March 2, 2016

KOWALEWSKI | A Time for Contrast

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On Super Tuesday, the presidential campaign went national. In more than a dozen states across the country, voters of both parties turned out to choose their presidential nominee. On each side, the outcome reflects the unique composition and desires of each party’s base. in the Democratic race, despite several victories from Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT), Hillary Clinton ultimately won a commanding victory. For the Republicans, the worst fears of the establishment appear to be coming true. Donald Trump demonstrated his widespread appeal, trouncing Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) across the country. This may be a crucial moment of clarification, and a taste of the general election to come.

Let’s consider how far we’ve come since last year. At the early stages of the race, Republicans were focused on the promising candidacies of several current and former governors. Emboldened by large gains in the 2014 midterm election, the establishment was eager to find a candidate who could recapture the White House. Soon, the largest presidential primary field in recent history would emerge. Almost everyone expected that the party’s conservative base would attempt to find an alternative to the more traditional choices of Jeb Bush and Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.). No one expected it would be Donald Trump.

The Trump campaign has been an endless fury of nativism, reckless populism and outrageous statements. It has relied on a brilliant grasp of 21st century media coverage, repeatedly wrestling all attention away from Trump’s competitors. To the disbelief of the establishment, Trump has developed an enormous constituency within the Republican base. By the time they realized it was actually happening — an obnoxious Manhattan billionaire truly was hijacking their party — it was nearly too late. Yes, they might still stop him, but the possibility appears remote. Senator Marco Rubio’s attempts to use Trump’s insult-strategy against him have been clumsy at best, and humiliating at worst.

Indeed, the essential fact is that the Republican campaign is not really about issues, or even personality. Instead, it is a contest of sentiment. For the past seven years, the GOP base has been building its outrage. They are angry not only with President Barack Obama, but what they see as an ineffectual Republican Congress. Increasingly, they view the problem as systemic. Trump, to his credit, has effectively used his “outsider” status to harness this populist revolt. Rubio, an overly-polished senator, is simply not a good fit for this mood.

On the other hand, while Cruz has spent the entire campaign castigating Washington D.C., his failure to defeat Trump has come from a misunderstanding of the discontent. It is not particularly ideological. The average Trump supporter is not dissatisfied with government because it’s too big, but because it doesn’t work. Smaller government is seen as the solution to inefficiency, but not necessarily a goal in itself. It’s not really that liberals are deliberately transforming America — they just have no idea what they’re doing. Now, Trump is ready to turn this attack toward Hillary Clinton.

She is, after all, his likely competitor in the general election. It is true that things also haven’t quite gone as anticipated on the Democratic side. Spared from having to fight off the candidacies of Vice President Joe Biden or Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Hillary Clinton has still encountered a difficult rival. Her unexpected challenger, Sen. Bernie Sanders, has captivated the Democratic base with his unabashedly progressive call for a political revolution.

However, even as he enjoys astonishing fundraising numbers and massive audiences, his path to the nomination appears to be closing. Despite several victories on Super Tuesday, he earned merely a fraction of Clinton’s delegates. But one has to consider whether at this point, he has already won. His campaign has launched economic inequality into the center of the political conversation. And Sanders has made Hillary Clinton a substantially better candidate. Instead of the divisive nightmare on the Republican side, the Democratic campaign has emerged as a relatively fair, issue-based campaign. In fact, Sanders’ criticisms have led Clinton to a stronger and more message.

If Super Tuesday proves predictive, she will soon have the opportunity to put this message up against Trump’s. It will be a stunning contrast. Trump’s candidacy is one of the bleakest in history, bemoaning the downfall of America and stressing the urgent need to “Make America Great Again.” Clinton, by comparison, has directly countered Trump with her declaration that “America is already great.” Further, while Trump has relied on racist and xenophobic appeals, Clinton has put forth an agenda that specifically addresses injustice against immigrants and racial minority groups.

Clinton and Trump are as different as the primary races they are currently leading. “Currently” is key; during this cycle, it’s impossible to say anything for certain. Trump might be defeated, and Sanders could stage a comeback. But right now, things look good for both Trump and Clinton as the presumptive nominees. If so, Hillary Clinton has two responsibilities. She must expose Trump as an individual who is uniquely unsuited for the White House. Yet, as Rubio and Cruz are learning, the mantle of “anti-Trump” is not enough to win. Most of all, Clinton must continue to put forth her own compelling vision for America’s future.

The presidency is not something to be taken lightly, and neither is Donald Trump. If Trump stands at the Republican National Convention as the nominee, it will be because far too many Republicans failed to take him seriously. If he stands at the U.S. Capitol in January as our next President, it will be because Democrats made the same mistake.

Kevin Kowalewski is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at krk78@cornell.edu. Democratic Dialogue appears alternate Thursdays this semester.

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