2020 elec­tion will be about ev­ery­thing

The Saline Courier - - OPINION - ••• David M. Shrib­man is the for­mer ex­ec­u­tive editor of the Pittsburgh Postgazett­e. Follow him on Twit­ter at Shrib­manpg.

The 1996 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, pit­ting Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton against Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, was some­times dubbed the “Se­in­feld elec­tion” -- an elec­tion about noth­ing. The 2020 elec­tion is an en­tirely dif­fer­ent af­fair. It is an elec­tion about ev­ery­thing.

Amer­i­can elec­tions of­ten have an over­rid­ing theme. The 1828 elec­tion was about Andrew Jack­son’s re­demp­tion af­ter the “cor­rupt bar­gain” that placed John Quincy Adams in the White House. The 1860 elec­tion was about the extension of slav­ery. The 1932 elec­tion was about re­cov­ery from the Great De­pres­sion. The 1960 elec­tion was about the virtue of vigor ver­sus ex­pe­ri­ence. And the 1980 elec­tion was about the pur­pose and size of govern­ment.

This coming elec­tion of­fers no facile han­dle. It is, to be sure, about the econ­omy; most Amer­i­can elec­tions are. But it is also about the wealth gap. And taxes. And the place of Amer­ica in the world. And about the util­ity and dura­bil­ity of in­ter­na­tional in­sti­tu­tions.

And it is, above all, about Don­ald John

Trump -- his style, his in­cli­na­tions and im­pulses, his pri­or­i­ties, his fit­ness for of­fice, his instinct for pop­ulist themes and lan­guage.

Here are some of the fault lines in Amer­i­can cul­ture, some of them pre­ced­ing Trump, some of them prompted by Trump, some of them widened by Trump:

•Who is an Amer­i­can, and what does it mean to be an Amer­i­can? It is tempt­ing to say that in more tran­quil times this was a question that an­swered it­self. But in truth this has been one of the en­dur­ing questions in our na­tional life, with land­mark immigratio­n bills al­ter­nately con­strict­ing and widen­ing the gates to the United States and to Amer­i­can citizenshi­p.

Even so, this re­mains one of the fun­da­men­tal is­sues of our time, smol­der­ing dur­ing the Clin­ton, Ge­orge W. Bush and Barack Obama years but burst­ing into full flame in the Trump years. The cur­rent pres­i­dent is seen to have an an­ti­quated con­cep­tion of Amer­i­can citizenshi­p that views as alien to the Amer­i­can ideal those whose fam­ily ori­gins are in Africa, Latin Amer­ica and Asia.

The re­cent dis­pute over the ap­pli­ca­bil­ity of the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Lib­erty speaks di­rectly to this con­flict. Ken Cuc­cinelli, the act­ing di­rec­tor of U.S. Citizenshi­p and Immigratio­n Ser­vices, said the poem’s words re­mained rel­e­vant. “They cer­tainly are,” Cuc­cinelli said. “Give me your tired and your poor -- who can stand on their own two feet and who will not be­come a public charge.”

This com­ment sparked a de­bate about whether the gates sym­bol­iz­ing Amer­i­can op­por­tu­nity and prom­ise should re­main open, and how wide.

•What is the place of guns in the Amer­i­can char­ac­ter? Our na­tional mythol­ogy puts guns -- mus­kets in Pu­ri­tan Mas­sachusetts, ri­fles on the wide open Western plains, even re­volvers in the hands of Chicago mob­sters -- at the very cen­ter of our cul­ture. The spate of mass killings, from school­child­ren in Con­necti­cut and Florida to wor­ship­pers in South Carolina and Pennsylvan­ia, has rekin­dled a long-sim­mer­ing de­bate about the Sec­ond Amend­ment and the no­tion of the right to bear arms.

