WASHINGTON – Maybe it’s not us. Maybe it’s the candidates.
This election cycle is thrilling, but not necessarily in a good way. Tuesday’s vote in New Hampshire lent support to the theory that both Republican and Democratic base voters have gone rogue. Think about it: The winners, by huge margins, were a billionaire reality-show host who has never held elective office and an aging socialist who promises a revolution. If you imagined this a year ago, I’m curious what you were smoking.
It may be the case, as I have hypothesized, that both parties have lost touch with the nation they are supposed to serve. But at least part of the problem may be that voters are being asked to choose among candidates who are deeply flawed.
On the Democratic side, it is hard to argue with the proposition that a war is underway for the party’s soul. Bernie Sanders, who wasn’t even a Democrat until he launched his campaign, won in a landslide Tuesday over the ostensible nominee-in-waiting, Hillary Clinton. He beat her pretty much across the board, but the most striking contrast is generational: Among voters under 30, according to exit polls, the 74-year-old Sanders crushed Clinton by a jaw-dropping 83 percent to 16 percent.
Sanders has never been described as silver-tongued or telegenic, yet he fills arenas with fans and raises campaign cash faster than he can count it. He may be one of the unlikeliest political rock stars we’ve ever seen. His appeal is often attributed to his undeniable authenticity, and I don’t quarrel with that analysis. But I wonder if this would be the case if Clinton did not come across as so very inauthentic.
She just does. Despite her resume and record – Clinton is one of the most qualified presidential candidates we’ve seen in a long time – she always seems to be triangulating, always searching for words that do not offend. Unfortunately, neither do they inspire.
And, let’s face it, she has baggage – all the good and bad of her husband’s years as president, the continuing investigation of her emails from when she was secretary of state, the hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees she received from Goldman Sachs. Democrats have to be somewhat nervous about her prospects in a general election.
But they have to be at least as nervous about how an avowed socialist would hold up under withering Republican attacks. So the Democratic race isn’t just a head-versus-heart conundrum. It’s a contest between two candidates who both have potentially lethal vulnerabilities.
The situation in the Republican Party is even more fraught. After Iowa and New Hampshire, the undisputed leader of the pack is Donald Trump. With him as the party’s standard-bearer, what could possibly go wrong? I hear the GOP establishment sobbing.
Suffice it to note that there is a large segment of the voting population that would never vote for Trump under any circumstances, according to polls. And at any moment there would be the possibility that he could say or do something so outrageous that it would send the GOP to historic defeat.
But running second among Republican candidates is Ted Cruz, whose doctrinaire far-right views could also drag down the party’s whole ticket. And Cruz has an additional problem: He comes across as unlikable, perhaps because of his tendency to sound like a pitchman on a late-night television commercial. He is so unpopular among his Senate colleagues that they would have to swallow hard to give him energetic backing in the general election.
The GOP establishment’s great hope was Marco Rubio, until his software-glitch performance at last weekend’s debate caused him to fade in New Hampshire and finish fifth. He’s got the youth, the looks, the hair and the smile, but seems so lacking in the gravitas department that he looks increasingly like a risky bet.
Ben Carson? Be real.
Jeb Bush’s candidacy still has a pulse, to the extent that a fourth-place finish in New Hampshire, with only 11 percent of the vote, can be spun as a good thing. But the campaign has revealed his weaknesses on the stump, and he, like Clinton, must bear the heavy burden of dynasty.
That leaves John Kasich, who finished second and has fewer glaring liabilities than his rivals. The question, however, is whether he is too moderate and reasonable to survive the Republican primaries and win the nomination.
So many candidates, so many flaws, so few choices that inspire any degree of confidence. As is often the case, quantity does not ensure quality.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.