In 2016, we have come to expect the unexpected. Every day our television news, the Internet and print media trumpet monstrously alarming and upsetting stories. From extreme weather to shootings, from viruses to ISIS, individually and collectively we are faced with challenges which just a few years ago seemed inconceivable.
Given the volatile nature of the times, it is no wonder that our political system has followed suit. I didn’t foresee either the emergence of Donald Trump or Sen. Bernie Sanders. The political establishment has been shaken to its core. Trump is well on his way to being the Republican nominee and Sen. Sanders has startled the political hierarchy with his bold and inspirational call for a “political revolution.”
On the Republican side, when Trump announced earlier this year I didn’t give this political outsider a chance. I’d like to believe that having followed politics my entire life that I possess a seasoned understanding of our political universe. Yet Trump’s success at challenging the status quo, especially in light of his verbal missteps, has left me humbled.
The boldest attack on the status quo that I was ever personally involved in was the 1980 presidential campaign of Ted Kennedy. Jimmy Carter was the incumbent president, who for many of us in the Democratic Party appeared weak and ineffectual, and therefore ripe for defeat in the general election. Those of us who believed in Ted Kennedy’s leadership waged an unconventional battle against a sitting president of our own party when history told us it couldn’t be done.
History was right. We won 11 states that year, including New York (59 percent) but fell short of winning the nomination. The senator’s bungled answer to Newscaster Roger Mudd’s simple question—“Why are you running?”—proved to be a verbal albatross that he could never overcome. In spite of his disappointing loss, Kennedy’s inspiring speech at the Democratic Convention in New York that year (1980) made all of our efforts seem worthwhile:
“The commitment I seek is not to outworn views but to old values that will never wear out. Programs may sometimes become obsolete, but the ideal of fairness always endures. Circumstances may change, but the work of compassion must continue. It is surely correct that we cannot solve problems by throwing money at them, but it is also correct that we dare not throw out our national problems onto a scrap heap of inattention and indifference. The poor may be out of political fashion, but they are not without human needs. The middle class may be angry, but they have not lost the dream that all Americans can advance together.”
He was right. The middle class was angry that year; 1980 was a time of uncertainty for America. There were gasoline lines, an economic downturn, and worse yet over 60 Americans had been taken hostage in Iran. To keep that in our mind’s eye, Ted Koppel started a nightly news cast monitoring the hostage crisis called “Nightline.”
We, as a nation, felt restless and needed reassurance. Former California Gov. Ronald Reagan was the Republican nominee and showed no reluctance in seizing his opportunity. As Walter Mondale described him in his book, “The Good Fight”: “He had an old actor’s mastery of the camera. He had a steady, positive bearing, which appealed to people at a time of great uncertainty about our economy and our standing in the world. Nothing troubled him.”
Donald Trump is no Ronald Reagan, but his appeal does mirror that of the 40th president of the United States. He is comfortable in front of the camera, given his experience as an actor and media personality. Both approached complex problems with simple answers designed to reassure us that better times are ahead. Again, in “The Good Fight,” Mondale talking about Reagan seems to describe Trump perfectly: “People feared that America had lost its stature in the world, its reputation as a can-do nation. To cast a ballot for Reagan (Trump) was to strike back at forces the voters resented.” His criticism of Reagan could be applied to Trump as well: “Ironically, Reagan didn’t have any answers either...He was one of politics’ great creative thinkers because no matter what the problem was, he had his own set of facts with no bearing on reality.”
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is ironically benefiting from an unfortunate byproduct of Ted Kennedy’s 1980 challenge. Lessons from that disastrous election motivated the party to form a committee to look at the whole convention system. The resulting “Hunt Report” (named for the commission’s chair, the then-North Carolina Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt) recommended and the Democratic Party accepted a series of “reforms,” which included the selection of a certain percentage of unpledged delegates (nicknamed superdelegates) chosen by the party hierarchy. Their numbers amounted to approximately 19 percent of the total delegate count. By their very pedigree, it seemed clear that they would tend to gravitate to the more establishment candidates, although eight years ago they gave President Obama the support he needed to vanquish Hillary Clinton.
This year, the superdelegates are providing Ms. Clinton with a decisive advantage, which will be difficult for Sen. Sanders to overcome. This is patently unfair. It’s too late to change the rules this time around, but the Democratic Party needs to rid itself of this clear impediment to true democracy.
As things stand now, it appears that November will see a Trump vs. Clinton race, but let us never forget the lesson of 2016: expect the unexpected.