Given that I write about politics for a living my friends and family are often keen to ask me what I think of how the presidential race is shaping up. Can Hillary Clinton win? Who will Republicans pick from among their ever-growing cast of potential candidates?
They’re often surprised to hear me express ambivalence about the whole proceeding. Call me cynical, but I’m not sure I care who is president any more. The whole rigamarole of campaigning to become president comes off as a freak show populated by narcissists and frauds. And I’m not just talking about the candidates.
I’ve come to believe that the federal government is ungovernable. It has become too large and involved in too many things. Your local school lunch menu is now policy set in Washington DC, for crying out loud. Going to figurative war as a country over who the next president is going to be is a waste of time, particularly for conservatives.
We aren’t going to fix what ails America with a new president. It is unlikely that we are ever going to elect someone to that lofty office who is interested in giving back any of the power which has accumulated to it. Conservatives should be focused on their state and local governments, and taking back as much power from the federal government from those positions as possible.
But this is perhaps a pipedream. For better or worse, the only politics most Americans pay attention to is presidential politics.
So let me say something about the crop of presidential candidates emerging on the right. I separate them into two tiers.
The first is the serious candidates. People with real political resumes who have engaged in the actual work of policymaking and have a real chance to become president. I’d put candidates like Senators Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz in that category along with Governors like Scott Walker and Jeb Bush. I’m not necessarily endorsing any of these candidates, just pointing out that these are serious people running serious campaigns who could obtain the GOP nomination and perhaps a majority of the national vote to become president.
Then there’s the second tier. These are what I call the political celebrities. People who owe their fame to saying intemperate things on cable news and who aren’t so much campaigning to become president as to expand their fame so that they can sell more books, book more speaking engagements, add more subscribers to their communications lists, and perhaps sign or renew a contract as a Fox News contributor.
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has been in this category for multiple cycles as has former Senator Rick Santorum. Other examples are former Governor Mike Huckabee (who announced his campaign today, as it happens), Donald Trump, Herman Cain, and Ben Carson.
None of these people are ever going to be president. None of them have, nor have they ever had, a shot at winning the Republican nomination. They are not serious candidates.
I wish people would stop treating them as such.
The phenomena of the celebrity presidential candidate is not unique to the right – Al Sharpton is a good example for Democrats – but it is most pronounced on the right, and I think that’s a function of how monolithic conservative media is.
Democrats enjoy allies not just in the new media but in most of the traditional media as well. Most reporters are liberals who reliably support Democrat candidates. Thus there are many avenues for success in the political/media world for folks on the left.
But on the right, all roads lead to Fox News. It is the singular media pole in the conservative tent, and there’s much to admire about it. The Fox News cable broadcast and all of its related media have been wildly successful, but it’s also something of a myopic business model.
To the point where for many politicians, those without the juice to make it to the White House, care more about their appearances on Fox News where they can be paid to opine about current events and hawk their latest book.
That’s fine. That’s capitalism. There is an appetite in America for trite political commentary and bomb throwing, and Fox News does a splendid job of serving it.
And I might not be so concerned if I had more faith that Americans generally, and many conservatives specifically, could discern between a candidate who aspires to lead and one who just wants to put you on his direct mail list.
Sadly, I’m not sure how many can tell the difference.