You know, maybe we’re kind of going about this the wrong way. The most common question currently asked among those of us in the political world is some variation of “Who do you like among the candidates for president?” The question implies an answer that goes something like “Well, candidate A is my guy or gal because X, Y and Z.” It’s an answer that mostly just recycles the favored candidate’s arguments for himself or herself without really shedding much light as to why that person ought to be the nominee and eventually president.
At this point the more important question ought to be “Why should the person to your left or right NOT be the nominee?”
Some years ago at about this point in another presidential election cycle, William F. Buckley wrote about how, in 1987, he and Democratic Senator Robert Strauss had the first opportunity to examine all of the candidates running for president, first the Democrats then a few weeks later the Republicans, together in one room. The question Mr. Buckley asked was: “Sir, the gentleman seated on your left, Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, wants to be the standard bearer for your party. What is it, given his background, given his record, given his weaknesses, that your party would have to fear if he were the candidate?”
Strauss objected to raising the question on the grounds none of the candidates would dare answer it. As Buckley related, he was right. Despite the occasional jabs at their fellow contestants, today’s candidates — even Donald Trump — remain reluctant to catalogue the failings of their primary opponents. They’re far more disposed to talk about their own strengths and what they bring to the table.
I really didn’t think the opening question at the Boulder GOP debate — “What is your biggest weakness?” — was all that bad substantively, although it required a level of naiveté on the order of Alice jumping down the rabbit hole to believe any candidate would be foolish enough to actually answer. Still, if we’re to take seriously the task of evaluating the suitability of these people for the position of commander-in-chief, Buckley’s question is the one which we most need to answer, especially if the candidates won’t.
I suppose it might not be strictly in the spirit of the season, but herewith I propose to attempt brief answers to Buckley’s questions as applied to each of the major candidates. I’ll start with the Republicans because they’re re more fun.
Donald Trump: This is the obvious place to begin, but not just because of his brashness and unartfulness — traits which increase his appeal to some. His ham-fisted and knee-jerk “solutions” to serious policy issues are problematic. But his biggest issue is his unreliable political compass. His campaign is sheer marketing, so no one knows what he really believes or how he would lead. The few hints — supporting single-payer health care, approval of the progressive income tax and admiration for Vladimir Putin — are troubling to say the least.
Marco Rubio: His biggest hit is his repeated failure to show up for work. The Florida senator has missed several key votes. His youth and inexperience — particularly his lack of executive experience — could be issues as well.
Ted Cruz: He suffers similar problems related to experience. I’ve said it before: Senators as a general rule don’t make good presidents. Cruz also has the problem of being painted with the extremist brush, fairly or not. Cruz could well be the most intelligent person running for office from either side, but that could be neutralized if he can’t shake the extremist label.
Rand Paul: On foreign policy, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, although it’s a little riper. His non-interventionist position is not without merit, but runs the risk of slipping into disinterest, which is a partial source of the current president’s foreign affairs woes.
Jeb Bush: His last name. My younger friends point out that they’ve yet to know a GOP president not named Bush. Maybe not the most substantive argument, but a real one.
Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina: Their lack of political experience is starting to show and add in Carson’s case a disappointing lack of depth.
And now the Democrats:
Hillary Clinton: Honesty and likability, which are important if we’re going to see this person several times a day for four years. Clinton has serious trust issues, even among her own party.
Bernie Sanders: It’s the insanity of his positions. He’s sort of the Ron Paul of the left, the crazy uncle you wish would just stay home for the holidays. He’s a true believer of the 20th century’s most tragically failed policies and would take the Democratic party places where all but the most radical of its members don’t really want to take it.
So there you have it. One of these people will be president of the United States in 13 months, and we had best get a handle on their respective weaknesses sooner rather than later.