Josh Kurtz: How We Got Here

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If current polling holds through November, the next president of the United States will be detested by roughly two-thirds of the electorate.

That is a very frightening notion – and a very sad commentary on the state of American politics.

But why shouldn’t voters detest the likely major party presidential nominees? Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are pretty detestable.

Of course, there are different degrees of detestability. 

Trump, the vulgarian with the orange hue and comical hair, a misogynist, a racist and a narcissist, fanning the flames of fear, with no grasp of policy and a temperament that could literally lead to chaos and apocalypse, is clearly unqualified to be president.

That’s why so many Republicans are embarrassed that he’s wound up as their presumptive nominee.

Hillary Clinton is surely one of the most qualified White House candidates in recent memory. She’s smart. She’s knowledgeable about the issues. She has the tools to be a competent president. And the historic nature of her candidacy should carry plenty of appeal.

So why are so few voters enthusiastic about her?

What’s objectionable about Clinton is a little more difficult to unpack than what’s objectionable about Trump. For me – and no doubt for many other voters – it starts with the quarter century that Bill and Hillary Clinton have been at the center of American politics.

Plain and simple, there have been too many Clinton scandals through the years. There’s too much sleaze associated with the two of them. Too many ties to Wall Street – and Hollywood. Too much triangulating and incrementalism. Too much money-grubbing. Too big an embrace of interventionism when it comes to foreign affairs. Too many instances of happily accepting advice from war criminal Henry Kissinger. Too much sense of entitlement. Too many unappealing hangers-on waiting for their next payday.

Unfair to visit the sins of Bill Clinton on Hillary? Not really. From the get-go, they have sought to package themselves as “two for the price of one.” Just last week, as Trump was whaling away at Bill Clinton’s peccadillos in his usual deplorable, gutter-level fashion, Hillary Clinton attempted to counter by suggesting Bill could “handle” the economy if she becomes president, a none-too-subtle reminder of the Clinton era’s better days.

How we find ourselves stuck with Donald Trump is easy enough to figure. Republican leaders have enabled – if not fully embraced – nativism, racism bombast, naïvete and fear-mongering for several election cycles. They’ve just never had such a grotesque and unsubtle messenger before.

Trump embodies all these things – but he also perfectly identified and exploited what rank-and-file GOP voters hate about what their party has come to represent.

But I’d argue that the Clintons themselves bear a measure of responsibility for Trump – or at least for what Trump is able to get away with now.

People of good faith can differ about when our politics became so toxically partisan. But the coarsening of our politics, which started with “Who put a pubic hair on my Coke?” surely ripened with the various Clinton sex scandals.

Maybe Bill Clinton didn’t deserve to be impeached for having oral sex in the Oval Office. But he could have spared the American public a whole lot of misery and embarrassment, back then and every day since, if he had simply resigned in shame as soon as the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke.

But the Clintons have no shame. What they possess instead is a boomer-era conviction that they are indispensible – a narcissism that prevents them from exiting the stage, ever.

So when Trump boasts about his sexual prowess and the size of his personal package, when he gleefully vows to remind the American public of every nasty allegation ever lodged against Bill Clinton, he is merely responding to the environment of scandal and innuendo that the Clintons and their rabid critics helped create. That’s a circumstance we would clearly not be confronting if someone other than Hillary Clinton was about to become the Democratic nominee – though Trump in his boorishness would no doubt find something else distasteful to attack.

How we are stuck with the Clintons all these years later, and how Hillary Clinton became the Democratic heir-apparent almost immediately after President Obama was inaugurated in 2009 is interesting – and painful – to ponder. Here a good bit of the blame rests with Obama himself.

Obama triumphed in 2008 in part by being the antithesis of the Clintons – “No-Drama Obama” instead of Bill and Hillary and all their messes. Yet so many of the qualities he brought to the presidency and to American politics already appear to have been obliterated – by Trump and by the Clintons. Whatever policy legacies he’s leaving behind, his imprint on the nation and the Democratic Party appears to have been negligible.

It was a masterful gambit when Obama invited Hillary Clinton to be his secretary of State; it solidified party unity after the drawn-out 2008 primary campaign and showed that Obama was unafraid of his former rival. It silenced, for a while, the doubters in Clinton-land who were unwilling to embrace Obama.

Was there a deal between Obama and the Clintons to tee up Hillary as his successor? Or was Hillary’s apparent inevitability solidified as Obama’s own position weakened, as Democrats lost record numbers of congressional seats and statehouses, and as Obama in 2012 looked to Bill Clinton to bail him out and explain his economic plan to skeptical voters?

But even with the imprimatur of Obama and a near-unified Democratic establishment behind her, Hillary Clinton has bobbled her opportunity in 2016. It was one thing when she lost to Obama, a politician of unique abilities. And remember, the 2008 Democratic field also included a not-yet-tainted John Edwards and seasoned, competent professional politicians like Joe Biden, Bill Richardson and Chris Dodd.

This time around, Clinton is barely putting away Bernie Sanders, who is like your crazy uncle exiled to the attic, screaming awkward truths out the window for the whole neighborhood to hear. And the crazy uncle is doing better against Trump in most recent polls than Clinton is, because at least he has a coherent, consistent message, even if what he is peddling is fairy dust.

So while Democratic leaders have attempted to prop up their deeply flawed frontrunner and discouraged competition at every turn, Trump at least has performed a public service by knocking the Republican establishment on its collective ass. It has been breathtaking to behold – the biggest repudiation of party leadership by the voters since George McGovern won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972.

So where do we go from here?

There is a temptation to root for Trump in November, regardless of the danger and dysfunction that would follow. Having already obliterated his party’s establishment, he could jolt the other party’s establishment by defeating Clinton.

But if Trump loses, a more normal dysfunction will set in. The GOP establishment and the big-moneyed interests that fuel it will be back with a vengeance. Conservatives will be screaming, “We told you so.” The Clinton haters will be as prominent as ever. And we’ll be stuck with four and possibly eight more years of the Clintons and all their foibles and drama.

But imagine if Trump wins: It will result in a cleansing of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party simultaneously. The GOP will never be the same. The Democrats will finally be able to move on from the Clintons.

And if you’re a Maryland Democrat eager to make Larry Hogan a one-term governor, there is probably nothing that’s going to help your cause greater than the words “President Donald Trump.” If Hillary Clinton is president, the task will be much, much harder. In fact, the Democrats nationally will probably be headed to their third straight midterm wipeout.

But will the republic survive a Trump presidency? It’s hard to say – we have to survive the 2016 campaign first.

So settle in for the ugliest 5 ½ months in American political history, a scorched-earth campaign unlike anything we’ve ever seen. If, come November, only two-thirds of Americans still detest the next president, we’re ahead of the game.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily on Capitol Hill. He can be reached at . Follow him on Twitter -- @joshkurtznews 

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.