The Sound of Strength

This past Tuesday night, 18 million Americans watched the 5th Republican presidential primary debate on CNN.  The lead-in was virtually indistinguishable from Monday Night Football with dramatic music, highlight reels of past debates and an action movie trailer voice-over.   It all culminated in the singing of the national anthem and a raucous roar from the crowd before the first question was asked.   Afterward there was a post-game show where pundits talked about who “won”.  Where they discussed key exchanges and shared their views on who had a “moment”.  There were scorecards shared.  The next morning FiveThirtyEight.com (the personal hero site of this website) posted statistics on which candidate executed or suffered the most “attacks”.  It was a box score.

There’s probably no other time where a president, or any other human on earth, will require the ability to do well the task of standing on stage with a half a dozen other people who mostly agree with them, and spend a few hours  answering questions in a rotisserie format in front of millions of people. It’s kind of an odd process that we’ve created.  It’s a far cry from Lincoln -v- Douglass arguing long form philosophy about the pros and cons of slavery in America.  Because this was a presidential primary debate.  And the participants all mostly agree on almost everything.  Except some agree more fervently.  So the only actual debating that happens is on personal competency.   It’s not really that helpful.  But we do it.  And it’s probably not going to change any time soon.

According to Business Insider, CNBC sold out the advertising slots for the October Republican presidential primary debate at five times the cost their normal advertising spot.  Which nets out at about $18M for a three hour show.  That’s about $100,000 a minute.  That’s right.  Listening to Ted Cruz answer the question, “I want to know if any of them have received a word from God on what they should do and take care of first.”  is worth $100,000 a minute.  Which means it’s not stopping.  And the production value is going to continue to look more and more like prime time sports.  That’s fine.  I think…Here’s why.

We’re almost certainly going to choose  two suitable candidates to run against each other in the 2016 Presidential election.  And if we don’t, the party who doesn’t will lose by the type of landslide we haven’t seen in generations.  Translation: The math behind a Donald Trump nomination for presidential candidate of the Republican party is so ugly, it’s not going to happen.   And if for some massively unforeseeable reason it does, it won’t happen again and the Republican party will likely undergo the change it needs to in order to be more competitive in general national elections.

The last six Americans we chose to lose a presidential election were:

  1. A one term president who was a two term vice president of the United states and former director of the CIA; a decorated WWII aviator.
  2. A 27 year U.S. Senator who was both Senate Majority and Minority Leader and a disabled war hero.
  3. A two term sitting vice president of the United States, who served as both a congressmen and a United States senator…Harvard graduate.
  4. A 28 year senator who chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who would eventually serve as Secretary of State and was awarded the Silver Star for heroism in Vietnam.
  5. A 32 year congressmen and senator who chaired the Senate Committee for Armed Services and served as a pilot in Vietnam before being captured and spending five years in a POW camp.
  6. The Governor of Massachusetts who served as the Chairmen and CEO of the Salt Lake City Olympic organizing committee who signed the most sweeping state level healthcare reform in the last 50 years.

These were the folks who lost the election.  You may agree or disagree with their politics, but they weren’t irresponsible nominees.  Because we’re actually pretty good at this.

Why does it feel so disturbing to those of us with moderate, pragmatic views then?  For one, there’s a lot of focus that can be generated on anything these days.  Yesterday 687 thousand people watched something called “Little girl mistakes bearded shopper for Santa Claus then something amazing happens” on YouTube.  I was one of them…  That part isn’t going away.  And neither is this.  Candidates are very different from nominees.  And nominees are very different from presidents.

From time to time you’ll see something rolling up your Twitter or Facebook news feed quoting Thomas Jefferson.  It may look like this:

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Usually they are things that Thomas Jefferson actually said.  From time to time they’re not.  The fantastic thing about quotes attached to pictures on the internet is that they feel kind of official and informed.  Except they lack one critically important aspect; context.  Thomas Jefferson and his memes can teach us a very valuable lesson on how to digest presidential primary candidates in 2016.  Let’s give it a whirl.

One of the most contextually fluid characters in American history is Thomas Jefferson.   Jefferson was a planter, a slave owner, a member or the House of Burgess in Virginia, a member of the Continental Congress, the author of the Declaration of Independence, the Governor of Virginia, the first Secretary of State, the ambassador to France, the second Vice President of the United States, the third President of the United States and an elder statesman who lived for more than a decade after he left office. He is unquestionably the most prolific politician America has ever seen.    Depending on which role he was in, and as you can see, he had just about all of them, he said and did different things. There’s no doubt that he believed deeply in the humanist movement that inspired the creation of our republic and the personal liberties it was designed to sustain.  His level of pragmatism, however, was a sliding scale that depended on his role, and whatever end it was trying to achieve.

The same man whose pen pierced the paradigm of self serving government with the mortal wound of the Declaration of Independence and spoke such pointed warnings about the ills of government, once elected as head of government, said the following in his first inaugural speech:

“All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression. Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions…that this should be more felt and feared by some and less by others, and should divide opinions as to measures of safety. But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”

If you take the time to do a little research on when and if Jefferson actually said something people like to whip out to make a point, you can see a pretty clear pattern.  His more aggressively rhetorical statements on the evils of government were one Jefferson, usually the revolutionary one or the one locked in a battle to the death with Alexander Hamilton to keep from backsliding into a constitutional monarchy.  President Jefferson or Governor Jefferson, once in power, spoke of unity and inclusion.  When he spoke those powerful words in his inaugural address, he had just assumed the office as the first opposition party candidate in the history of our country.  Our first two presidents,  Washington and Adams were Federalists who favored a strong central government.  The American people of the day were scared to death that revolutionary Jefferson was going to tear down all that had been accomplished in the name of principle.  That didn’t happen though. The instant he stopped fighting for power, he wielded it with a voice of unity and paternal wisdom for all of his people. Division and exclusion are the sound of weakness.  Inclusion and unity  are the sound of strength.  Elected presidents tend to know this.  Some more than others. But they know it more than candidates do. So rest easy.  It’s going to be alright.

42% of Americans identify with no political party.   I am one of them.  The power to elect the leader of our country lives with us.  It always has.  As ridiculous as the rhetoric sounds 11 months ahead of a general election, realize its purpose.  It’s a common life lesson. There are four boys that live in my house.  Sometimes the youngest does things that have absolutely no purpose other than to garner attention or display viability.  If I looked at that as an example of how he is likely to behave as a man, I would be horrified.  But I don’t.  When he gets too out of hand he’s rebuked.  But when he’s just being the youngest of four, I let it ride.   The same goes for our often silly, sometimes irresponsible primary candidates.  They’re doing what they do to help ensure their flame of prospect for the highest office in the land isn’t too easily deprived of oxygen.  Once we get past the noise, past the right wing bullying, past the socialist musings, we’ll get down to business.  It’s not comfortable.  And in 2016 it’s loud.  But it’s effective. Trust the process.  Unlike the mostly ineffective electoral process for Congress, our presidential selection process works.