Now that we basically have our two major candidates, let’s do a retrospective look at some of the political candidates our system was able to produce, reject, or approve over this election cycle. Let’s start with Republicans.
In early 2015, the prevailing wisdom was that Hillary Clinton was going to be the Democratic nominee. She looked like a strong candidate but one with a low ceiling; she had great name recognition and experience, but also was (and is) tied to the Obama administration, especially its foreign policy. I’d argue she’s appeared even weaker over the course of the primaries than she did in 2015 as big swaths of Democrats have shown hesitation to embrace her candidacy. Given this situation, Republicans should have been able to come up with candidates that played well against Hillary; what they got is someone who (as of May 2016), isn’t very competitive. If only there had been someone else to pick from!
Wikipedia counts 17 Republican candidates. We won’t spend lots of time on all of them, but it’s worth seeing some of the candidates that were rejected.
The first major candidate to withdraw, way back in September, Perry remains to me as one of the real losses of this campaign season. After his fairly embarrassing 2012 race, Rick Perry came back in 2016 with new ideas, better debating skills, and hip glasses. His speech at the National Press Club is the answer to the question of the soul and direction of the Republican Party after Mitt Romney’s failure. He also called for the reform of Wall Street and was the first major Republican to call out Donald Trump that summer. Yet his campaign barely raised $1.5 million, and he exited after just 4 months. Obviously, I can’t argue he was a great candidate because he was done so quickly, but perhaps if the field hadn’t quite been so crowded, he could have provided a good alternative to Trump. He was 11th in polling before the first debate because John Kasich had just entered the race the week before and had a big bump in the polls, so Perry never made it onto the main debate stage. Yet, with his name recognition and good policy ideas, it seems to me a huge failure that the Republican primary system spat him out so quickly.
Walker occupied a very similar candidate niche to Ted Cruz so his campaign would always be a challenge. Nevertheless, Walker was a seasoned campaign veteran, having won three (3!) separate campaigns in the space of 4 years in a blue state. He had several chances to make a name for himself on the debate stage, but he just wasn’t that interesting to watch. I still don’t mourn his exit, as I don’t know any particular policy positions that impressed me, nor did he seem like the exciting candidate to beat Clinton. He certainly suffered from the range of other good options around him, and it’s likely I would have liked him better than Trump, but I can’t say he would have been a great nominee. Despite all that, forcing him out of the race by September seems too quick for a process that ultimately picked Donald Trump.
I wanted to skip Jindal in this list, but I can’t help but see another candidate who was easily better than Trump. He never polled above about 2%, but Jindal is an experienced politician, having been a member of the House and a two-term governor from Louisiana–and he’s only 45. He’s also the son of Indian immigrants (Republicans could use some help on the immigration front), graduated Brown at 20 with 2 degrees, was accepted at Harvard Medical School and Yale Law (wow), but instead studied health policy at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He’s like a genius version of Marco Rubio. And yes, it was off-putting how much he talked about Christianity being under attack, but it wasn’t as off-putting at Donald Trump. I can’t even vouch for his policy positions or electability, but it seems that kicking out Jindal from the nomination process was a mistake given what we got.
Graham wasn’t really running for president, he was really running against Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, yet left before either of them and even forced himself to endorse Ted Cruz over Donald Trump. He’s a truly extreme foreign policy hawk, and had very little to add to the conversation. He would have been a pretty awful candidate and leaving in December before a single vote was cast, was good riddance.
Yeah, I don’t think anyone knows what George Pataki was doing. Being pro gay marriage and pro abortion aren’t a guarantee to end your campaign as a Republican candidate, but it’s like 96%. Moreover, he hadn’t run for office since about 2002, and there were many other better known moderate-ish candidates than him. Would he have been a better candidate than Trump? Yes. A good foil to Clinton? Meh.
To most people I know on the Left, Santorum is the anti-Christ, and they’re not even religious. Do some of his social conservative positions appear to be indistinguishable from ignorant bigotry? Yes, and for most progressives, that’s the end of the story, and he’s literally as evil as possible. I object to Santorum’s social conservatism, but I can’t see how someone having immoral stances on certain positions disqualifies them to be president; Barack Obama personally approved many unilateral drone strikes on individuals who had not been found guilty at an impartial trial, and, in fact, who had not had a trial at all or even any judicial oversight of any kind (not even a warrant). These strikes knowingly targeted not just combatants who were not in war zones, but known civilians, known American citizens, and even ended up killing a 16 year old American citizen (it was claimed afterwards that they did not know he was in the area). In 2012, Obama received 65.9 million votes for President. Rick Santorum, as far as I know, has never killed anyone. Does that mean he would be a better president than Obama? Perhaps not. Likewise, while I think his stance on gay marriage is wrong, he would be a better candidate than Donald Trump, and maybe even a better president.
