What will voters be looking for in the next president?
We Americans have a predictable reaction when a president in his performance or his conduct disappoints us: We almost always go looking for a successor presidential candidate who, we think, possesses the very qualities of character and talent we unhappily learned were missing in the president who has just let us down.
Think about the pattern: After the criminality and the corruption of Watergate and the failed presidency of Richard Nixon — arguably, having served in the U.S. House, the U.S. Senate and two terms as vice president, the most experienced president ever elected — we cheered the White House arrival of the emotionally very healthy Gerald Ford. But like Nixon and Nixon’s flawed predecessor — the enormously experienced Lyndon Johnson, who had taken the nation into an unwinnable and nationally divisive war in Southeast Asia — Ford had been a career Washington politician and party leader.
Voters, prizing virginity over experience, were eager for something entirely different. Jimmy Carter, a former one-term Georgia governor, who had never spent more than a long weekend in Washington, won the nation’s most important political office by convincing voters he was not a politician — sort of the functional equivalent of going to the nearest Christian Science Reading Room to interview for neurosurgeons.
Once in office, Carter was honest, hard-working and conscientious. But he did often seem to change his mind. So, voters found appealing the fact that Republican Ronald Reagan, Carter’s challenger, had apparently not changed his mind since at least 1964. He won twice by asking voters a simple question: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” First, voters answered no and elected Reagan; four years later, voters answered yes, and Reagan was reelected, carrying 49 states.
You see the pattern: Next, Vice President George H.W. Bush, thanks to a mostly satisfied electorate, in effect won Reagan’s third term. Then, after U.S. victory in the Cold War and a spike in American unemployment, we fickle voters decided to replace Bush with the bright and personable Bill Clinton, who convinced voters he understood personally their anxiety and would relieve it.
After two terms conspicuous for achieving the only balanced federal budgets in the last half-century and more new private sector jobs — 22 million — more than were created in the 20 years of Reagan and both Bushes — Clinton embarrassed the nation by entering into and lying about a tawdry sexual relationship with a college-age intern. By pledging to restore “dignity to the White House,” George W. Bush won the office. By taking America into a war —without justification, allies, victory or ending — and by his frankly anti-intellectual style, Bush 43 made the cerebral, eloquent and preternaturally cool Barack Obama electable. Then, to be blunt, the swaggering, profane, self-promoting Donald Trump won as the anti-Obama, promising to help those left behind in the nation’s uneven economic growth.
What will we value in 2020? Nowhere in the 448 pages of the Mueller report do we see Donald J. Trump demonstrating honesty, honor, patriotism or simple human decency. Let me quote South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Trump loyalist: “If you can’t admire Joe Biden as a person … You need to do some self-evaluation. … He’s THE nicest person I think I’ve ever met in politics. He is as good a man as God ever created.” In 2020, could we actually be ready to nominate and elect a president we can both like and admire?
Editor’s note: To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.