THE ISSUE: Polarization of the electorate and a flawed primary system mean voters should be prepared to vote for the least-objectionable presidential candidate, not the best one.
The dance has begun, and if the stakes weren’t so high, it would be amusing.
The dance steps are most obvious in the Republican Party, which has a larger field of candidates and already has had a debate.
To have a chance at becoming their party’s nominee, each candidate must attract the support of a very conservative base.
This has bizarre results when it comes to the stance they must take on specific issues. Most polls indicate a majority of Americans favor increased gun control, lean toward deferring to women on abortion issues, favor diplomacy with Iran, and support marriage rights for gays.
A Republican candidate who espouses the majority view on these issues, however, has little or no chance of surviving the primaries.
The extent to which this forces the candidates to play to extreme views is evident in their treatment of the proposed deal with Iran. Maybe it’s a bad deal or maybe not, but the issue is too complex to expect every single GOP candidate to have the same opinion of it.
To begin with, the entire goal of the agreement is to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Absent military action — an option most Americans strongly oppose — the U.S. has minimal leverage without the cooperation of Iran’s major trading partners. So while GOP candidates uniformly gripe we did not negotiate the best deal with Iran, our most complex negotiations were with nations — including Russia and China — whose participation was necessary if Iran was to come to the negotiating table.
Iran is suffering from multi-national sanctions; U.S. sanctions alone provide inadequate leverage to compel Iran to make concessions. And however problematic the proposed agreement is, it provides for monitoring of the Iran nuclear program. Without the agreement, there is no monitoring.
The issue is complex, and involves negotiations to which the GOP candidates were not privy. The idea that every candidate would have the exact same view of the agreement defies logic. Rather, they are pandering to a base that is invested in the idea that anything President Barack Obama touches must be bad.
There are plenty of smart folks vying for the Republican nomination, and it’s a fair bet most recognize the Iran deal is not susceptible to simplistic evaluation. They probably also recognize the complexities of abortion, gay marriage and other hot-button issues that are contentious precisely because rational people can come to different conclusions on them.
But intelligent, nuanced views are toxic to candidates of either party. Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton know they need moderate views to win the general election, but they also know those same views will prevent them from surviving the primaries.
In his farewell address, President George Washington famously warned of the “continual mischiefs of the spirit of party,” making it the “interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.” Party politics, he said, would “enfeeble public administration.”
As the nation heads toward the 2016 elections, Washington’s wisdom is increasingly apparent. Our nation no longer attracts the best candidates, but the most malleable ones. The political dance requires them to pander to extreme views in the primaries, and then shift to centrist views in the general election. Where they truly stand — and whether they have any principles at all — remains a mystery to voters until they enter office.
The likely end result: Americans will not be picking the best candidate in 2016. They’ll be picking the least-objectionable one.