Well, the Iowa caucuses are history and the best man and woman won: Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton. Except almost no one believes that. Hillary the Inevitable only managed to beat an elderly socialist by three coin flips and a few tenths of a percent. Cruz went around the state holding prayer meetings which ought to qualify him for theologist-in-chief, but not necessarily president, assuming we still believe in separating church and state.
Conventional party people are dazed and confused by a race in which Cruz, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are possible nominees while all the usual suspects are on the ropes. But is the search for someone from outside the club really that surprising? Voters have been promised pie in the sky for decades with never a slice reaching their tables. They are fed up with business as usual. Of course, it’s early innings. Business as usual may still assert itself.
It is worth noting that business as usual usually produces a choice in which voters have to hold their noses and pick the lesser of two evils. In some years, it is the establishment against rebellious factions in which the rebels go down in flames. So a purebred libertarian conservative like Goldwater is destroyed by Johnson or an antiwar, progressive like McGovern is flayed alive by Nixon.
The rest of the time the race for the presidency tends to be a titanic battle of Dull and Duller with the best man being defined as the one who is better at roasting his opponent and looking amiable while doing it. Bobby Kennedy gets shot and Humphry beats Gene McCarthy for the right to be smeared by Nixon. Carter v. Ford, Carter v. Reagan, Mondale v. Reagan, George H. W. Bush v. Dukakis, Clinton v. Bush, Clinton v. Dole, Gore v. Bush with an uncredited assist from the Supreme Court of the United States, Bush v. Kerry, Obama v. McCain, Obama v. Romney.
All in all, a pretty dreary fifty years are summed up by that list. Insiders v. insiders. Complacent insiders v. insiders pretending to be outsiders, a few surprising outsiders easy to characterize as alien creatures. Is it any wonder voters this year have not warmed to the prospect of a Bush-Clinton race? Been there, done that.
And the average American’s hunger for an alternative is surely connected to the fact that he is worse off than at any time since the Carter administration. Wages are stagnant, the old deal of work hard and get ahead no longer works. The surefire panacea of a college education has turned from a road to riches into the path to perpetual debt. Health care is unaffordable. The infrastructure has decayed. Threats seem to be everywhere. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. In the meantime, in between time, we ain’t got fun.
Thus the appeal of the siren songs of Cruz, Trump, Sanders et al. Trouble is, if the outsiders get in, the insiders will see to it they accomplish nothing. And before that happens, the insiders will likely rig the game, giving the Sanders campaign another talking point. None of this is new. It is worth remembering that Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man” from 1960 is a satire of a nominating convention in which the best man is most definitely not the one who becomes the party’s standard bearer.
Just think of all the candidates from those earlier campaigns, from 1964 on, who didn’t make the cut. It is a long list. Gary Hart, John Glenn, Joe Biden, Ted Kennedy, Jerry Brown, Mo Udall, Pat Buchanan, Jesse Jackson, Lowell Weicker, Ed Muskie, John Connolly, Howard Baker, Chuck Percy, Nelson Rockefeller, Terry Sanford, Birch Bayh, John Lindsey, Bruce Babbitt, Paul Simon, Jack Kemp, Pat Robertson, Bob Kerrey, Paul Tsongas, Tom Harkin, Doug Wilder, Steve Forbes, Dick Lugar, Bill Bradley, Lamar Alexander, Orrin Hatch, John Edwards, Howard Dean, Wesley Clark, Rudy Giuliani, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, Fred Thompson, Scoop Jackson.
There are plenty of duds in that list, but also some considerable figures who certainly couldn’t have been any worse than Nixon, Carter, Ford or George W. When the winnowing of candidates takes place, it is not always the chaff that falls by the wayside. And after seeing good men beaten by lesser men year after year, no wonder so few of us actually turn out to vote.
This year I happen to think Kasich might make a pretty good president, but he’s almost certainly a goner, along with Jim Webb and O’Malley. And this doesn’t even begin to take into account all the people who decide the process is too horrifying or hopeless to take part in. Elizabeth Warren and Biden this year, people like Mario Cuomo and George Mitchell, a great American, in an earlier era. “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.’”
Giving up on the political parties’ usual suspects, going all-in on a wild card candidate may be crazy, like pinning your hopes on a Powerball ticket. But given the times in which we live, it isn’t really surprising a considerable number of voters are taking a flyer on Bernie instead of Hillary, Trump or Cruz instead of Bush III. At this point they may have decided, what have we got to lose?