Now those mass shoot­ings are prompt­ing great di­vi­sions in the Amer­i­can elec­torate and, point­edly, among Repub­li­can vot­ers. A sur­vey of 1,000 Repub­li­can vot­ers in com­pet­i­tive

sub­ur­ban House dis­tricts reach­ing from Vir­ginia to Colorado, com­mis­sioned by the Repub­li­can Main­stream Lead­er­ship, found that nearly three­quar­ters of the women polled ad­vo­cate stricter gun laws. Th­ese sub­ur­ban women also rated gun vi­o­lence as the top is­sue fac­ing the coun­try to­day.

•Is Don­ald Trump pres­i­den­tial? Trump’s po­lit­i­cal style is un­like that of any Amer­i­can pres­i­dent with the pos­si­ble ex­cep­tion of Andrew Jack­son, whose por­trait the cur­rent chief ex­ec­u­tive hung in his White House of­fice. Like Jack­son, Trump styles himself a friend and spokesman for av­er­age Amer­i­cans and for the mil­lions, prin­ci­pally in ru­ral ar­eas, who feel alien­ated and dis­pos­sessed.

And yet that style is deeply di­vi­sive. The pres­i­dent un­loads can­did and of­ten bit­ing crit­i­cism in his tweet­storms, in­sults op­po­nents and for­mer aides and of­fers lan­guage that crit­ics con­tend is racist.

Though na­tional cam­paigns are rarely about pres­i­den­tial be­hav­ior, there are ex­cep­tions. Ge­orge W.

Bush ran in his 2000 cam­paign to re­store “dig­nity” to the Oval Of­fice af­ter Bill Clin­ton used the cham­ber for a sor­did tryst with a White House in­tern. Much of the 1948 elec­tion was over questions about the suit­abil­ity of Harry Tru­man, an ac­ci­den­tal pres­i­dent with an in­for­mal way.

But the coming cam­paign will be prin­ci­pally about Trump’s be­hav­ior and, im­plic­itly, a ref­er­en­dum on whether Amer­i­cans’ con­cep­tion of the pres­i­dency matches Trump’s com­port­ment -- in public, on so­cial me­dia, at in­ter­na­tional sum­mits. In short, is Trump an aber­ra­tion in the pres­i­dency or has he be­gun a new con­cep­tion of pres­i­den­tial con­duct?

“The hec­tor­ing of the me­dia and the nick­names -- that will dis­ap­pear with Trump,” said David Az­er­rad, who di­rects the B. Ken­neth Simon Cen­ter for Prin­ci­ples and Pol­i­tics at the con­ser­va­tive Heritage Foun­da­tion think tank in Washington, D.C.

“That’s his style, though it seems to please a large seg­ment of the public to see the me­dia be­ing bashed. The con­sen­sus is that he’s not be­hav­ing in a pres­i­den­tial way. But this is not 1858, when the public will listen for seven hours to the Lin­coln-dou­glas de­bates. He’s mas­tered the me­dia of the 21st cen­tury, and he has mas­tered the un­scripted rally.”

•Just who are the Democrats, and for that mat­ter, who are the Repub­li­cans? The an­swers won’t come si­mul­ta­ne­ously. This elec­tion is an in­flec­tion point for the Democrats, who must de­cide how far left to lean, es­pe­cially on health care and eco­nomics, and whether or how to avoid the “so­cial­ist” la­bel. A party led by for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Joseph R. Bi­den Jr. is a dif­fer­ent party than one led by Sens. El­iz­a­beth War­ren of Mas­sachusetts or Bernie San­ders of Ver­mont.

This elec­tion will of­fer no such clear choice for the GOP, for only af­ter Trump has de­parted the scene will Repub­li­cans de­cide whether to re­main a pop­ulist in­sur­gency, ap­peal­ing to the sort of vot­ers who once were com­fort­able in the New Deal coali­tion, or to be the home of that group’s nat­u­ral ri­vals, who fa­vor free trade, eco­nomic fru­gal­ity and bal­anced bud­gets and who pro­vided mas­sive sup­port for 1960s civil-rights leg­is­la­tion. This elec­tion, while about much more than noth­ing, nonethe­less won’t de­cide this vi­tal question. That’s for an­other day.


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