BY MARTIN KICH
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.