It seems only yesterday Obama voters were complaining about his policies and expressing shock over his disdain for their livelihoods. They couldn’t believe that he used his office to further an ideology rather than to help them prosper. They seemed unaware that the president follows in the footsteps of George Washington. But unlike General Washington, a modern president has more power, more reach and more responsibilities. Most voters mistook their sober duty to vote in the election for an opportunity to be accepted by the celebrity left. They were like students voting for the popular boy or girl who promised them longer breaks and more flavors of ice cream. They never paused to ponder that they were handing the presidency to a person who would have real power, not just a picture in the yearbook and a speech at graduation.
The founders knew that they were risking a lot in creating the presidency. His powers and the manner of his election took up a great deal of the debate in the Constitutional Convention, and it is the reason that his election was left to a College of Electors and not to Congress and especially not directly to the people. Politicians wasted no time creating political parties, the purpose of which was to nominate ideologically responsible candidates for president and other offices. Congressional caucuses exercised the nomination power for the first twenty-five years or so, and then the Democrats led the switch to conventions chiefly because Andrew Jackson hadn’t benefited from the caucus system.
The convention system turned the selection of nominees over to State parties and their bosses. Though this “improvement” usually insured a bland candidate, it had the salutary effect of making sure the national government stayed out of the way. The Progressives hated this so they replaced the party bosses with the primary system. Direct primaries along with the advent of radio and later television led to the rise of campaigns independent of both national and State parties. Thus the president truly became the people’s champion.
This modern campaign reached maturity with the Kennedy-Nixon race in 1960. Not only was a junior senator with no executive experience elected, but it was also the first election where television clearly influenced the result. Since then, more often than not, the election of the president has depended on which candidate connected more with the people whether by his looks, his shtick, or his charisma. Often this had more to do with perception than with reality. One author called this phenomenon “The Selling of the President”.
Perhaps this silliness didn’t hurt the country much at first. However, as Congress delegated more authority to the president, he was able to act more boldly and independently. Judges usually acquiesce even when a president decides to act outside his authority. Even when the Courts act, it takes years and it’s up to the president to implement their decisions. And when there is a crisis, any president will take on emergency powers with little resistance.
The nadir of the modern campaign was 2008. Barack Obama was marketed as everything that was cool. His cool pretty much began and ended with the fact that he was biracial of foreign parentage who was also good at reading inane speeches from a teleprompter. He was the first “post racial” president — to quote an 80s song, he was “just too sexy for his shirt”. Of course, this sexiness was in the eye of the beholder. But there were a lot of gullible beholders.
All parties play with this gimmick, of course. Hillary would have been the first woman president. How about Marco — he speaks Spanish. Bobby Jindal is Indian. And Elizabeth Warren might be an Indian too. Policy details have little to do with their presentation, that is, until one of them gets elected. Then those hidden details come out. The Democrats usually have to hide their agenda. Republicans while more forthright about theirs show more ambivalence in implementing it.
The 2016 campaign was different. One by one, the voters rejected the plastic candidates foisted on them. Donald Trump didn’t have the usual qualifications, but he had some regard for them and the Constitution and still knew how to get things done. Trump wasn’t advertised like a new soft drink or detergent. Policy issues dominated his campaign, and voters responded to that. As the wag said, we weren’t with him; he was with us. Yes, Trump was a celebrity but he was elected in spite of it, not because of it.
It would behoove voters to stop acting like school children and insist on candidates who have qualifications and the character to know the limits of the office. In addition, policy DOES matter. Voters must insist on knowing details of what a candidate proposes. In a democratic republic, this requires diligence and maturity on the part of the voters. It is doubtful they will have this kind of discipline very often. Unfortunately, voters will probably return to buying a packaged candidate and swoon yet again over their new prom king or queen.