After almost a year of campaigning and discussion about Presidential politics, someone finally will get to cast something resembling a ballot very soon. The Iowa caucus will be held on Monday. While standing around for 90 minutes and then announcing your Presidential preference in front of a crowd is a long way from the classic secret ballot that usually comes with democracy, it's all we've got for the moment. So we'll take it.
The odd part is that so many candidates didn't even get that far. We started with about 17 reasonably well-known Republican candidates and five Democrats, and that number has been cut by a little less than half in the past several months. I can't imagine what someone like Senator Lindsay Graham is thinking - "I don't mind losing an election, but I didn't even make it as far as the first caucus. What happened here?"
This weekend, then, isn't a bad time to look at the landscape, and one particular point is striking. I'm not sure who said it first, but a political analyst once noted that the more upbeat, hopeful, positive candidate usually wins Presidential elections. Certainly that applies to races like Obama over McCain and Reagan over Carter, among several others. When in doubt, look for sunshine.
It raises the question - who exactly would you consider the candidate who is the most positive outlook this year? It's difficult to find one out there.
Admittedly, the Republicans have been out of power for eight years, and they need to make a case for change. That's been enhanced because some party members have moved deeper into the conservative side, and they are the ones with the most enthusiasm (more likely to vote in primaries) and the loudest voices. But the candidates themselves have fallen over themselves to be less than pleasant in the process. How many of them would you really like to have next to you in a bar sipping a beer?
Donald Trump might offer a more sunny outlook than most, with his slogan about making America great again. But that's only if the country blindly follows his leadership, and only if you aren't a Muslim. Unrestrained megalomania, even by Presidential candidate standards, is never pretty. And really, anyone that makes fun of someone with disabilities, as Trump did to a reporter, is beyond contempt. Besides, a New York Times story on Sunday points out that 1 out of 8 of Trump's tweets contain some sort of personal insult. I would call that a sunny outlook.
Even without Trump, it's a strange group of the rest of those still standing, who basically complain about the state of the country without getting into many specifics about how to improve things. Yes, some think outlawing same-sex marriage would help, some think spending much more money on military spending would help, and some think that essentially bolting the doors when it comes to immigration would help. I'm just not sure where the public as a whole (meaning next November) is in agreement on all of that that. And none of the candidates - Trump in particular - seem to think that telling the truth is particularly helpful. Even when factual errors are made, the falsehoods are simply repeated on the chance that people will believe them.
The leaders besides Trump are Ted Cruz (he's the one standing alone at the bar in our beer test), and Marco Rubio (the one getting proofed at the bar) for now, since they have done well in polling to date. Both seemed to spend the last debate complaining how our country had been ruined in the past seven years. They also turned to religious viewpoints every so often, which appeals to Iowa's evangelical voters, but has the effect of making those who don't share those beliefs feel like they aren't invited to the party.
Otherwise, we have Jeb Bush, looking confused as to why his campaign never took flight and turning bitter as a result. We have Chris Christie, who has a sarcastic New Jersey sense of humor that might not carry well in other parts of the world, and who brings up 9/11 enough to make him an updated version of Presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani. We have John Kasich, who many not be joyful but at least acts like an adult and thus worries Democrats looking over the field of possible opponents. There's also Ben Carson, who is clearly in over his head but is at least pleasant some of the time, and Rand Paul, whose libertarian views are heartfelt but not a great fit for the Republican Party. I'm not sure I would have picked all of these people to survive this far.
Along those lines, Mike Huckabee came off in his first Presidential campaign in 2008 as being the sunniest of personalities, even though a few of his ideas were odd. His rhetoric was more harsh in 2016 - even if on a personal level he seemed like a fun person. Maybe that was a small factor in his microscopic support level this time, although Ted Cruz was a new face in '16 that pretty clearly worked hard to woo voters from that part of the electorate.
If you are looking for relief in the sunshine department on the other side of the legislative aisle, there's not much help. Bernie Sanders is never going to be confused with a stand-up comedian. Besides, you have to wonder if anyone who was a member of the Socialist Party has a chance of winning a national election. Then there's Hillary Clinton, who once again came into the nominating process with tons of natural advantages (name recognition, money, etc.), and hasn't been able to close the sale. That's partly because Republicans have been pounding the Clintons for a quarter-century, in some cases with some justification, and it has left some scars. But she's also not a natural campaigner; her speeches have many of the right notes but no one hears much music.I once said about Bill Bradley that he'd be a better President than Presidential candidate, and the same description may apply here.
However, Clinton probably has the best case to prevent a reasonably sunny outlook about the future. President Obama never has been good at selling his own accomplishments, surprising considering his rhetorical gifts. But, the unemployment rate has done nothing but drop since he entered office. The price of gas is down to $2 a gallon. The stock market is way up over where it was in 2009. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down, and Americans have stopped coming home in body bags. Millions of people have health insurance. Yes, the Middle East is still a mess, and terrorism is still a threat, but I'm not sure anyone could have solved those problems. In those big areas, the record could be considered pretty good. Clinton was part of Obama Administration, and thus can piggyback on some of the accomplishments as well as distancing herself from other aspects of Obama's policies.
As the Iowa voters get ready to caucus, I must remind myself that no matter how desperate we are for some sort of results, if only to give the endless consultants on all-news stations (where do they get these people, anyway?) something to talk about, Iowa isn't the best test of popularity. Ask those well-known Presidential nominees, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee. But Iowa can offer some surprises - ask Pat Robertson - and it's with a certain degree of glee that we all wait to see what might happen. Along the way, we'll have to see who has a smile or his or her face as we go forward from here.
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