No rest for can­di­dates in sum­mer of dis­con­tent

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - Dan Balz dan.balz@wash­

Dis­sat­is­fac­tion and protest are roil­ing the pol­i­tics of sum­mer 2015. They are ev­i­dent in the re­sponse to the an­gry rhetoric from Don­ald Trump, in the crowds that come to hear Bernie San­ders bash Wall Street and in the ral­lies de­mand­ing racial jus­tice. For pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates, there is no safe har­bor. Ig­nore the mood at your peril; en­gage it at your peril.

The dis­con­tent is real, whether eco­nomic, racial or cul­tural. It knows no par­tic­u­lar ide­o­log­i­cal bound­aries. It cur­rently disrupts both the Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic par­ties. It re­flects griev­ances that long have been bub­bling. It re­flects, too, the im­pa­tience with many po­lit­i­cal lead­ers— what they say and how they say it.

The eco­nomic col­lapse of 2008 con­tin­ues to rip­ple through the lives of many fam­i­lies, de­spite the drop in un­em­ploy­ment. Steady but slow growth has not been balm enough to give these fam­i­lies, many of whom see a sys­tem rife with in­equity, much op­ti­mism about the fu­ture. In­stead, they see the Amer­i­can Dream as part of the na­tion’s past.

The up­roar over illegal immigration un­der­scores the anger over what many still see as bro­ken borders, an is­sue height­ened by the re­cent killing in San Fran­cisco of a young woman by an illegal im­mi­grant with a crim­i­nal record who had been de­ported but re­turned to the coun­try. But immigration also is tied to the broader cul­tural re­ac­tion to de­mo­graphic changes that con­tinue to re­make the face of the coun­try and gen­er­ate ten­sions that are at the heart of po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences.

Racial is­sues re­main front and cen­ter, whether the killings in a black church in Charleston by a young man who wanted to start a race war or re­peated episodes that have raised hard ques­tions of how po­lice and law en­force­ment of­fi­cials treat African Amer­i­cans. All this is a re­minder that, al­most seven years af­ter the elec­tion of the na­tion’s first black pres­i­dent and all of the progress that made that pos­si­ble, work re­mains to be done.

It is tempt­ing to try to dis­miss Trump for what he is— a re­al­ity TV show­man who talks as much about him­self as any­thing else. The sup­port he is re­ceiv­ing in na­tional polls, how­ever, sug­gests more than just a re­sponse to a celebrity with a loud voice. He has tapped into some­thing.

Trump is not par­tic­u­larly con­ser­va­tive— or, more ac­cu­rately, he seems to have no fixed ide­ol­ogy. He am­pli­fies dis­sat­is­fac­tion with­out propos­ing real so­lu­tions to the coun­try’s prob­lems, other than build­ing a big wall. Yet he speaks about things in a lan­guage so blunt and un­char­ac­ter­is­tic of politi­cians that it wins vis­ceral ap­proval from dis­af­fected Amer­i­cans.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) says Trump brings out the “cra­zies” in the Repub­li­can Party on the is­sue of immigration. In fact, Trump’s can­di­dacy high­lights the re­al­ity that there is an un­re­solved de­bate within the GOP about what to do about it. This is an ar­gu­ment of long stand­ing. Each time McCain and other Repub­li­cans have stepped up to solve it with a com­pre­hen­sive so­lu­tion, they have been re­buffed by the party’s con­ser­va­tive base. Trump has scratched at the wound again this sum­mer.

San­ders, the in­de­pen­dent sen­a­tor from Ver­mont who is run­ning for the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion, seems to be an ex­ten­sion of the Oc­cupy Wall Street move­ment that be­gan four years ago. That move­ment strug­gled to find po­lit­i­cal trac­tion the way the tea party move­ment had two years ear­lier. But it nonethe­less had an in­deli­ble im­pact on the po­lit­i­cal di­a­logue by fram­ing the eco­nomic de­bate as the 99 per­cent vs. the 1 per­cent.

