Leadership is essential for political success.
It should go without saying, but the truth is that for any kind of political movement, party, or administration there needs to be firm top-down management. There needs to be a person in charge whose vision is not only clear but also attainable. This person needs to lead by example, and needs to stay true or his or her convictions, even when faced with difficult opposition from either opponents or even those within his or her own party. This person also needs to compromise when a stated goal or objective is unrealistic and the realization is made that it would be better to achieve part of that objective than nothing at all. And this person needs a sense of humility; to be able to admit when he or she is wrong, swallow some pride, and go back to the drawing board for a fresh start.
A classic cinematic scene involving the idea of presidential leadership comes from the 1995 film The American President starring Michael Douglas as fictional American president Andrew Shepherd. In the scene, Shepherd, the incumbent president running for reelection, is struggling to figure out why his poll numbers are tanking. He is visibly frustrated and can't seem to comprehend why people seem to be flocking to his opponent, Bob Rumson, who has created a campaign based on distorting the president's record and personally attacking him. It is not until his young speechwriter Lewis (played by Michael J. Fox) pipes up that Shepherd is finally able to make the connection. When Shepherd muses as to why people keep listening to his opponent, Lewis responds with, "They don't have a choice! Bob Rumson is the only one doing the talking! People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they'll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They're so thirsty for it they'll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there's no water, they'll drink the sand." A sullen President Shepherd looks at Lewis and says, "Lewis, we've had presidents who were beloved, who couldn't find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don't drink the sand because they're thirsty. They drink the sand because they don't know the difference."
It is a powerful scene that encompasses the moral and ethical difficulties of being a successful politician; not only do you have to be intelligent and savvy but you also have to be able to explain complicated issues to the American people in a way that doesn't turn them off or go over their heads. In the film, President Shepherd discusses what Lewis said with his chief of staff A.J. (played by Martin Sheen), and comes to the realization that Lewis was right: people were flocking to his opponent because he was doing a poor job of communicating with the American people, not only about his policy positions but about how and why those policy positions would benefit everyone as whole. The next day, Shepherd finally decides to use the bully pulpit to explain his policy goals and to counter attacks that his opponent had been levying his way. He ends his speech by saying, "My name is Andrew Shepherd and I AM the president" a clear reference to the fact that he is in authority and his opponent hasn't yet earned the right to replace him. The scene shows that the current sitting president will not go down without a fight, much to the delight of his staff who have been waiting for months to run this kind of aggressive, tactical campaign where their ideas would be presented in a clear and concise way to the American people.
For the past seven years, we have had a president in the Oval Office who has been the epitome of this kind of presidential leadership. Despite there being concern that a freshman senator would be overwhelmed by the position, Barack Obama has done a remarkable job in leading this country. It has not been easy as he has fought unprecedented obstruction from the conservative right and has had to pacify progressives on the left. Yet through it all, he has shown a remarkable ability to embody the role of president in a way that has educated, enlightened, and yes, even entertained the American people. Whether it was the Affordable Care Act, the Iran deal, gun control legislation, or even immigration reform, the president has always presented the case for his actions to the American people. Even his opponents, although having vehemently disagreed with the president, cannot say they didn't understand his motivations for acting on a particular issue. Through all the political noise and cacophony, Barack Obama has shown an uncanny ability to understand the role of the American president and how that role can be best utilized to rally the American people to your cause.
Compare that then, with the state of the Republican Party.
Today's Republican Party is a reflection of nearly four decades of alliances held together by the sheer fact that these people "weren't liberal." As Ronald Reagan rose to power in the 1980s, the Reagan coalition began to form: big business interests began to align with religious conservatives in the south along with blue collar workers in the north. This alliance proved dominant in 1984 as Reagan won reelection in an historic landslide. But this alliance was shaky at best and eight years later, a governor from Arkansas named Bill Clinton took advantage of these fissures and successfully targeted the blue collar northern workers who had taken on the moniker of being "Reagan democrats" and brought them back into the Democratic Party. With these workers shifted back into the "D" column come election time, what was left of the Reagan coalition was a combination of big business interests and southern conservatives.
In other words, two groups that did not have a lot in common.
Fortunately for Republicans they were able to eke out one last victory for what was left in the Reagan coalition with the election of George W. Bush in 2000. Bush's election was helped by the fact that his father had not only been president but has also been Reagan's vice-president so Bush, in turn, was seen as an extension of the Reagan legacy. In addition, he also nicely fit the bill in terms of his appeal to both coalition groups; he had been a business owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team and he also was a self-professed man of faith. This appeal, along with his opponent Al Gore choosing to run away from the economic successes of the Clinton administration, was just enough to put a second Bush in the White House and to give what was left of the Reagan coalition one last victory at the national level.
