To Hawthorn Friends & Family
I will leave to all the other pundits to be obsessed with this week’s GOP debate . . . who won (Carly Fiorina — ??) and who lost (I’m tempted to say the American Voters — ??) . . . and whether, to borrow from Churchill, for Donald Trump it was “perhaps not the beginning of the end, but surely the end of the beginning.” Frankly, no matter how certain the pundits’ voices, none of us will really know anything until we see the next round of polling, well into early next week.
But as I watched the debate and reflected on where the races are in mid-September, 2015 – four-plus months from the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary – I tried to answer the question, “How did we get here?” What brought us to to this bizarre situation with Jeb trailing – very badly – in the GOP (to Trump and Carson and perhaps soon to Fiorina, not a politician among them, with Govs. Perry gone, and Walker going), and Hillary trailing Bernie in Iowa and New Hampshire, with pressure growing for Joe Biden to enter the race, however late it has become?
How DID we get here? Maybe if we understood that, we’d better understand where this race is going.
I identified two factors and wrote about them for The Hill in a column published yesterday afternoon.
First families fade, new stars steal spotlight
By John Ashford
A recent headline in The Washington Post proclaimed, “Trump, Carson dominate GOP race. Among Democrats, Clinton’s lead is eroding.”
How has this happened? Beyond the qualities of the individual candidates, two major factors – the electorate’s boredom with the Bush and Clinton dynasties and shortened voter attention spans demanding ever-new entertainment – have set the stage for this melodrama of unexpected leading characters.
First is the boredom factor. It’s boredom with the “Establishment” candidates, especially with Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton (creating, among Democrats, a Trump-like opportunity for Bernie Sanders, a socialist from Vermont, who now leads the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire).
With what are they bored? George H.W Bush first ran for the U. S. Senate in 1964 and Bill Clinton first ran for Congress in 1974. Since then, the Bushes (George H.W., Jeb, George W. and George P.) and the Clintons (Bill and Hillary) have, in 51 years, run nearly 30 races for president, vice president, governor (of Texas, Florida and Arkansas), U.S. Senate (from New York), U.S. House, attorney general of Arkansas and Land Commissioner of Texas.
The Bushes and Clinton have occupied the White House for 20 of last 28 years, unbroken from 1989 to 2009. And, in terms of visibility, George H. W. Bush also served as vice president for eight years, which makes it 28 of last 36 years in the highest profile national offices.
That’s a lot of races and victories for two political dynasties. They have become totally predictable, almost formulaic.
We know that at some point a Bush is going to say something stupid (from Jeb’s confession in his losing governor’s race that he planned to do nothing to help African Americans, to HW’s “watch my lips, no new taxes” to W’s “mission accomplished” and “a heckuva job, Brownie.”)
We can be equally certain a Clinton is going to have a scandal (sex, Whitewater, Vince Foster, emails, etc.), deny it, stonewall it, blame the vast conservative conspiracy, then ultimately confess and seek redemption.
We know it. The media knows it. And we’re all bored with it , including the Bushes and the Clintons themselves.
Again, what better than this massive boredom to create an opportunity for an outrageous newcomer like Trump or an out-of-the-box newcomer (to national Democratic politics) like Bernie Sanders.
But, it is more than just boredom. It is anxiety and pain and frustration and disappointment and despondence.
Today, 45 million Americans live in poverty. In 2013, median income in the U.S. was just under $52,000. When adjusted for inflation, that is eight percent lower than in 2007, before the recession, and 11 percent below what it was in 2000. Between 2009 and 2013, real wages fell for the entire “bottom” 90 percent of wage earners.
The middle class in America is disappearing, both statistically and in the minds of working people. They’re scared. They’re tired, losing hope and frustrated with politics and politicians. They’ve lost faith in all establishments: churches, schools, businesses and government.
What a horrible time for veteran political families like the Bushes and the Clintons to once again offer a candidate to lead the nation. Despite the $100-plus million he’s raised, Bush is running, at best, a poor third and dropping fast among the GOP nationally.
Bush’s campaign $100+ million cash may keep him in until Trump self-destructs –if that happens – and Dr. Ben Carson is recognized as a perfectly nice man totally unqualified to be president of anything, especially of the United States. And Clinton’s organization may keep her in the race, even leading the race, until Sanders start to fall from his rapidly approaching fixed ceiling.
The second factor creating Trump’s and Sanders’ opportunity is the “dumbing down” of America, fed by social media, with increasingly short attention spans, demanding ever more outrageous distraction and entertainment. What other nation would raise the Kardashians to celebrity status, not for doing, but for being, and especially for what they strive to be?
It’s hard to reduce “The Wealth of Nations,” “The Rights of Man,” or “The Federalist Papers” to 140 characters. Those seminal works got us where we are, indeed made us who we are; where will twittering get us? Even the Gettysburg Address was 272 words.
A Canadian study says the human attention span, which was 12 seconds in 2000, dropped to eight seconds by 2013. This has an enormous – and disastrous – impact on presidential campaigns.
In her brilliant study, Harvard’s Kiku Adatto found that between 1968 and 1988 the average sound bite on the news featuring the candidate’s own voice – dropped from 42.3 seconds to 9.8 seconds. By 2000, according to another Harvard study, the soundbite was down to 7.8 seconds. Except for isolated “gong show” debates, voters – especially in the 42 non-battleground states – don’t hear presidential candidates speaking in their own words.
What better to create an opportunity for a master, no-holds-barred, unrepentant entertainer like Donald Trump?
Ashford, chairman and CEO of The Hawthorn Group, a public affairs and public relations firm in Alexandria, Va., is a former journalist, now a political and corporate communications consultant who has been covering, working in and observing political campaigns since the Nixon-Humphrey-Wallace campaign of 1968.