Nonetheless, he is one of my least favorite candidates. His focus on Christian values means he actively opposes libertarian influences on the Republican party, he supports the War on Drugs and opposes euthanasia. He also opposes immigration both legal and illegal, saying it depresses American wages, and he wants to raise the federal minimum wage. While his ideas are awful, they are part of a populist economic pitch very similar to Trump, but with much more respectability (I can’t believe I would that about Santorum). His policy proposals are perhaps not quite as bad as Trump, and he’s not nearly as aggressive and childish…so of course he was gone as soon as voting started. This year is nuts.
Also an early February exit, very similar to Santorum, but without even trying to focus on poverty issues and the economy. When given the opportunity to discuss reforming entitlements, Huckabee defended them. He’s not as mean as Trump, but that’s literally the only good thing I can say about him. Next.
Dr. Carson isn’t a politician and was pretty dull to watch. It’s unclear how serious he ever was about being president. His campaign never really got too high up in the polls and he stayed longer than he needed to. He had plenty of weird and controversial things to say, but he was never as clueless as Trump, and did have some interesting ideas as far as tax and healthcare policy. Nonetheless, plenty of other candidates espoused similar positions with more chance to do better in the general election. Would he have been better than Trump? Sure, but he was a deeply flawed candidate who had a lot of unknowns.
So obviously with my libertarian bend, Rand was my favorite candidate this year, but he was also just a great candidate overall for Republicans. He focused a lot of his time trying to reach out to new groups of people, discussing the problems of police militarization and a world where the government tramples on civil liberties. He talked about the effects of the War on Drugs on minority communities, and how free market approaches could help rekindle economies in poverty stricken areas. And Rand was one of the only candidates strongly criticizing American foreign interventionism and the effects it has on the world and on the ability of the US to defend itself in the future due to fiscal irresponsibility. It’s always concerning to see foreign policy doves debate hawks as hawks tend to appear more knowledgeable about geopolitics; but Rand did an excellent job holding his own and discussing nuanced specifics of current and past situations and how US interventions exacerbated the problems. This was something other doves, like Bernie Sanders or Gary Johnson, have done far less well.
He was also one of the first candidates to attack Trump, as much good as that did him. He wasn’t a perfect candidate (his views on abortion seem pretty extreme, and he can be uncompromisingly pro free markets), but he would have been an excellent foil against Hillary Clinton in the general election; he is much younger, he’s got a bunch of new ideas and ways to save the Republican party, and he had a small army of young people willing to campaign and work for him, something Hillary lacks. But even with no one else in his niche area, Rand couldn’t muster enough support to get past Iowa. Perhaps that means he wasn’t electable; he certainly couldn’t do well in the primary process this year. But super duper early polling suggested he was just behind Clinton in 2015, which is mostly name recognition anyway. I think in the general election he would have been at least adequate, and, once again, a much better candidate than Trump. This political system is starting to seem pretty crappy.
Fiorina made headway challenging Trump at some of the early debates, but she had a lot of flaws. She didn’t have much political experience, her record as CEO of HP was mixed, and she faded after a spike in debate performance attacking Trump. I think had she been the only non-Trump candidate, she would have probably won the nomination; she was a solid foil against Clinton, having come from the private sector rather than be a politician, and she did talk about real policy ideas unlike Trump’s hot air. Yet, there wasn’t anything particularly striking about Fiorina’s positions that could distinguish her from the pack, and she ultimately withdrew in February and endorsed fellow “outsider” candidate Ted Cruz.
I’m not a big fan of Christie. His intense pro War on Drugs attitude mixed with his prosecutors’ background means he couldn’t care less about civil liberties. Yet, here is another candidate that could do well against Hillary Clinton. He does take some unpopular positions like reforming Social Security, which he used to build his concept of “straight talking” to the American people, something Hillary would be quite vulnerable to. He also discussed the importance of compromise and working with Democrats. Again, I’m not a fan of Christie, but he was a better candidate than Trump.
