By David K. Shipler
If only we could Photoshop politicians, taking a keen and honest eye from one, a civil and courteous tongue from another, a brain from one who happened to have one, and a heart from another to place into the one whose vacant soul echoes with unfeeling arrogance. If we could just move parts around with a cursor to combine into the ideal presidential candidate, we could relax instead of grinding our teeth until November. Imagine what a relief it would be if we didn’t have to wish that Bernie were more sensible and Hillary more credible, that Ted had learned something beneficial at Princeton, and that The Donald’s mouth didn’t have to be washed out with soap.
So just for fun, permit me to irritate almost everybody who reads this by finding in each candidate some quality that would be suitable in a president, then assembling the array of characteristics into a composite.
First, let’s combine the populist appeals of Trump and Sanders, but without their simplistic rhetoric. We leave behind Sanders’s one-note scapegoating of “Wall Street” so our perfect candidate has room for nuance and sophistication, which will come later in the construction process. Of course we lose Trump’s bigotry, misogyny, bullying, incitement to violence, and ignorance about the American system’s inconvenient obstacles to ruling by fiat.
Absent those undesirable qualities, you might ask, what’s left? Good question. What’s left is both men’s instinctive talent for touching the legitimate frustrations and disaffections of large numbers of citizens who have suffered a raw deal or have seen others getting kicked. What’s left is both men’s knack for voicing the resentments about a government and an economy that have failed to protect those who have lost their homes, their reliable employment, and their sense of security and well-being.
No other candidates have spoken effectively to the anxieties—not Clinton, not Cruz, not Kasich. And not Obama, either, a failure that has only exacerbated people’s alienation. So let’s imagine that we can tap the ability to connect by distilling it into a purified extract. Will it work without Trump’s racism and nativism, or do people need to hate? Will it work without the caricatures of society’s complex ills that Sanders favors, or do people need slogans more than solutions? I think it would work if people thought that our candidate really cared about them, which Sanders does and Trump does not.
To our composite candidate add Hillary’s wonky expertise on every public policy issue you can think of, her endless capacity to see layers of issues and choices in three dimensions, and her passionate pragmatism—“I have a plan.” Combine a good measure of Bernie’s dogmatism, too, in campaigning for social justice in a country gone badly awry. In other words, put a measure of Bernie’s revolution into Hillary’s gradualism.
A contradiction? Yes, in a way, but revolutions can also be gradual, as history demonstrates, and it’s time for creative contradiction, not to lurch this way and that, but to propel us out of the box into inventiveness.
The next ingredient is sincerity, or at least its aura, which is important to swing voters more interested in “character” than in issues. (If they were interested in issues, they wouldn’t be swing voters, undecided amid the stark Republican-Democratic divide.) Trump’s supporters seem to confuse coarse bluster with sincerity, but he can’t fool all of the people all of the time, can he? So add a big chunk of Sanders sincerity, tempered with the impression Kasich does of nice-guy honesty.
Our candidate needs to look friendly and warm on TV, seem tough and sensitive at various intervals, and speak in harmonious tones. Kasich does friendly and warm pretty well, although it’s something Republicans don’t seem to go for these days. Hillary does tough and sometimes (too rarely) sensitive. Mix a little grandfatherly Sanders in there, and we’ve got a nice amalgam.
Then, the candidate ought to have the agility to address issues at several levels simultaneously to appeal to voters of various degrees of knowledge. After looking among the current field, we have to reach outside. Obama was very good on the campaign trail at discussing an issue in a paragraph that reached from detailed intricacies to bumper-sticker slogans. Bill Clinton does it beautifully as well.
So is it fair to take a little Barack Obama and a little Bill Clinton for our perfect candidate? Maybe a smattering of Trump, too, for the slogans, but without the arrogance, if you can imagine that.
Because the next president will have to hit the ground running on day one, let’s insert Hillary’s foreign-policy smarts and experience and add some Sanders judgment, restraint, and humanity. On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, his recognition that Palestinians deserve “dignity” is a revolutionary thought in itself for a presidential candidate. Let’s leave out his questionable characterization of Israel’s attacks on Gaza as “disproportionate” to the terror of Hamas rockets raining in on Israeli population centers. Israel needs tough love from its benefactor.
On trade and jobs, nobody has it right, so we have to fabricate a combination ourselves: support for vigorous international trade, no protectionism, but extensive investment in raising American workers’ skills to globally competitive levels. This requires vocational training, not just free public college and not just more of the same in job programs.
You might have noticed that no ingredients have come from Ted Cruz. That is because he has absolutely no redeeming features. Combing through his rhetoric and record pulls up nothing to put into our composite of a desirable candidate or a suitable president. We’ll just have to settle for carefully selected parts of Hillary and Bill, Bernie and Donald, John and Barack, and a few elements conjured out of thin air, otherwise known as wishful thinking.