An Either/Or Choice That Isn’t Usually an Arbitrary Choice


The media has become overly fond, I think, of describing this presidential election as a choice between two unappealing candidates.

To be clear, I don’t think that the media is incorrect in making this assessment, but I do think that it is incorrect in suggesting that this election stands as a historical exception, rather than continuing a historical norm.

That is, I think that you could describe just about every presidential election in that way.

For instance, if I go back to when I started voting, I could describe the presidential candidates of the two major parties in broadly comparable uncomplimentary terms:

1972: Nixon as malignant and McGovern as impossible;

1976: Ford as completely uninspiring and Jimmy Carter as a self-caricature;

1980: Carter as ineffectual and Reagan as a somewhat shallow ideologue;

1984: Reagan as grossly over-estimated and Mondale as a leftover;

1988: Bush and Dukakis as equally uninspiring;

1992: Bush as floundering and Clinton as absolutely incapable of self-restraint in his personal life;

1996: Clinton as almost hopelessly compromised and Dole as over-the-hill;

2000: Bush as a doofus and Gore as a stiff;

2004: Bush as a complete doofus and Kerry as an even bigger stiff;

2008: Obama as too inexperienced and McCain as desperate and prone to poor decisions and obstinate positions;

2012: Obama as hopelessly embattled and Romney as both an elitist and a stiff;

and 2016: Trump as preposterously self-important and self-deluded and Clinton as almost singularly lacking in personal charisma.

Another way in which I think that the media has gotten it wrong is in assuming that characterizing the candidates as both being unappealing means that they are equivalently unappealing. Since I became eligible to vote in presidential elections, almost none of the elections have been close. Bush vs. Gore stands the one very notable exception. So, at some point, American voters usually decide by some considerable margin that one candidate is preferable to the other candidate, and it then depends on who is writing the history whether that victory is framed as settling for the less  unappealing choice or the recognition and the affirmation of the better choice.

We often forget that even our most iconic presidents—FDR, Teddy Roosevelt, Lincoln, Jefferson, and even Washington had some very fierce detractors. Those detractors would describe the presidents’ persistence and determination not as a manifestation of their more selfless virtues but as a revelation of scope of their personal ambition and their insatiable capacity for political self-aggrandizement.

It seems to me that this current election might ultimately be a test of the sometimes fine distinction between having an unassailable ego and having a very thick skin. But I am guessing (perhaps hoping) that in this case it may not turn out to be such a fine distinction.


2 thoughts on “An Either/Or Choice That Isn’t Usually an Arbitrary Choice

  1. My first Presidential election was 1996. While I understand your point here, I think there is one factor that, although minor, is being missed with about half of these elections: the third party candidate. Ross Perot in the mid-late 80’s and Ron Paul in the early 2000’s. While they didn’t get the fair chance I think they deserves, they did manage to obtain votes from people that, if there wasn’t a third party candidate, gone to one of the other two. I’m a strong opponent to both Trump and Clinton. Gary Johnson, a Libertarian, has a really good chance of being included in the debates later this year and, if I’m honest, agree more with him on his campaign plan than I do with either Trump or Clinton combined. This country has gone far too long with a two party system and my belief is that, as it exists today, it’s broken and needs a reboot. Life is not absolute Yes/No, black/white, on/off, etc.; why should our political system be that way?

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.