If Jeb Bush wasn’t part of the Bush dynasty, he would be perhaps the best Republican candidate. He was the former governor of a swing state where he’s still popular, he waited months to announce his candidacy so he could help his Super PAC raises millions, and he had extensive policy teams backing up well researched proposals. I don’t agree with all of Bush’s positions, especially on civil liberties and military spending, but many others are quite reasonable. He is not a hardliner on immigration, marijuana, or gay marriage, and he has some good ideas on education, the environment, healthcare, and the economy. Differentiating himself from his brother and father is a problem that perhaps he would not have been able to overcome…if he was running against literally anyone except Hillary Clinton, the other “dynasty” candidate, in the general election. As an actual candidate, he wasn’t anything special; the Bush family doesn’t seem to be the best public speakers. But clearly here is someone who has superior policy proposals to Trump, who is likely more competitive and less controversial, and who could possibly help save the Republican party while uniting the aspects that still exist in it. Yet, once again, the primary system kicked him out pretty early.
Mr. Kasich is the current popular governor of a swing state, and was also a representative in the House for 20 years, where he chaired the House Budget Committee during the only budget surplus years since 1969. He didn’t have the same backing as Jeb Bush, but is fairly reasonable on many issues (hasn’t made a big deal about gay marriage, is ok with abortion in a few instances, supports criminal justice reform, and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants). He is a stickler on marijuana being evil, but he’s also just a much more pallatable candidate than Trump (or even Cruz). In head-to-head polls against Clinton, he was consistently one of the top performers. Again, here is another candidate with better positions than Trump, and who is definitely more electable. And again, he got very few votes.
Senator Rubio is best understood in comparison to Bush. Both are from Florida, but while Bush speaks Spanish, Rubio is actually Cuban. While Bush talks about reforming immigration and expanding the Republican party, Rubio has an actual American dream story to tell of a son of immigrants who became a U.S. Senator. He’s a much better speaker than Bush, and would be a great foil against Clinton as a young idealist. But unfortunately, Rubio does everything extreme; he’s got no compromise on abortion, foreign policy, and drug policy. Obviously I agree with him more on economics than anything else, but I don’t know how electable he might actually be given the intensity of his conservatism. The fact that he became the “establishment” candidate after Bush dropped out is a pretty good indicator of how ridiculous this primary season was. Of course, he has much better policy acumen than Trump, and again, would be much better at expanding the Republican base, or at least trying to. Obama wasn’t a particularly moderate candidate, yet through idealism was able to inspire people; Rubio wanted to do something similar, and it would have been better for everyone if he had been able to.
Some of my progressive friends have indicated they were relieved that Trump won and not Ted Cruz; I’m not sure if they just thought he was more a of a threat to Clinton, but if they genuinely believed he would be worse than Trump I think they are gravely mistaken. Ted Cruz doesn’t really inspire a huge amount of confidence in me, especially the amount of time he spent parading his faith and appealing to incredibly religious parts of the party. He’s also not a hugely personable character, but he does have a strong understanding of Constitutional principles which I think would have curbed most of his bad ideas. There’s still a lot of questions, like whether he’s serious about his sudden intense hawkishness and making “sand glow” in the Middle East. But he has a strong understanding of the limits of executive authority which led him to partially side with Rand Paul on certain issues like NSA spying and unending wars. I don’t think progressives would have that much to worry about Ted Cruz because he seems to understand that government is supposed to have limits (Clinton and, especially, Trump don’t understand this at all). I don’t know if Cruz would have been more or less electable than Donald Trump, but I would bet there would not be this mass exodus by prominent Republicans if Cruz was the nominee. But he’s not.
All of the previous candidates, who were not picked, have flaws. Some flaws are worse than others, but I would hazard that easily 10 or 12 of the previous candidates would have been better than Trump in both electability and policy positions.
Before getting into his (lack of) policy ideas, we need to point out that Trump is the least liked major party nominee in history. More than 50% of voters have strongly unfavorable views of him. His net favorability rating (percentage who view unfavorably subtracted by those who view him favorably) is -40. Yes, he won the Republican nomination…by getting 16 million Republican primary voters to vote against him. In 2012, there were 18.6 million Republican primary votes total; in 2008, there were 20 million total. This guy is unprecedentedly unpopular, which is really bad if you’re running for president.
