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By Tom Cushing

Primaries and Pivots

Uploaded: Jul 29, 2015

With the general election only fifteen months away, there's barely time to spend the estimated $5 Billion the 2016 Presidential election will cost (with thanks to Justice Roberts, and sponsored by those with more dollars than sense). Mindful of that, the candidates on both sides are madly scurrying, and currying favor among their respective Party bases.

The press, in its preoccupation with balance ('convey the controversy, but never exercise independent judgment ? after all, controversy sells') has recently concluded that the candidacies of Messrs. Sanders and Trump are cut from the same cloth in their appeal to the voters' avid longing for "genuineness." That's yet another false equivalence ? simplistic and badly overdone.

The two currently intriguing aspirants clearly are their own men, but that's where the similarities end. Sanders is a true believer ? a fervent populist who is sounding the same substantive themes he's espoused since the 1970s. He energizes the liberal Democratic wing that sees injustice in the entrenched power of institutions as diverse as Wall Street, Big Pharma and big city police departments. He wears the pejorative label "socialist" as a badge of honor.

Trump, by contrast, is Triumph the insult-comic dog, or maybe a latter day Don Rickles. If he truly believes in anything, it's in the power of his personal brand of maniacal bombast. There's not a public figure he won't savage, or an issue immune to his demagoguery.* As such, he's a both a logical extension of the recent, excessive rhetoric of The Right (see Tim Egan's always insightful column), and a media creation. Any appeal beyond the buffoonery is to the part of the GOP base that time forgot, or has passed-by. The bully-boy persona seems to resonate with angry individuals who long for simple times and simpler answers. This genuineness is all about the ego.

These two candidates are generating most of the excitement in the pre-debates, pre-primary phase.

Their rivals have responded, but in very different ways. Frontrunner Hillary Clinton has treated Sanders as something of a buzzing gadfly; she attempts to wave away the annoyance and stay above the fray. She has leaned left, however, in her policy pronouncements, especially regarding the financial sector.

The GOP field has demonstrated their leadership chops by responding inanely -- bringing down the level of discourse to Trump's nadir. They have been slow to denounce his more profoundly preposterous antics -- a few (Cruz) even dignifying them as mild overstatements of real problems (they're neither). JEB! managed a tepid clucking in between policy misstatements. And they have flattered him by imitation ? looking desperately unPresidential as they theatrically destroyed cellphones (Graham) and tax code copies (Paul, the younger), and coarsened the oratory -- as in former man-of-the-cloth Huckabee's repugnant proclamation that the sensible Iran deal is "marching the Israelis to the gates of the oven." **

I must say that the exception here is Ohio Governor Kasich, who is quickly claiming the adult table as his own. He alone has refused to take the bait. He has also generally compiled the best governance resume of the bunch. I intend to learn more about him, although the reasons I might be attracted are the same ones that would disqualify him as a serious Republican (Cf. Huntsman, 2012).

This race to the bottom is part-and-parcel of the primary system, as only the most ardent voters bother to register-present in those preliminaries. To emerge from those early rounds, the candidates feel forced to pander to the extreme elements of their Parties. This is especially true for the GOP, where ideological purity exerts a stronger influence among "values-based" voters. Dems, I believe, are more accustomed to these alliances of convenience.

The successful candidates are then supposed to move back toward the center in the general election, to vie for most reasonable and/or less fervent folks who populate the middle (and are numerous). They thus count on their faithful bases to have short memories, or at least consider their person preferable to the now-obvious alternative. There's even a cynical lexicon for it: campaigns "retool" for the general election ? they "pivot" toward the center, and they may even "walk back" some of their position on issues. The free use of those terms by consultants and other cognoscenti suggests that they consider this phenomenon to be business-as-usual.

But isn't The Pivot a problem ? the flip side of "The Genuineness" that accounts for the current appeal of un-bought candidates? Wasn't "The Pivot" the essential defect in Mitt Romney's campaigns? He had built a reasonable record as a moderate (at least) governor of a blue state, but he had to pivot in both directions during his runs for the White House ? to the point where too many voters distrusted where he 'really' stood. And isn't "walking back" just a current, hip euphemism for having been caught in a lie?***

I think Hillary has this problem, as well. Do I really trust her tough-ish rhetoric toward Wall Street, or do I chalk it up to a professional politician's pirouette? I'd like to believe the former, but I suspect the latter ? and if her high "unfavorables" are an indication, I am not alone. She's had 25 very public years to study political ballet, and I fear she's learned the moves too well.

Of course, we do get the politics we deserve, because these tactics have demonstrably worked in the past. But I wonder if the crowd wisdom of this election might demonstrate an electorate that is fed-up with focus groups, and too-precious, precise turns-of-phrase ? and Pivots. Candidates, you've had many years to decide what you think ? just tell us.

* In a book I'm reading on Scottish history, author Neil Oliver states that the difference between Kings and everybody else is that Kings will do absolutely Whatever Is Necessary to exert and retain power. The specific reference was to a monarch who had a rival's infant murdered horribly in the public square, but I think the same claim might be made about many contemporary candidates for high office, including Mr. Trump. (And no, I didn't just call him a baby-killer.)

** There's an internet rule called Godwin's Law, to the effect that if you invoke Hitler and his Nazis in a flamewar, it's over and you lose. The same rule really ought to apply to candidacies like Huckabee's.

*** Lord, how I hate political euphemisms, and buzzwords in general. You "reached-out" to me? Gaah. No you didn't -- you just Finally returned my call.