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The Primaries: The Story So Far

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Struggling in what was supposed to be an easy primary campaign, Hillary Clinton has accused Donald Trump of “political arson.”
Credit PHOTOGRAPH BY MELINA MARA / THE WASHINGTON POST / VIA GETTY

As voters go to the polls in the next round of primaries today—most importantly, in Ohio and Florida—a brief recap: almost a year ago, on April 12, 2015, Hillary Clinton announced that she was seeking the Democratic Presidential nomination and became the immediate favorite. She remained unopposed for about two weeks, at which point the Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders said that he, too, was a candidate. In August, Sanders and Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor, who had announced in late May, suggested that the Democratic National Committee was, to use one of Sanders’s favorite words, “rigging” the contest by limiting the number of debates to six (with four to be held before the early primaries), and in that way helping the better-known Clinton lock in her front-runner status.

 

If true, it was a bit too clever. Some potential contenders may have felt locked out; two others—Jim Webb, the former Virginia senator, and Lincoln Chafee, the former Rhode Island governor—quit the race in October; no one else jumped in. O’Malley gave up after a poor showing in the Iowa caucuses. But, as Clinton began to lose ground to Sanders, two debates were added to the schedule, followed by some quickly arranged “town hall” meetings. Sanders, despite being well behind in the delegate count, upset Clinton in Michigan, and for Democrats this intermittently entertaining, and disturbing, election season remains unresolved. Put another way, after eleven months, the real narrative may turn out to be that the candidacy of a former senator and Secretary of State was so weak that a seventy-four-year-old socialist from a small New England state was able to win the loyalty of younger voters and become the vehicle for those determined, though still against all odds, to reject her.

 

Polls are better at recording the preferences of voters than at measuring their motives, but when a recent ABC News poll found that only thirty-seven per cent of Americans viewed Clinton as trustworthy, that was a measurement of something. The good news for her in that poll was that voters trusted Donald J. Trump, the Republican front-runner, considerably less, at twenty-seven per cent. Clinton acknowledges that she’s not a natural politician, but politics is a business, and it is the work that she’s chosen. Democrats have to hope, even pray, that she finds a way to improve her skills and is able to use them to address her weaknesses.

 

Trump, who announced his candidacy nine months ago, seems to have learned very little about the issues that would face a new President (tending instead, as Politico noted this week, in devastating detail, to make up his own facts), and sees politics as a business deal between himself and his enthusiastic supporters. That enthusiasm is Trump’s big advantage; the disadvantage is that it seems to arise from the bigotry and intolerance that Trump evokes with his belligerent appeal to the worst instincts of a mob. This approach has mostly flummoxed his opponents during the eleven debates where they all showed up, and now that Super-Duper Tuesday, as it’s being called, has arrived, it’s as if they are just beginning to see the danger, to be alarmed at what has been let loose when Trump asks his supporters to “knock the crap” out of someone, or when he informs a reporter, “We have some protesters who are bad dudes, they have done bad things. They are swinging, they are really dangerous, and they get in there and they start hitting people.” The lineage for such remarks could be traced back to April 30, 1970, when President Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia and, a day later, referring to antiwar protesters, said, “You see those bums, you know, blowing up the campuses. Listen, the boys that are on the college campuses today are the luckiest people in the world, and here they are burning up the books, storming around about this issue.” Three days after that, at Kent State University, members of the Ohio National Guard fired on a campus rally (some protesters were throwing rocks and eggs) and shot and killed four unarmed students, one of them, a twenty-year-old from Youngstown, who had been looking for her dog. Was there a connection, and was Nixon to blame? “If you play with matches, you’re going to start a fire you can’t control,” Clinton told campaign volunteers in St. Louis. “That’s political arson.” She has a point.

 

At the most recent, relatively staid Republican debate, on March 10th, Trump; Senator Marco Rubio, of Florida; Senator Ted Cruz, of Texas; and Kasich—briefly known as “Big Don,” “Little Marco,” “Lyin’ Ted,” and Governor Kasich—sounded almost ready to let the voters just get it over with and take a rest, although today’s vote will determine the political survival of Rubio and Kasich, who must win their home states. The country could use a rest. After all, nearly eight months remain until a general election that might force Americans to choose between the preposterous candidacy of Donald Trump and a bright, accomplished woman who lacks political talent and is widely disliked and distrusted. That may explain what seems to be the recurring hope for some sort of unforeseen intervention—call it a deus ex politica—or desperate remedies, such as a recent appeal by Republican donors to persuade the former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to run the sort of independent campaign that the former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg decided not to run.

 

 

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., writing about Franklin D. Roosevelt, said that the “more serious complaint against him was his weakness for postponement,” but also that “his caution was always within an assumption of constant advance.” That’s an appealing notion that may help to explain polls that, despite Republican attempts to portray Barack Obama’s Presidency as a disaster of historic proportions, show rising approval for a President about whom the same complaint might be made. Those polls suggest that voters, rather than looking for someone who promises to make America “great again,” might prefer someone who offers the promise of a steady advance toward better times. But that, more and more, seems like an idea whose time has gone.

 

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