Anyone contemplating this year’s appalling presidential campaign may be tempted to explain what’s happening by applying the third rule of bureaucratic organizations, enunciated by the late poet and definitive scholar of Soviet terrorism Robert Conquest.
“The behavior of any bureaucratic organization,” Conquest explained, “can best be understood by assuming that it is controlled by a secret cabal of its enemies.”
The Republican and Democratic parties aren’t exactly bureaucratic organizations; they just aspire to be. But their behavior this year certainly looks like it might have been scripted by their fervent foes.
Is it known, for example, just who whispered in Donald Trump’s ear that this was a good year to run for president? He’s been mulling it before, and accumulating national fame as a reality TV star.
In the process, to be fair, he’s had more genuine accomplishments than, say, Kim Kardashian. Moving the real estate family business from the outer boroughs, in a decade when they were losing a million people, and into Manhattan, just as prices there touched rock bottom, was a stroke of genius. Shrewd!
Shrewd also were Trump’s bombastic phrasings of his departures from Republican orthodoxy on immigration and trade. Did a secret cabal of Republicans’ enemies put into his head the notion that making one outrageous statement after another could give him more airtime than the other 16 Republican candidates put together? If so, it worked.
The fact is that there was no more compelling reason for Trump to run than there was in 2000 or 2008. The word around Palm Beach is that he expected his campaign to be a lark and to add value to the Trump brand. But to his surprise, the dog caught the car.
The vehicle could end up in the ditch. The Republican Party may face more problems if Trump wins than if he loses. In the latter case it adapts to its gains among the less educated and losses among the highly educated — a process ongoing for two decades.
If he wins he’d be called on to deliver on his promises on trade and immigration. A president can impose tariffs — and provoke a financial crisis. A president can build a border wall and Congress can require employers to use e-Verify. Experience with similar measures in Arizona suggests the effects will be real, but marginal. Frustrating!
One of the mysteries of the campaign, unexplored by the reliably anti-Republican but not reliably pro-Democratic mainstream media, is why Trump, who turned 70 in June, and Clinton, who turns 69 next month, decided to run at their ages. As Trump has noted, he could have had a comfortable life otherwise; so could Clinton.
The track record of presidents elected at about that age is mixed. Ronald Reagan showed that a septuagenarian, even after suffering a serious gunshot wound, could be an effective president. The example of William Henry Harrison, who took office at 68 and died a month later, is less encouraging.
Clinton’s candidacy essentially squelched the chances of a generation of younger Democrats, who might have advanced more serious future-oriented policies than the unachievable promises of free health care and free college that she copied from the 74-year-old socialist Bernie Sanders. No other Democrat would be toting the barrage of a private email system and a pay-for-play operation with her or his family foundation.
If it’s true, as many political observers think and as primary season polls suggested, that a Marco Rubio or a Ted Cruz would be leading Clinton in polls now by something like 50 to 43 percent, it’s equally plausible that an Amy Klobuchar or a Sherrod Brown (to name two plausible Democrats) would be leading Rubio or Cruz and with significantly more than Clinton’s current 42 percent. Clinton, like Trump, has her enthusiasts (most over 50 in both cases), but young women are clearly not enraptured by the notion of a female president.
And while Clinton must be haunted by the thought that she was almost elected president at age 60 and would have been in the White House the last eight years, that doesn’t mean she had to run again. Al Gore has led a lucrative and comfortable life after coming closer than she did. So did Samuel J. Tilden after the 1876 election was stolen from him.
The real question about this campaign, which may not be resolved until years after the election, may be which secret cabal of a party’s enemies has inflicted more damage on its target.