Sunday

February 26th, 2017

Insight

Vitriol and rebellion

David Shribman

By David Shribman

Published June 21, 2016

He says his rival has “put political correctness above common sense, above your safety and above all else.” She says his views are “shameful” and he is “temperamentally unfit and totally unqualified” to be president. So much for unity in the face of tragedy.

The race for the White House is entering a new, vital phase. The formal end of the primary season and the eclipse of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont have removed even the slightest diversion from the beginning of the general-election campaign. The massacre in Orlando has removed even the slightest doubt that terrorism would be a major theme in the presidential election — and in the American story for 2016.

Both factors seemed to liberate both candidates, and the two responded with unusual vitriol.

Herbert Hoover hit Franklin Roosevelt at his most vulnerable in 1932 when he described the New York governor as a “chameleon on plaid,” and Ronald Reagan taunted Jimmy Carter in 1980 with his “there you go again” repartee. But those were faint jousts and parries compared with Donald Trump’s remarks that his rival “is in total denial” and Hillary Rodham Clinton’s response that the Manhattan businessman’s rhetoric was “a recruiting tool for ISIS.”

With the conventions only weeks away, it is impossible to ignore the prospect that the tone and timbre of this presidential race will spin out of control, that a campaign that already has defied every expectation and every custom will veer into dangerous new territory of incivility and indecency.

At the same time, the success of Mr. Trump in becoming the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party and the persistence and strength of Mr. Sanders in challenging Ms. Clinton combine to produce serious threats to both parties — and to the American political system.

Conversations with two thoughtful political figures who a half-generation ago were considered outsiders themselves — one a Republican and one a Democrat — underline the severity of the tests facing the two major instruments of political life in our country.

“Trump is making the party into something different, and a lot of us Republicans are troubled,” said former Rep. Vin Weber, of Minnesota, who was considered a 1980s Republican reformer and whose grandfather was a GOP president of the Minnesota Senate. “None of us wants to turn our backs on the party, but you can’t assume we will fall in line.”

That sense of crisis also reaches into the Democratic Party, which is less likely to be torn asunder this summer but which is in search of an identity and ideology if no longer in search of a nominee.

“The ideal I was working on — to use the revolutions of globalism and information to expand the economic pie and thereby finance our social agenda — got blurred over the years,” said former Sen. Gary Hart, of Colorado, who twice sought the Democratic presidential nomination in the 1980s and who, as the campaign manager for Sen. George McGovern in 1972, is an unusually appropriate bridge figure in the party. “It never made its way into the public policy of our nation.”

These frustrations broke into the open this year, perhaps because of economic issues, perhaps because of the constant fear of terrorism, perhaps because of the cumulative effects of disappointment, even a sense of betrayal, in both parties.

Indeed, a comparison of Wall Street Journal/​NBC News polls in the spring of 2012 and the spring of 2016 shows that Mr. Trump and Ms. Clinton are less popular than Barack Obama and his last opponent, Mitt Romney, were at the same time in the campaign cycle. Mr. Obama’s favorability rating among his own party members in 2012 was 33 percentage points above Ms. Clinton’s this year. Mr. Romney’s ratings among Republicans were 19 percentage points above Mr. Trump’s this year.

This was the campaign, after all, in which a fellow Republican, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, said of his party’s front-runner, “Donald, you’re a sniveling coward,” and in which Mr. Sanders said that Ms. Clinton, a former senator and secretary of state, wasn’t “qualified” to be chief executive.

That, plus repeated survey results showing that Republicans felt betrayed by their own party, speak of a deep unease among American voters. That unease is particularly strong on the terrorism issue, which shows every indication of gaining increased prominence as the campaign continues.

Earlier this spring, the Wall Street Journal/​NBC News Poll showed that only one in five Americans gave Mr. Trump good ratings for handling an international crisis. Ms. Clinton’s 37 percent was better but not so much so that she could feel reassured. An ABC News/​Washington Post Poll less than a month ago showed that about 53 percent of voters had an unfavorable view of Ms. Clinton while 60 percent viewed Mr. Trump unfavorably.

This is an era of broad rebellion against party elites — a parallel phenomenon exists in Britain as Thursday’s European Union referendum approaches — and both Mr. Sanders and Mr. Trump have drawn strength from that impulse.

Mr. Trump, to be sure, has star power of his own, so much that Ms. Clinton’s efforts to extinguish or even dim it has been unavailing thus far. The best comparison to Mr. Trump may be to Theodore Roosevelt, himself a party rebel. “He was his own limelight,”said Owen Wister, the author of “The Virginian,” the 1902 novel considered the first Western, and a friend of Mr. Roosevelt’s, “and could not help it: a creature charged with such voltage as his became the central presence at once, whether he stepped on a platform or entered a room.”

That is the force Ms. Clinton now faces in a contest she could not have contemplated a year ago. And that is why she needs the forces assembled by Mr. Sanders, who won the hearts of Democrats but not their nomination. Her cause may also depend on emphasizing that she was for a dramatic overhaul of health care before anyone knew Mr. Sanders’ name, and that she is not an extension of either Mr. Obama or her husband. That may explain her emerging views on terrorism, which break from both men.

But even as Ms. Clinton calibrates her position on terror, emphasizing a no-fly zone in Syria that Mr. Obama has resisted, Mr. Trump is doing some recalibrating of his own, particularly on guns for people on a terrorist watch list. A campaign that has changed everything is itself changing.

David Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize winner in journalism, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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