The state of presidential politics in October 2016: the options on the ballot next month are so bad that many Americans now long for a chance to vote for presidential candidates like those from the recent past that at the time were written off as boring, stiff, and eccentric. Compared to Trump, Clinton, and Johnson it would almost be a dream matchup if Americans were given the ability to choose between Republican Bob Dole, Democrat Al Gore, and independent Ross Perot. Yes, things are that bad.
It is stunning to realize that the United States – once led by quality men of old like George Washington, James Maddison, Abraham Lincoln, or more recently by such as FDR, Eisenhower and Kennedy – will have as its 45th President a petulant man with few morals beyond making money, a woman who feels like she’s owed the White House and has likely broken a number of major laws, or a man who doesn’t know the world’s major trouble spots or the names of world leaders. How did we get to this state of affairs?
None of the aforementioned past Presidents, not even the universally revered Washington, were without flaws. They had their boisterous detractors, were accused of weakness while in office, and each had their share of policy failures. But each also had a solid moral foundation and the character necessary to rise to the occasion when the nation needed a firm and resolute leader. The next President will have a highly charged environment to contend with on day one.
Racial tensions are at their highest since probably the 1970s. The national debt that will saddle itself on the next President before he or she walks off the inauguration stage will be at a staggering, unprecedented height. Internationally the next Commander in Chief will have to deal with undeclared wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, navigate deteriorating relations with nuclear powers Russia and China, and an increasingly unstable North Korea and Iran.
To weather these storms in 2017 and beyond, the United States is going to need a leader that has a thorough understanding of military and international affairs, is disciplined and composed under pressure, and has a moral compass that points to true north. What we’re almost sure to get instead is a President that has either a paper-thin or a flawed understanding of military and international affairs, doesn’t do well under pressure, and is still in search of a moral compass.
Hillary Clinton certainly has a great deal of experience in the international arena, but having a lot of experience being wrong – often profoundly wrong – is not helpful. Imagine if Bernie Madoff were trying to get a job on Wall Street and gave the hiring manager a resume that touted his many years of wealth management experience? Donald Trump for his part has little understanding of the world of diplomacy and almost none of the nature of military operations.
Clinton behaves as one who is privileged, entitled, and regards laws as things others must follow (but are optional for her). Trump has lived his adult life with virtually no constraints on his authority and therefore acts on his preferences with impunity, claims expertise in subjects about which he has little actual knowledge, and as recent reports confirm, is moored to no known moral foundation. Gary Johnson simply has no clue. What does this portend for the country when one of these people is going to be at the helm of America’s ship on stormy domestic and global seas in three months’ time? The outlook is obviously troubling, but isn’t completely without hope.
In the late summer of 2013 in response to reports Syria used chemical weapons, President Obama was ready to escalate US military involvement in Syria by directly targeting regime assets. But the American people finally stepped up and voiced their disapproval, mainly by making their views known through their Congressmen and Senators. After this pressure by constituents, Congress communicated its dissatisfaction to the White House, and ultimately the President decided against striking (instead supporting a Russian plan to remove chemical weapons from Syria).
The displeasure of the American people played a major role in ending US involvement in the Vietnam war, despite the support of large segments of the government and military establishment. Though it doesn’t happen very often, when conditions reach intolerable levels, voters can effectively ‘veto’ poor policy actions by Washington.
It is my hope that if poor decisions by the next Administration begin to threaten American interests abroad, the people will constrain poor policy by again making their displeasure known, at least until a man or woman with character, ability, and knowledge can make a serious run in 2020. It is discouraging to say the least that one month before the election of 2016 America’s best hope might be that the voting public keeps a lid on Washington until quality candidates can arise in four years’ time.
The views in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of Defense Priorities.