Back in early summer as I looked ahead to the 2016 presidential election and speculated about the candidates who had or were soon to come forward, I made the comment that the field was shaping up like cable TV: a lot of channels to flip through but not really much to watch.
People have been kind to not remind me of that, because, in fact, thanks to Donald Trump’s brashness and Hillary Clinton’s email strategy to make payments on the truth as if it were an installment loan, this race is building the kind of suspense usually reserved for a NASCAR race on an oil-slicked afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway.
I kind of feel sorry for the folks producing the new fall TV shows, the NFL, the Major League Baseball playoffs and anybody else who has to attract ears and eyes against this Political Wrestling Federation. Who or what can compete with a Trumpzilla vs. Hillary cage match/tag team battle royale? Oh, yes, and the endless and evolving supporting cast with names like Jeb, Bernie, Carly, Gentle Ben and Uncle Joe?
It is only September 2015, folks — still five months from the start of the primary and caucus action — and franchise “establishment” candidates with legacy names (Bush and Clinton), with their polished and politically correct approaches, are being challenged and even overrun by upstarts with no money or flush with new money.
Just 10 days away from the Sept. 16 GOP debate that will be broadcast on CNN from the Ronald Reagan Library and a month out from the first Democratic debate, the political sideshows are going to be a threat to the otherwise typical viewing habits for some time.
The true reality TV nature of the 2016 race is shaping up as a teachable moment — if not a turning point in American politics.
Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, who is backing Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s presidential bid, said this week during a visit with the Idaho Statesman Editorial Board that, so far, the American people involved in the process are sending a clear message — one few anticipated.
“When you look at the Iowa polls, 50 percent of the people are rejecting anything to do with the Republican Party. They are rejecting Marco (Sen. Rubio), they are rejecting Rand — they guy I am supporting — for people who have no experience in government. The top three are Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina,” said Labrador.
“The Republican Party is rejecting the Republican leadership in a major way. If you talk to the Republican leadership, all they can tell you is about how much they have accomplished in the last two years. American people are rejecting that. Because what they see is that their accomplishments are meaningless.”
Labrador believes that Americans sent mandates in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections that the GOP has not addressed. Those engaged in the political process so far are saying, in effect, “None of the Above” regarding established Republicans when it comes to weighing in with polls and showing up for rallies.
The message Labrador hears now is that “if you are part of the political class, we don’t want anything to do with you.” He concludes: “So, if we get Donald Trump, you can thank (House Speaker) John Boehner for that.”
This seems to carry over, to some degree, with the Democrats. How else do you explain the popularity of Sen. Bernie Sanders, or why Vice President Joe Biden seems to be gaining the political confidence to challenge the “establishment” favorite, former first lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton?
That said, I’m not so sure the establishment candidates won’t prevail. Born, raised, schooled and caucused in Iowa, I don’t interpret what’s going on there as any kind of bellwether. Though Barack Obama did well there in 2008 and ended up in the White House, the GOP should take a cue from past caucuses, when people such as Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and even televangelist Pat Robertson either won or made impressive showings.
None of them ever became world-beaters, and it makes me wonder whether those without political experience, such as Trump, might just be time-sensitive, lifesize political Gummy Bears that eventually will dissolve and end up where all of the other populist candidates end up: under an asterisk of some political history tome.
Robert Ehlert is the Statesman's editorial page editor. Reach him at 377-6437 or follow @IDS_HelloIdaho.