Will Rogers, the cowboy comedian, used to say, “I’m not a member of an organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” If you change the party in the punch line, that joke works just as well as it did in the 1930s.
Republicans in the current presidential primary process don’t appear to be an organized political party. Instead, they are providing a playground for wildly irregular candidates, Donald Trump first and foremost among them.
There is nothing new about unusual candidates in a presidential race. Often individuals with no prior elected political experience show up on a debate stage or a primary ballot; think Jesse Jackson, Pat Robertson, Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan, or Herman Cain. These candidates sometimes do well in polls or in particular state contests. At other times they justify their campaigns as efforts to give voice to some group or set of ideas within the party.
What is different in this election cycle is the long period of time in which an irregular candidate has dominated public attention, and done so even after making outrageous policy proposals about immigration and practitioners of the Islamic faith. That rarely occurs. Why is it happening this time around?
Perhaps we can learn something from the only recent example of a highly successful irregular presidential candidate. In 1992, Ross Perot, the Texas businessman, did not run in any primaries, but he was a frequent guest on the TV program hosted by Larry King and converted his television popularity into a third party candidacy. He won nearly 20 percent of the national vote—a remarkable accomplishment.
Was 1992 anything like 2016? In both years there was a rising national debt, regular annual deficits, and a sense that politicians were not addressing the problems facing the nation. In both periods there were controversial trade agreements and divided government that produced deadlock.
In 1992, George H. W. Bush was in trouble for compromising with Congress on taxes. When Bush abandoned his “read my lips, no new taxes” pledge, he damaged his public standing more than he, or political observers at the time, realized.
On the Democratic side of the contest, the winner in the 1992 primary season was another damaged candidate. Bill Clinton faced accusations about his marital infidelity, draft status and use of marijuana.
The nation had a choice between the guy who didn’t keep his word on taxes and the guy who said he didn’t inhale. That left an opening for a plain spoken candidate with nativist rhetoric, business success and a few charts showing everything you needed to know about how to make Washington work.
The Perot phenomenon befuddled Washington elites. Commentators could not imagine that voters would take the Texas software salesman seriously. But they did.
Will 2016 be another 1992? Today we clearly have debt and divided government. And there is an added dimension of division in the current era because the Republican caucus on Capitol Hill is itself divided.
Lots of important issues are in some stage of stalemate: immigration, entitlements, infrastructure, taxes and our response to ISIS. And a few issues that have no business on the national agenda (like willfully destroying the good faith and credit of the United States) are occasionally given serious attention.
In the early stages of this campaign season, the most talked about contenders had the same surnames as the candidates in 1992 and looked like they were going to deliver politics as usual. Is it really surprising that some voters have gone fishing for new candidates in waters far from the mainstream?
We should probably not push the 1992/2016 comparison too far. But it is worth noting that the strange three-way election in ‘92 ushered in a period that included some serious policy accomplishments. Washington, in the eight years that followed, actually did something about taxes, budgets and deficits; reformed welfare; passed crime legislation; brokered peace in Bosnia; reduced poverty and income disparity; and, as a bonus, gave us a soap opera sex scandal.
Maybe periods when voters turn to unconventional candidates in large numbers are also periods when regular politicians begin to pay attention to widespread voter dissatisfaction. And maybe that sets in motion actions that make our political system work better—at least for a while.
Could Trump scare the establishment in both political parties enough to get them to do things that make inexperienced outsiders less likely to prevail?
This essay first appeared in the Roanoke Times on December 14, 2015.