I’m off the next two weeks finishing a book, and I can already tell you this is a terrible time to be away from the scene. Hillary Clinton’s announcement followed by her dark-windowed SUV journey into deepest darkest America was the most inept, phony, shallow, slickily-slick and meaningless launch of a presidential candidacy I have ever seen. We have come to quite a pass when the Clintons can’t even do the show business of politics well. The whole extravaganza has the look of profound incompetence and disorganization—no one could have been thinking this through—or profound cynicism, or both. It has yielded only one good thing, and that is a memorable line, as Mrs. Clinton glided by reporters: “We do have a plan. We have a plan for my plan.” That is how the Washington Post quoted her, on ideas on campaign finance reform.
Marco Rubio had a pretty great announcement in that it made the political class look at him in a new way, and a better way. I have heard him talk about his father the bartender I suppose half a dozen times, yet hearing it again in his announcement moved me. I don’t know how that happened. John Boehner is the son of a barkeep. It has occurred to me a lot recently that many if not most of the people I see in the highest reaches of American life now come from relatively modest circumstances. Rubio is right that this is our glory, but I’m thinking one of the greatest things about America is a larger point: There’s room for everybody. You can rise if you come from one of the most established, wealthiest families, and you can rise if you came from nothing. I have promised myself I will stop talking about the musical “Hamilton” and so will not note that this is one of the points made in the musical “Hamilton”: America was special in this regard from the beginning, with landed gentry like Jefferson and Washington working side by side with those such as the modestly born Ben Franklin and the lowborn Alexander Hamilton. But now it is more so. Anyway, back to Rubio: “Yesterday’s over” was good, and strict, and was a two shot applying as much to the Clintons as the Bushes.
Two points on the general feel of the 2016 campaign so far.
One is that in the case of Mrs. Clinton we are going to see the press act either like the press of a great nation—hungry, raucous, alive, demanding—or like a hopelessly sickened organism, a big flailing octopus with no strength in its arms, lying like a greasy blob at the bottom of the sea, dying of ideology poisoning.
Republicans know—they see it every day—that Republican candidates get grilled, sometimes impertinently, and pressed, sometimes brusquely. And it isn’t true that they’re only questioned in this way once they announce, Scott Walker has been treated like this also, and he has yet to announce. Republicans see this, and then they see that Mrs. Clinton isn’t grilled, is never forced to submit to anyone’s morning-show impertinence, is never the object of the snotty question or the sharp demand for information. She gets the glide. She waves at the crowds and the press and glides by. No one pushes. No one shouts the rude question or rolls out the carefully scripted set of studio inquiries meant to make the candidate squirm. She is treated like the queen of England, who also isn’t subjected to impertinent questions as she glides into and out of venues. But she is the queen. We are not supposed to have queens.
Second point: We have simply never had a dynamic like the one that seems likely to prevail next year.
On the Republican side there is a good deep bench and there will be a hell of a fight among serious and estimable contenders. A handful of them—Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Rubio, maybe Bobby Jindal—are first-rate debaters, sharp advancers of a thought and a direction. Their debates, their campaigning, their oppo geniuses, their negative ads—it’s all going to be bloody. Will the American people look at them in 2016 and see dynamism and excitement and youth and actual ideas and serious debate? Will it look like that’s where the lightning’s striking and the words have meaning? Will it fortify and revivify the Republican brand? Or will it all look like mayhem and chaos? Will the eventual winner emerge a year from now too bloodied, too damaged to go on and win in November? Will the party itself look bloody and damaged?
On the Democratic side we have Mrs. Clinton, gliding. If she has no serious competition, will the singularity of her situation make her look stable, worthy of reflexive respect, accomplished, serene, the obvious superior choice? Or will Hillary alone on the stage, or the couch, or in the tinted-window SUV, look entitled, presumptuous, old, boring, imperious, yesterday?
Will it all come down to bloody versus boring?
And which would America prefer?