And oh boy are there reasons he’s unpopular. It’s not because the media tries to slam him, in fact he got disproportionate media coverage this whole election cycle. It’s because he’s a childish and arrogant bully, and a power-hungry pathological liar. Not to mention his failure to understand almost any geopolitics, economics, or political science. Mitt Romney did a nice job summing up his failings in March:
Think of Donald Trump’s personal qualities, the bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third grade theatrics. We have long referred to him as “The Donald.” He is the only person in America to whom we have added an article before his name. It wasn’t because he had attributes we admired.
Honestly, if you haven’t read that speech, I would encourage you to read the whole thing; it’s quite damning. Trump’s response to Romney’s attacks was to suggest Romney would have performed oral sex in return for an endorsement in 2012. Yes, really.
And then the actual policies he proposes! If you can even pin down any actual ideas (they keep changing or he can’t remember them), you’ll notice he’s a full blown authoritarian. There are no constitutional limits he recognizes; everything is fair game from stifling free speech and criticism, to shutting off the internet, to banning entire religions from entering the country, to deporting millions of people. On foreign policy, he talks about the failures of interventionism, something very few candidates do. But I have no way to trust that he would actually stick to this idea or that he would even be competent enough to implement any foreign policy without demolishing all strategic alliances that exist in the world. Donald Trump is a true isolationist and doesn’t care one bit about international stability. And, of course, there is no hope of Trump understanding free markets and economic growth like most conservatives. Instead all you get is a ridiculous proposal to build a wall with money from massive tariffs that would decimate American consumers’ purchasing power. Trump is not only unelectable, but his presidency would be disastrous. And yet, out of all the 17 candidates that ran for the Republican nomination, we got this one, arguably the worst of the bunch.
This is an abject failure of democracy. But given Trump was the nominee for the Republicans, at least the other parties probably nominated someone electable!
I hate to break it to Left, but Bernie is a pretty meh candidate. Yeah, he’s the real deal progressive, but most people don’t identify as progressives. None of this is to say I hate everything about him. For example, foreign policy is one of the most important issues for any presidential candidate as they will have essentially total control over foreign affairs once in office. Sanders is closer to the extreme libertarian foreign policy position than any other candidate; he could almost be called a pacifist. But holding Ron Paul-like views on military interventions is not a winning strategy in the general election. Moreover, Bernie had almost nothing to say on foreign policy when debating Clinton. Unlike Rand Paul, who has a solid handle on foreign affairs even if he opposes war hawks, Sanders has very little to add.
I’m also sympathetic to Bernie’s positions on the drug war, on civil liberties and the NSA, and on a path to citizenship. But, unfortunately, I don’t think these are particularly popular areas in the general election, nor are these the areas he has emphasized. Instead, Sanders has focused on opposing free markets, increasing government spending, and encouraging identity politics. I don’t really have time to completely address his entire policy agenda, so I’ll point to Paul Krugman, of all people, along with Christina Romer and Alan Krueger. Of course, I’m sure most Sanders fans already knew about those events, and for a more methodical takedown of the Bernie economic agenda, there is Steven Pearlstein in the Washington Post. There’s even some content from libertarians, as Cato points out that not only does Sanders want to introduce huge new taxes and spending programs, he wants things that economists universally agree are horrible, like increasing the corporate tax rate, already one of the highest in the world (and a double tax). And there’s even the argument that while Bernie may want to model our economic system on Scandinavia…Scandinavian countries have much freer markets than Bernie is proposing, and arguably freer than the United States has today. Income equality and free markets are not mutually exclusive policy goals, and since markets are pretty good at most things except inequality, it would make a lot of sense to pursue both at the same time. Sweden does that; Bernie would not.
Related: Bernie’s position on free trade is morally unredeemable. Like Trump, he has no real concept of the market and how exchange must be beneficial for both participants. Nothing has done more to lift the global poor out of poverty over the past 20-30 years than globalization, yet Bernie would protect relatively high earning American laborers that could be displaced to bring about lower prices for American consumers and economic development to international regions severely more poor. But hey, protectionism isn’t really that unpopular, so while I disagree with tons of Sanders’ policies, his electability is still tough to predict, especially against Trump. This is complicated by the fact that practically no one ran against Hillary except for Bernie. In a choice between Bernie and Hillary, it makes sense for the progressive base to choose the progressive with deeper convictions, but neither of these candidates jumps off the page as a general election lock.
