Clinton and Trump: Sadly, It's Politics as Usual

In the film Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman plays a struggling actor. After an audition, the casting director tells him they need someone shorter. "I can be shorter," he says, taking the lifts out of his shoes. "Well, we need someone younger," comes the reply. "I can be younger," Hoffman pleads, mimicking a child's voice." "What I mean is, we need someone else," the director finally hammers home.

In a case of life imitating art, voters in the 2016 presidential campaign have also made it clear that they need someone else. Of 48.7 million primary votes cast, 58 percent have gone to the combination of Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Ted Cruz, the three candidates who openly snubbed their noses at the political establishment. Each has aspired to be the "someone else" in the race. Only Trump remains. Yet neither he nor Hillary Clinton, an establishment candidate if there ever was one, are that someone else. While 2016 may seem to be a starkly different election year, underneath the surface the saying is still true: "the more things change, the more they remain the same."

After decades in which presidential candidates have attacked each other, the very government they want to lead, and have also failed in their promises to work across the partisan divide, many voters have concluded there is something fundamentally wrong with the ability of the political system to help them:

49 percent think that the future for the next generation will be worse than today.
61 percent think that just a few people today have a chance to get ahead.
71 percent think the economic system favors the wealthy.
68 percent think the government in Washington does not represent them well.
80 percent think that campaign spending has gotten out of hand.
80 percent are dissatisfied with the way the political system works.
19 percent trust the government in Washington to do what is right.
8 percent rate the honesty and ethics of members of Congress highly.

Yet, despite such dissatisfaction, Clinton plans to run a campaign as the seasoned veteran when the public has, if nothing else, voiced its distrust of seasoned veterans. For his part, Trump - the poster-child for anti-establishment anger - has recently found that establishment more to his liking. With the addition of a veteran campaign chairman, he is now taking big money, currying favor with the conservatives he trashed, claiming his striking proposals are merely starting points for discussion, and promising a vice-president who is a politician. If Clinton never left the political establishment, Trump is coming back into the tent his supporters disdain.

Both ignore the message primary voters sent. That message has at least three elements: (1) the political system is not working - it us unable to address national problems; (2) big money is corrupting the political process; and (3) wealth and power in America are overly concentrated in business and political elites.

What we are likely to hear in the coming campaign are character attacks, which seem almost redundant. Trump and Clinton already register high negatives. These attacks will produce, as before, a president who is distrusted at best and hated at worst by nearly half of voters. The primary process has succeeded in making people fearful of them both, and the general election will worsen the problem, especially as the candidates carve out identity groups by pitting them against each other. Can we really expect that out of this will come a president who unites America?

We are also likely to hear contrasting policies on immigration, guns, health care, taxes, and trade. Clinton's will have details; Trump's, so far, are marketing headlines. Yet neither have much chance of leading to sound legislation in a political atmosphere where reasonable compromise is seen as selling out. The result will be another president (and Congress) who cannot deliver - and reinforced cynicism about the political system.

What we need to hear from Clinton and Trump are proposals that can fix - and thus restore sense and public faith in - the political process. They might start with an agreement to conduct their campaigns with dignity. They might also pledge - and support proposals - to curtail (and make more transparent) the impact of large donors on the behavior of candidates and elected officials. What we also need to hear are plans to end gerrymandering. Electoral districts need to be more competitive, fostering moderation of the far-right, far-left politics that yields consistently "safe" seats and consistently predictable gridlock. What we need to hear is an effort to return civility to Congress and Congressional - White House relations, with policy and procedural changes in the operation of both branches of government. We also need proposals that incentivize political compromise. We need as well a commitment to reversing politicization of the Supreme Court by putting judicial experience and wisdom ahead of partisan purity as the primary qualification for nominees. And what we need to hear are proposals to change party nominating processes. When those processes produce two candidates who over 60 percent of those polled find do not share their values and can't be trusted, something is wrong.

In a year of more declining faith in our politics, Trump and Clinton, for all their surface differences, seem set to give us a campaign that is, and will yield, just more of the same. They seem willing to leave the political system itself unchallenged when that system is one of the root causes of failed politics. They could do the nation a great service by having the courage to be someone else.