Obama care­fully sub­sumed the un­rest rep­re­sented by the Oc­cupy Wall Street move­ment into his mid­dle-class mes­sage in 2012. In Mitt Rom­ney, he found the per­fect foil, an op­po­nent he por­trayed as an out-of-touch plu­to­crat. That was enough to win re­elec­tion.

Yet four years later, the Democrats find them­selves de­bat­ing not just Repub­li­cans about the econ­omy but one another, as well. They de­bate how far left they should move to deal with the is­sues of in­come and wealth in­equal­ity and the power of what San­ders calls “the bil­lion­aire class.”

Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton is part of the way there in re­spond­ing to the eco­nomic un­rest, at least rhetor­i­cally. San­ders says that she and he con­tinue to have ma­jor dis­agree­ments on the par­tic­u­lars of what to do. The out­pour­ing of sup­port he has seen at events around the coun­try and the re­cent rise in his poll num­bers in New Hamp­shire and Iowa will main­tain the pres­sure on Clin­ton to keep re­spond­ing. She will try to cal­i­brate the ex­tent of her move to the left.

The signs of dis­con­tent have flum­moxed many of the pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates. Each party wants this elec­tion to be about the weak­nesses and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties of the other. Yet the in­tra­party strife can­not easily be ig­nored.

Repub­li­can can­di­dates were slow to chal­lenge Trump’s lan­guage on immigration— both those who strongly dis­agree with his po­si­tions and those who gen­er­ally agree. En­gag­ing Trump car­ries risks. He swings back hard, some­times wildly but some­times with the nim­ble­ness and pre­ci­sion of a prac­ticed politi­cian.

Many Repub­li­cans want Trump to go away. But they are wary about try­ing to has­ten his fall, be­cause they fear they will pay too high a price among those for whom he has pro­vided a voice.

San­ders and for­mer Mary­land gover­nor Martin O’Malley went to the Net­roots Na­tion con­ven­tion a week ago, no doubt look­ing to find a sym­pa­thetic au­di­ence for their pop­ulist eco­nomic mes­sage. It was an event, af­ter all, that Clin­ton did not at­tend, for the ob­vi­ous rea­son that she likely would not have been wel­comed.

In­stead, though, San­ders and O’Malley were caught un­pre­pared for the in­ter­rup­tions from the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, and nei­ther looked par­tic­u­larly adept or com­fort­able as they re­sponded. San­ders seemed to throw up his hands in frus­tra­tion over the in­ter­rup­tion. Then he in­voked his civil rights work as ev­i­dence that he stood with African Amer­i­cans. O’Malley said that “all lives mat­ter” and later apol­o­gized. Clin­ton was the lucky one for not hav­ing at­tended, but she will not es­cape the is­sue, ei­ther.

Few Repub­li­cans ex­pect Trump to be­come their party’s nom­i­nee. They worry that his can­di­dacy alone, if left to run for months, could con­demn them to another de­feat in Novem­ber 2016, even if he even­tu­ally dis­ap­pears. Their other con­cern is that Trump might even­tu­ally run as an in­de­pen­dent, in which case he could drain more than enough votes from their nom­i­nee to cost them the gen­eral elec­tion.

Not many Democrats yet think San­ders has the stay­ing power to de­feat Clin­ton, even if he can give her a good scare. Strange things hap­pen in nom­i­na­tion con­tests. But Clin­ton’s ad­vis­ers vow they will not be caught by sur­prise by an in­sur­gency from the left.

Even if both Trump and San­ders end up merely as in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ters rather than long-dis­tance run­ners, the un­rest that has con­trib­uted to the at­ten­tion they are now re­ceiv­ing will re­main. Dis­trust of the po­lit­i­cal class will in­fect the cam­paign, adding to the bur­dens the ma­jor party nom­i­nees will carry into the gen­eral elec­tion and be­yond. It is em­bed­ded in the pol­i­tics of now.

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