But the times, they were a changin'.
The problem with the Reagan coalition is that its core values and principles are no longer representative of the country as a whole. America is becoming more liberal, especially when it comes to social issues. The average age of a Fox News viewer is 68-years-old and the Republican Party has been forced to concede that its base, its core of most reliable voters, have very different opinions and beliefs than younger generations. They are stuck between a rock and a hard place; if they "get with the times" they alienate their most reliable voting bloc but if they stay true to their base they alienate younger voters who will be the majority in a generation. Republicans have painted themselves into a corner and now have to decide not only what their party is but what they want it to become.
So it should come as no surprise that since George W. Bush left office the Republican Party has been lacking leadership. John McCain, the party's standard bearer in 2008, based his whole campaign on the notion of him being a "maverick" and not being pigeonholed by traditional restrictions put on politicians. McCain then promptly got destroyed by Obama. In 2012, Mitt Romney ran as a compromise candidate on the notion of him being a successful businessman. Romney then promptly got destroyed by Obama. In fact, not only has the Republican Party lacked leadership at the national level, but they've lacked it in Congress as well. With the 2010 emergence of the Tea Party and its suicide caucus, Republicans aren't even on the same page as to what basic conservative values and principles are anymore. When you've got a sizeable contingency that refuses to support your own legislation then you know you've got problems. It got so bad that House Speaker John Boehner threw in the towel and finally gave up on trying to work with all the competing factions. Much like the American people of fictional president Andrew Shepherd's world, today's Republicans are yearning for leadership so badly that they're willing to drink the sand.
And that sand is currently in the hands of Donald J. Trump.
Because just like our fictional president's opponent in the film, Donald Trump is the only one doing the talking. Aided by unprecedented amounts of free airtime by Fox News and other networks, Trump has become the loudest and most obnoxious voice in the room. He is brash, braggadocious, and bereft of a basic sense of decency. His policies lack any basic coherence, his demeanor is unquestionably unpresidential, his moral compass doesn't seem to exist, and he is viewed as a worldwide joke outside of the United States. He is the most extreme candidate to emerge on the national stage since George Wallace; he has advocated for torture, he has demonized Latinos, he has denigrated Muslims, he has removed African-Americans from his rallies, he has made misogynistic comments toward women, and he has even insulted his own supporters. As if that wasn't enough he has also bragged about genitalia, mocked a disabled journalist, and even insisted he could murder someone in broad daylight and still retain his popularity. Yet despite all this, Donald Trump currently has a commanding lead in the polls and is the presumptive Republican nominee for president.
Simply because he is talking.
Republicans today are flocking to Trump because he is saying what they have long believed. That our country is in the crapper. That immigrants are taking our jobs. That refugees are a national security threat. That our economy is in the tank. None of it is true of course, but Trump says it with such conviction that his followers can't help but listen. The one trait that all Trump supporters share is not religion, or skin tone, or education, but rather a support for authoritarianism. That's right, Trump's supporters are looking to someone who can lead no matter how wildly misguided or misinformed this person might be. After seven years of having a Republican Party absent of leadership at the national level, Republicans today are yearning for a candidate to emerge with strong convictions and a strong presence on stage. Someone whom they feel exudes strength and power. Someone who will be tough on our enemies both at home and abroad. After seven years of searching, Republicans have finally found someone in Donald Trump whom they feel is the one person who can quench their thirst for leadership and help the country rise up and become "great again."
What they don't realize is Donald Trump's sand is simply a mirage, being peddled to them by a first-rate snake oil salesman. With his ever-changing political views, it is obvious that Trump is willing to whatever it takes to get elected. He is preying on the ignorance of the American public in a way that here we are, a quarter of the way through the primaries, and we still don't have any basic policy positions from the leading Republican presidential candidate for president. Networks are afraid of turning him off, so he is not pressed for more detailed answers or policy specifics. Those opponents that attack him are playing right into his hands and they become fodder for a series of tweets or speeches going forward that only helps to increase Trump's popularity. His third-grade theatrics are laughable and embarrassing, but the fact that he's up on stage, defending himself, and attacking his opponents has won over the admiration of his legion of supporters. It is this legion of supporters, who after seven years, are finally tasting the sweet, sweet, nectar of Republican leadership at the national level.
Even if that nectar is simply a concoction sold to them by a swindling businessman.
Leadership is essential for political success.