Liar, Liar, Pantsuit on Fire

Last week’s roller-coaster ride on Wall Street was matched by some unexpected rises and falls of fortune in the presidential race as well. The “stock” of White House wannabe Donald Trump soared, while that of the Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, seemed possibly headed for a free fall. But when the dust from the most recent polls had settled, the prospects of most rank-and file candidates remained pretty much the same. Volatility is never a desirable condition, either in running a country or a campaign. But being interminably stuck on the lower rungs of ambition is hardly a viable alternative.

Enter the speculators, busily trying to determine what companies and/or candidates merit the most promising investment for the long haul. These clueless gurus may not know any more than the rest of us, but it’s their business to pretend to. In the last presidential election, many of their off-base political predictions left them with egg on their face. Yet they are back unapologetically at the table of public opinion, tongues wagging. 

Having signed on for a political reality show whose contract has fifteen more months to run, media mouthpieces seem willing to try just about anything to whet the publics’ appetite for Election 2016  One recent gambit was a word-association survey in which would-be voters were encouraged to describe candidates using whatever adjectives popped into mind. 

For The Donald, “arrogant” was way up there alongside his ego. For Hillary, the news was even worse. The most popular response was “liar,” followed by “untrustworthy:” and “dishonest.” And while this citizen backbiting may prove amusing  -- to everyone but the Trump and Clinton camps -- the fact remains that at this point no other contenders come close to seriously challenging either of these two front-runners.

From this seeming contradiction we can assume that both The Donald and Hillary are highly polarizing figures. Some people love them; others hate them. This leaves barely any unemotional ground on which either of them can stand.

This is hardly a new observation in Ms. Clinton’s case. Back in 2008, her worrisome divisiveness was a major factor prompting Democrats to choose a lesser-known, more affable standard bearer. Being an inspiring first black candidate for president was a huge plus for Obama, of course, but it was not the only reason for his Democrat primary win. No matter the hoopla or high-mindedness, all elections are ultimately about getting elected. 

For a period of time afterwards, Hillary remained a generally admired public figure. Rebounding graciously (at least in public) from her deep disappointment, she earned high marks for soldiering on, even accepting a top position in the Obama administration. Six years ago, the Democrat who had surprisingly stolen her thunder felt a pressing need to conciliate with the Clintons and their groupies. But now that a cloud of suspicion shrouds Hillary’s latest stuttering campaign, President Obama seems poised to encourage a Biden run.   

All of these developing twists and turns confound the speculators. Clearly, they do not know the outcome of either primary, much less of the general election to follow. So they find pay dirt in covering the contentious frontrunners, all the while wisely hedging their bets. And while they trumpet polling results, they simultaneously dismiss them as meaningless at this early stage of the game.

Whatever happens on the campaign trail, journalists are smugly quick to counter with parallel precedents. By way of diminishing Trump’s popularity, for example, they chide us to remember that Rick Santorum was leading the pack in Iowa at this time four years ago. What they ignore, however, is that Santorum never racked up twice the poll numbers of his nearest challenger, nor attracted crowds in the tens of thousands to hear him speak. Many of them acknowledge The Donald as a sort of flash-in-the-pan phenomenon -- like a meteor that streaks across the night sky only to burn out and vanish.

Such conventional caveats can mask uninformed opinion. Thus media mavens warn us that a favorable standing in the polls means nothing unless it is weighted against some overall quotient of “unfavorability.” This nod to political correctness in politics is what keeps Clinton and Trump from presuming eventual victory. 

It implies that the ultimate candidates in both parties could end up being not the ones voters like most, but those they dislike least. Partisans may crow all they want about the importance of “firing up the base” or “telling it like it is,” or “standing true to principles”. But mass general acceptability is just as likely to override everything else. In the end, it could boil down to a mundane matter of settling on someone innocuous enough to coast to victory just by keeping the vicious dogs at bay. A guy like Marco Rubio is often viewed in that light, since he is a consistent second choice among Republicans and Independents. And he doesn’t excessively rile up Democrats. 

But back to the public perception of Hillary Clinton as mendacious. Her supporters claim otherwise, regardless of “Trumped-up” surveys or polls. They point to her decades-long inclusion on the annual list of the world’s most influential and admired women, adding archly that there’s no “lying” about that! 

So either a lot of “everyday Americans” have changed their perception of Hillary, or the overall alchemy of politics is too complicated to comprehend. Still, I tip my hat to the Democrat operative/professor who recently sorted things out more simply by reminding us that there have been plenty of politicians  in the past  whose constituents  pegged them as being  less than exemplary. They included out-and-out liars, crooks, cheats, braggarts, hypocrites, sleazebags, villains and worse. But, he noted, that didn’t stop them from getting elected. Should I feel reassured?