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Bush, Clinton, Trump, and Sanders: the battle of conventional vs. unconventional politics

The story that was supposed to be told was that of Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. But the drama of the 2016 presidential campaign involves people not following the script.

If the world is a stage, presidential campaigns are Broadway.
REUTERS/Ben Brewer

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players …

— “As You Like It,” William Shakespeare

schultz portrait
David Schultz

If the world is a stage, presidential campaigns are Broadway. The 2016 election so far is pure theater, yet not one that is going according to script. Were that the case, the drama of Bush vs. Clinton, the sequel (sort of), would be the main plot. Yet four months prior to the Iowa caucuses and 14 months out from the general election, the story is still being written.

The story that was supposed to be told was that of Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. Both were the establishment party candidates, assumed inevitable and unassailable by now. In some ways they are still strong candidates by conventional wisdom. Bush and his super PAC have raised the most money; he has the best organization, and he has secured more endorsements than any other Republican. Clinton is in the same place as Bush, but she additionally still leads in all national and most state polls among Democrats in her quest for the party nomination. She also has the experience of running for president once, experience that should not be overlooked. But Both Bush and Clinton have problems, the former more than the latter, and their problems are both self-inflicted and about a changing political landscape that neither seems to understand.

The GOP brand has changed

Bush’s problem is partly that the Republican brand has changed. Yes, the Bush name has been a major part of the Republican presidential brand since 1980, but the brand has worn thin. People are tired of it. Moreover, Bush has inherited a problem that his father had – the wimp factor. If in 1980 his father looked helpless and limp in a New Hampshire debate against Reagan, Bush looks the same next to Trump. Jeb simply looks weak and inarticulate.

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Now some say he is just sitting back waiting for Trump to implode. Maybe. But that assumes implosion; it assumes that Trump does not actually represent what the Republican Party is now. Trump’s outspoken views on women, immigrants, and almost everyone else he offends speak to anger and frustration that white males – especially those without a college degree – feel. This appeal to white male anger and macho has been building in the party for years, and Bush just doesn’t seem to understand the degree to which the rhetoric has galloped beyond where he is. He sort of wants to be the big kid in the room, the one sounding mature when it comes to all the positions that Trump espouses. Much in the same way that Republicans have never understood how the Tea Party took them over, they do not see how Trump is doing the same.

Trump’s “politainer” strength is acting as though he is not a real politician, using his brand and image to stoke his campaign. He does well in polls and gets way more media coverage than he should, in part because he can sell soap and that is what the media needs to do. He fulfills their needs and vice versa. But Trump coverage is also a death watch, waiting for the inevitable train wreck and demise.

Maybe, but maybe not

It might come. But it might not. Trump may be a new politician for the ages. He may be redefining political categories, thus the confusion by the Huffington Post whether to cover him in the politics or entertainment section. Trump scares the GOP not only because of his honesty about where the party is moving but by his capacity to exit the party and run as an independent. Yet for all the talk of where Trump is now, the question is whether he has a ground game and will all the folks who support him come out on a cold February night in Iowa to caucus for him?

Clinton also struggles with a party that is indebted to her and one that has left her behind. She too is old news like Bush, and she is trying to make herself relevant to a new generation of Democrats. Yet for all of her strengths, her core weaknesses of 2008 remain. She is a campaigner with powerful blind spots, an inability to relate to average voters, and now an inability to put to rest lingering and new doubts regarding her emails and personal ethics. Whether she has acted illegally is really only a small part of the issue – the bigger problem is character and judgment. She has broad support, but polls suggest not deep enthusiastic support, less so than eight years ago. But Clinton fatigue and the way the party has moved beyond her are also reflected in the rise of Bernie Sanders and the constant talk of Joe Biden entering the race.

Sanders is fascinating. He should be nothing more than a gnat to Clinton, but he has steadily moved up the in polls. In fact he has gained more in the polls than Trump, but the media opts not to give him as much coverage. The Trump vs. Sanders coverage difference to a large extent is about the former being the candidate who represents the least amount of change or threat to the political system (Trump’s message is restorative – “Make America Great Again) versus a candidate who indicts the system and wants to really change and not reform it, as Obama did.

Trump is safe and not a threat to the corporate media and America; Sanders challenges both. Sanders is slowly building a campaign and rising gradually in the polls, not flashing; this is often a sign of real strength. What he also offers in terms of a ground game is yet to be seen, but he has strengths in Iowa and New Hampshire that should not be ignored.

Great drama, but it may not follow a script

So where does all this lead in terms of how politics is like a stage? Politics is great drama, but more often than not it does not follow the story that everyone expects. Never assume inevitability; never assume campaigns are supposed to follow a predefined script. What once worked may not in the future.

Great political campaigns are ones that do not simply follow a script but write their own, and perhaps part of what is going on this election cycle so far is the degree to which new rules are being written for 2016. If that is the case, what Bush and Clinton are doing is following the rules, while Trump and Sanders are writing them.

David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science and the author of “Election Law and Democratic Theory” (Ashgate, 2014) and “American Politics in the Age of Ignorance” (Macmillan, 2013). He blogs at Schultz’s Take, where a version of this piece first appeared. 

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