The Third Hand A Historical Perspective
“I’d like to find a one-handed economist.”
- Harry Truman
The Swamps of South Carolina; the Slots of Nevada
February 29, 2016
On this strange Leap Day that comes around every four years during presidential primary season, I look back on the strangest primary season I have ever witnessed and one of the strangest weeks I have ever spent in Washington. I was here for the government shut-down in the fall of 2013. That was certainly strange enough. There was another shut-down during the Clinton-Gingrich years, which I witnessed from a distance. I lived through, as a teen-ager, what many historians call America’s annus horribilus, 1968, when two great Americans were assassinated and the nation engaged in vitriolic debate about the Vietnam War.
This past week we onlookers beheld a party full of people who finally looked up from their drinks and canapés to see that that boorish character who crashed the party was still there. They had hoped that people would simply ignore him, he would tire of talking to himself and leave, but we now see that people have assembled chairs around him and appear to be really listening.
What? We thought this was the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln, Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Reagan. The conservative, respectable Republican Party. These presidents inspired plenty of opposition in their day, surely, but they maintained their dignity, generally earned the respect of their opponents and respected them in turn. The party certainly changed over the years and we cannot expect the Grand Old Party be the same as it was 100 or even fifty years ago. And some fifty years ago it went through a similar fracas.
T. H. White, in The Making of the President 1964, wrote about this last time the Republican Party tore itself apart. As it became clear that Senator Barry Goldwater was on his way to being nominated, leading Republicans pleaded with former President Eisenhower to issue some sort of statement, an endorsement of Governor Rockefeller, perhaps, anything that might slow down the rush to Goldwater. Ike, characteristically, would not act unless he saw a clear path to success. That is how he acted throughout his career and it worked very well for him. He was a very successful president, perhaps even a great one, because he chose his battles very carefully. Thus T. H. White wrote about him and his party:
“Eisenhower, for Republicans, is like the Holy Ark that the ancient Israelites carried into battle against the Philistines. Somewhere deep inside the mystery of Eisenhower lies that which most Republicans think their party is about.”
It is another measure of how our politics has changed that we must now substitute Reagan for Eisenhower as that Holy Ark; and even Reagan is quickly fading into history beyond the recall of living memory. People under the age of forty today have at best just dim childhood memories of this last Republican president who maintained his popularity within the party and much of the electorate throughout his tenure in office.
What is the Republican Party about in the late winter and early spring of 2016? The question hangs in the balance. A strange tilt-o-whirl, Alice-in-Wonderland atmosphere pervades this primary season, as if a massive earthquake were going on – the walls are shaking, the furniture is moving - without end in sight.
What worries me most is the fate of the Presidency itself. A reality television star, given to boorish outbursts and dogged by allegations of impropriety and financial malfeasance, appears to be on track to win the Republican nomination. The way things are heading, “American Idol” may well be the best name for the occupant of this office. What would Isaiah or Jeremiah make of that?
One would think that the Republican establishment should be able to find a suitable candidate to stop the stampede to Trump, but not only does there not appear to be such a candidate, there does not appear to be such an establishment either. There are two former Republican Presidents, both named Bush, either of whom, in normal years, might be called upon to speak some words of wisdom and encouragement to party stalwarts. Not this year.
The Democrats, though divided, are in slightly better shape. They like both of their presidential retirees and, generally, nominees. On the culture front – everything having to do with sex, gender and diversity - they seem to be winning and if one were to bet money, one would bet on the White House remaining in the hands of the Democrats.
But not much else. The House will almost certainly remain Republican. The Republicans may well retain control of the Senate. Senate Republican leaders appear to have no worries about a popular reaction against their refusal to even consider a nominee to the Supreme Court – or to consider closing Guantanamo either - indicating a confident feel for the pulse of their voters..
How can this be?
Is it that Trump is out and out saying the mean-spirited things that Republican leaders have merely been implying? Are millions of Americans so fed up with political correctness that they just revel in someone who flouts these conventions? Have the two parties drifted so far apart and the culture become so vulgarized that Donald Trump can appear to occupy the middle ground as some kind of common-sense everyman? Is this what our gadget and entertainment-loving culture has created?
I stand by last week’s prediction that Donald Trump would lose a general election to Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders by a wide margin. Too few Democrats will vote for Trump and too many Republicans will not vote for him. There is certainly time for another candidate to win the Republican nomination. We still only have a few delegates allocated from four rather small, unrepresentative states, after all. But no remaining candidate has the star personality power of the New York businessman.
Will personality and an uncanny finger on the pulse of this strange new electorate be enough? We may know as soon as tomorrow.