David Rothkopf

The political Black Swan of 2012: Civility and substance

Crazy peaked too early. The fringe candidates pre-marginalized themselves. And that’s why my money is on the longest of long-shots in American politics, not a candidate, but a process: A 2012 presidential campaign featuring a serious debate about the issues between thoughtful candidates. In part, we can thank the first wave of Republican presidential "candidates" ...

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Crazy peaked too early. The fringe candidates pre-marginalized themselves. And that's why my money is on the longest of long-shots in American politics, not a candidate, but a process: A 2012 presidential campaign featuring a serious debate about the issues between thoughtful candidates.

In part, we can thank the first wave of Republican presidential "candidates" who arrived on the scene crowded into a clown car and proceeded to climb all over themselves to distinguish their particular form of high-functioning lunacy from that of the human punch line next to them. 

Among the earliest of these was Sarah Palin, shooting from the hip and usually hitting herself in the foot or causing collateral damage to her family, English syntax or our national dignity. But given what followed her into the race, and how much more statesmanlike the Trumps of this world make her look, one conclusion we can't help but draw is that this is a woman who is best viewed in retrospect.

Crazy peaked too early. The fringe candidates pre-marginalized themselves. And that’s why my money is on the longest of long-shots in American politics, not a candidate, but a process: A 2012 presidential campaign featuring a serious debate about the issues between thoughtful candidates.

In part, we can thank the first wave of Republican presidential "candidates" who arrived on the scene crowded into a clown car and proceeded to climb all over themselves to distinguish their particular form of high-functioning lunacy from that of the human punch line next to them. 

Among the earliest of these was Sarah Palin, shooting from the hip and usually hitting herself in the foot or causing collateral damage to her family, English syntax or our national dignity. But given what followed her into the race, and how much more statesmanlike the Trumps of this world make her look, one conclusion we can’t help but draw is that this is a woman who is best viewed in retrospect.

Palin after all was only ignorant, badly educated, hopelessly inexperienced and wrong on the issues. The Trumps and Gingriches of this world see her those defects and raise her a few. Trump seemed to want to prove that in modern America all you needed was fame, no matter how it was achieved. Yet somehow running beauty pageants, casinos, and guest hosting reality television shows was enough to take this buffoon and launch him to front-runner status among Republican candidates. All this despite the fact that he seems intent on proving that there actually is something more ridiculous than his floppy, chemically enhanced comb-over … that being what comes out of his mouth.

Trump is low comedy, the Sanjaya of presidential politics. Gingrich is something more malevolent. He actually has some experience but his innovative premise is that a man who failed in politics, was run out of his last high office, and actually dumped his wife while she lay stricken with cancer could actually run on a "values" platform. One of the more common refrains surrounding the Gingrich announcement of his candidacy earlier this week, even from seemingly credible journalists, was that whatever else could be said about him, this is a smart man. Really? How can one be smart and be wrong about so many things? 

Other even fringier candidates, from Rick Santorum to Mike Huckabee to Michele Bachmann, have serially demonstrated why there has never been a plane that successfully flew with only a right wing. You might think the current platform of the Republican right — which essentially boils down to being anti-science, anti-arithmetic, anti-history, anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-immigration, anti-tolerance, and anti-government (and thus, anti-American in my book) — would play well but none of these candidates, except for Huckabee, are resonating much beyond single digits in most polls

Meanwhile, most of the ways to caricature President Obama are no longer available. It can’t be said that he is weak on defense or that he hasn’t reached across the aisle to make budget deals happen or that he isn’t working for free trade or key business interests. You can disagree with his policies but the blunt instrument rhetoric of the most extreme candidates is not going to work. The Osama raid and last December’s budget deal are just two of the reasons that is the case, with the gradual recovery of the economy perhaps the most important.

What all this suggests is that we may actually end up with the Republican Party defying the fear-mongering of the pundit class and actually nominate a more sensible, experienced candidate. This is not far-fetched. In fact, that’s what they usually do. Look at the field, the ones who look most like Republican presidential candidates are Mitch Daniels, Mitt Romney, and Jon Huntsman. And my bet is that once that huffing and puffing of the primaries is done, it will be one of them running against Barack Obama for the presidency.

And if it is, we might actually end up with a debate about how to actually tackle the budget, fix health care, and remake U.S. foreign policy for a changing world. We might end up with both sides treating each other with a modicum of respect … and more surprisingly, doing the same with the voters. Oh sure, double-talk and impossible promises will fill the air. And some extremist groups will buy ad time to spew their hatred. 

But here’s what I think: Americans are sick of the nonsense, they take our many problems seriously, have come to recognize the president as a serious man whether they like him or not, and want a real alternative to the mainstream nonsense of Washington. And, there would be no better alternative than a campaign that aspired to be worthy of the office and the issues that are at stake.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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