
Look at the two nomination frontrunners. Already, most Americans distrust and dislike them.
One recent nationwide poll found that 58 percent of voters have an unfavorable view of Democrat Hillary Clinton, while only 37 percent have a favorable view of the former secretary of state. Another survey found that Republican Donald Trump’s unfavorable rating is more than twice as high as his favorable score. Polls also show that heavy majorities of voters think neither Clinton nor Trump is honest or trustworthy.
Running second in the GOP delegate hunt, Sen. Ted Cruz is a less known commodity than longtime celebrities Clinton and Trump, but he, too, is already viewed more unfavorably (51 percent) than favorably (35 percent). He also has a net negative rating on honesty and trustworthiness.
What’s amazing about these numbers is that we’re only in March. The general election is still more than seven months away.
Fair or not, all three — Clinton, Trump and Cruz –– stir intense feelings and bring out the hatred of their enemies. None of them can win in November based on positive qualities. They can win only by jacking up their opposition’s negatives even higher.
The only candidates with positive-leaning ratings are underdogs Democrat Bernie Sanders and Republican John Kasich, and that’s largely because they’re not seen as threats. But if either rises to serious contention, watch their negatives jump, too.
While this year’s nomination contest has been a nasty, raucous affair, just wait for the general election. No matter who the nominees are, it will be fraught with even more opportunity for malevolence. Super PACs will blossom like Chairman Mao’s hundred flowers. Billions will be spent on vicious attacks. Debates and ads will be packed with allegations and smears.
It will be a campaign with all the charm of a Mafia hit. The winner will be the one who crawls across the finish line first — debased and exhausted.
How a new president is supposed to lead the nation after all this, heaven only knows.
An author and political analyst, Ron Faucheux is a former Louisiana legislator from New Orleans. He runs Clarus Research Group, a nonpartisan market research firm that has conducted polling for The Advocate and WWL-TV, and publishes LunchtimePolitics.com, a daily newsletter on polls.