Editor’s note: Head of state, chief diplomat, commander-in-chief, guardian of the economy – Americans are fixing to elect another president, so we asked Notre Dame’s in-house pundit to put the moment, the issues, the candidates and the choices in context and perspective. Bob Schmuhl’s commentary on American politics and journalism frequently appears in major print and broadcast outlets in the U.S. and abroad. His exclusive observations on the 2016 presidential election will run on magazine.nd.edu every two weeks.
When historians write their accounts of the 2016 presidential campaign, they will be able to rely on adjectives with the prefix “un” to explain what happened during the hurly-burly nominating and general election seasons.
Some of these words — and another unflattering one: unfavorable — could also describe the two candidates at the top of the Democratic and Republican tickets. In who and what they are, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are unprecedented nominees, making this year’s race undeniably arresting.
For a woman to be a major party’s standard-bearer is historic in itself, but when that woman is also a former First Lady, you almost approach the realm of potboiler fiction or Hollywood fantasy. But Clinton, of course, was also twice elected to the U.S. Senate from New York and served four years as secretary of state.
Having a senator seek the White House happens with quadrennial regularity — Clinton herself did it in 2008, losing a bitter nominating contest to another senator, Barack Obama — but what about a secretary of state running for the highest office in the land? The last time a cabinet official who’d been in charge of international relations won a campaign for president was 1856 with the election of James Buchanan.
Though he had extensive experience in Congress and diplomacy, Buchanan is universally regarded as one of America’s worst presidents, a possible reason no other former secretary of state has occupied the Oval Office since his time.
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Interestingly, in the country’s early years (before the United States was a world power), serving as secretary of state was a common stepping stone to the White House. The trend started with Thomas Jefferson and continued with James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren.
Given Clinton’s background and experience, there’s much to emphasize — and to criticize. Do you highlight her role in her husband’s two terms during the 1990s, or do you underscore her more recent years in the Senate and with the Obama administration?
The difficulty of how to portray Clinton was on display two successive evenings at the recent Democratic National Convention.
In his speech, Bill Clinton made the theme of “change” a refrain in describing his wife-nominee. Four times he referred to her as a “change-maker,” saying at one point, “She’s the best darn change-maker I ever met in my entire life.”
The next night Obama offered his endorsement of Clinton and much of what he said sounded as though the incumbent president wanted his party’s candidate to continue policies he initiated. In talking about security issues and dealing with ISIS, the president even remarked, “She’ll finish the job.”
Will the Clinton campaign try to resolve the conundrum between change and continuity? At a time when most every survey indicates that about two-thirds of voters think the country is going in the wrong direction, it’s probably safer to keep people guessing.
Clinton’s experience in public life is unlike any other person’s who’s sought the presidency. A similar statement can be made about Trump’s, but in his case it’s the absence of experience that is historic and remarkable. The New Yorker has never spent one moment working in government or serving in the military.
The last time someone without prior political involvement was nominated for president was Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. Eisenhower, however, was wise in the ways of Washington after his long Army career, especially as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II.
Instead of a record in public service, Trump has parlayed celebrity in business and reality-show stardom into a persona projecting strength and leadership. His success in the primaries and caucuses — besting 16 other candidates is no small feat — proved that a compelling personality can (apologies) trump party loyalty or long-standing political allegiance.
Television accentuates emotions rather than facts or ideas. Trump understands the medium as well as anyone, and he conveys a sense that calling the shots in the White House wouldn’t be all that different from making decisions atop Trump Tower.
In an environment where many citizens look down on “career politicians” and admire “the outsider,” Trump stands out as a tribune of the people — albeit a tribune who’s very different from most people supporting him.
Besides the dominance of his personality, Trump keeps emphasizing the need for change. In his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, Trump said, “Hillary Clinton’s message is that things will never change. My message is that things have to change — and they have to change right now.”
The unusual and unprecedented aspects of this campaign contribute to its unpredictable nature. Yet another “un” factor — and a possible wild card in the outcome — also clouds the future of each candidate and makes the body politic twitch.
Neither Clinton nor Trump is viewed positively by a majority of Americans. Both are seen unfavorably following their conventions — 53 percent unfavorable (to 37 percent favorable) for Clinton and 61 percent unfavorable (to 25 percent favorable) for Trump, according to the early August poll conducted for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal.
In coming weeks, both campaigns will work overtime to drive up their opponent’s negatives to achieve a positive, victorious result on November 8. As the days count down — with incendiary remarks from Trump piling up and revelations about Clinton’s emails raising unending questions — many Americans will no doubt find all the news coverage and paid commercials unappealing, if not downright unseemly.
Robert Schmuhl is the Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Professor of American Studies and Journalism at Notre Dame. This fall he’s teaching a class focusing on American political culture and the 2016 election.