Johnson is the likely Libertarian Party nominee. He’s certainly my favorite of the remaining candidates, opposing the war on drugs, NSA spying, police militarization, high spending levels overseas and domestically, and promoting free markets. He’s also a former Republican and popular governor of New Mexico. Unfortunately, Johnson is not a really powerful third party candidate like a Ross Perot was or Michael Bloomberg could be. His speaking and debating skills are fine by third party standards, but I would be highly concerned to see him go toe-to-toe with Trump or even Hillary. Rand Paul is much better at articulating the importance of a limited government in an approachable way, and he’s especially superior to Gary Johnson at critiquing America’s foreign policy. Name recognition is also an issue, but Johnson will be the only candidate on the ballot in all 50 states not named Clinton or Trump. There’s potential here, and this is doubtless the best opportunity for the Libertarian party since 1980. If you live in a state where Trump or Clinton is guaranteed to win, you might as well vote for Johnson or another third party that better encapsulates your views. But keeping a realistic outlook, Gary Johnson is unlikely to save us.
Hillary is not a rising star of the Democratic Party. She’s not a fresh faced outsider with new ideas. She’s not someone who can reach across the aisle and extend an olive branch to conservatives. In fact, she’s part of the reason there were a ridiculous 17 Republicans vying to be the nominee so they could run against her. In an interesting game theory situation, she was seen as so powerful on the Democratic side that almost no one ran against her. Perhaps they were right since Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb, and Lincoln Chafee barely registered any success at all, or perhaps those candidates didn’t register any support because only the weakest candidates ran against Clinton (they had nothing to lose).
Whatever the case, I don’t think anyone could have predicted that Hillary would have this much trouble getting her base to support her. She’s still the most likely candidate to be president (she’s at 63% on PredictIt right now), but there was a lot of consternation and dislike from the progressive base.
I understand this frustration, as compared to a purist like Bernie Sanders, Clinton is definitely a politician who has sometimes made compromises. Unlike Sanders, she voted for the Iraq War, for the Patriot Act, for a border fence, and for the TARP bailout. Some of these she has repudiated, others she has not. Of course despite these votes, it’s not like you can call Hillary a moderate; she consistently received pretty negative scores from conservative interest groups while in the Senate. Her foreign policy record, tied to the Obama administration, puts her in the same grey area: way too much warfare for the progressive base, way too unilateral and arbitrary to attract libertarians, and too incompetent and unaggressive to attract conservatives. Politicians are sort of supposed to be different things to different people, working to unite a wide coalition of interests. But Hillary Clinton has somehow succeeded in having the worst possible image with every political group so that everyone dislikes her, with different groups having contradictory reasons.
Realistically, for conservatives whose primary concern is foreign policy, national security, and maintaining American hegemony Clinton is the obvious choice; sure her foreign policy has been incompetent, but the world being a shitshow is not entirely her and Obama’s fault. Foreign policy is a complex problem and I’m sure they would prefer someone who understands complexity rather than Trump whose solution is to ignore the complexity altogether by removing American involvement or simply stating that he’ll get the “best deal”. But for any other policy sphere, there is almost nothing for conservatives to like about Hillary, even if they’ve decided not to support Trump.
For me personally, I have no idea what to do. Trump’s recklessness, variability, and focus on bad policy means that his presidency could easily be the worst out of all the candidates that have run and are currently running. But Hillary has her own problems ignoring the rule of law, and while I feel like there is less variability with Hillary, her policy record combines the worst of left-of-center economics with right-of-center executive power and militarism. If I was given the choice of hand picking the next president among these two, given the advantages Republicans retain in the House and Senate, it seems less risky to put Clinton in. The risk of Trump may be too much if we couldn’t count on a Republican Congress to reign in their own party. Worse still, he might ignore all Constitutional limits and ignore Congress and the Courts entirely.
But whatever happens in November, it’s clear our political system is in serious need of reform. And not just “get rid of super delegates”. If anything, the party elites were the only ones helping on the Republican side. This primary season cannot be counted as anything besides a colossal failure; the general public seriously dislikes the two major candidates. Members of the major parties barely approve of their own candidates. We need to change the way we vote, make preferential voting the default, and figure out how to make third parties more viable so there are real fall-backs when the excesses of democracy occur. There is no particular reason our primary system must be constructed in this way, and clearly this way is not working. We need disruption in the political marketplace.
Picture credit: Donald Trump speaking in Arizona. Licensed under CC-BY 2.0, Gage Skidmore.