WASHINGTON – The 2016 presidential campaign has been peculiarly disconnected from the real world of problems, crises and governing. It took the catastrophe in Paris to narrow the gap – and even a monstrous terrorist attack may not shake the trajectory of a contest that operates within a logic of its own.
The inevitable distance between politicking and the business of running a government is especially wide this year because of the strange configuration of the Republican field. Donald Trump and Ben Carson in particular have detached themselves from anything resembling normal politics, and sometimes from reality itself.
Moreover, the Democratic and Republican primary electorates have such radically different views that the candidates on each side seem to be running for president of quite different countries.
The United States of the Republicans (USR) is a nation in dire trouble, losing influence around the globe, and barely recovering from the Great Recession. In the USR, low taxes and smaller government are the key to everything.
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The United States of the Democrats (USD) has made substantial progress since President Barack Obama took office but still confronts economic inequality and stagnating wages. In the USD, government needs to do more about problems, including the difficulties of accessing health coverage, child care and a college education.
Yes, and the world outside our borders is seen as a lot more complicated in the USD than in the USR.
Saturday night’s Democratic debate did nothing to close the USD/USR gap. In political terms, it left the Democratic campaign pretty much where it was before the encounter started. Clinton is still in a commanding position and she seemed ready to be a president who could deal with a crisis.
Her opening comments were more appropriate to the moment than those offered by Sen. Bernie Sanders. After two sentences about Paris, he hustled quickly to the more comfortable ground of a “rigged economy.”
Things did not go all Clinton’s way. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley made his presence felt this time, a genuine breakthrough for him. And Sanders was compelling when he scored on the front-runner with his relentless emphasis on reining in Wall Street and his independence from the political generosity of big finance. It is a form of virtuousness Clinton cannot claim.
The Vermont senator pushed Clinton to leave behind a sound bite that was instantly used against her in a Twitter onslaught. Her Wall Street donations, she explained, were tied to her work as a senator helping to rebuild Wall Street after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Voters are unlikely ever to see Wall Street as a beleaguered New York City neighborhood like Belle Harbor or SoHo.
But there was no escaping the horror of Paris, and here, finally, tragedy forced the primary campaign to intersect with the excruciating choices the next president will face. Clinton deserves credit for refusing to use the magic words that conservatives now demand politicians recite, as if merely intoning them would vanquish the enemy.
No, she would not condemn “radical Islam” and she cited George W. Bush, not a Democratic habit, for his repeated proclamations that, as he once said, “ours is not a campaign against the Muslim faith.” Her refusal to pander was a presidential moment, whether it hurts her politically or not.
At the same time, the early questions posed by CBS News’ John Dickerson signaled a challenge Clinton will confront throughout the campaign: She will have to find a way to be loyal to the policies of the president she served even as she distances herself from certain Obama decisions (on Syria, for example) with which she disagreed.
This necessarily intricate dance led to her roughest point in the debate. It was a sign that the rising importance of foreign policy would be both a blessing to Clinton, because of her experience and toughness, and a potential problem, depending on the course of the battle against the Islamic State over the next year.
It’s unfortunate that there isn’t a Republican debate coming up soon to force a similar encounter with hard, reality-based questions. Trump’s claim that French gun-control laws made Friday’s tragedy worse is ludicrous and offensive. And demagoguing the Syrian refugee issue, as Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas are doing, is shameful.
Saturday night’s brush with what a serious conversation might look like underscored this campaign’s stunningly low level of seriousness, particularly on the Republican side, and how ill-suited it is to the choice that voters must make. If the carnage in Paris does not change this, God help us.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.