Even political junkies are feeling short of adrenaline. Two old men are stumbling toward November, spewing gaffes, garbled messages and misinformation as the political class cowers behind banners they don’t have the courage not to carry.
If you aren’t committed to Joe Biden or Donald Trump in a very fundamental way, it is a kind of torture — like being trapped in the bleachers during a long tennis match. The ball goes back and forth over the net, your head turns right, your head turns left. You watch CNN, turn to Fox, turn to MSNBC, turn back to CNN. You read The Washington Post, try The New York Times, then pick up The Wall Street Journal.
Over all hangs the terrible knowledge that this will end in a player winning who many think is unfit.
These two codgers are batting old ideas back and forth across the news. We know them too well. There is no magic here; nothing good is expected of either victory. Less bad is the goal, a hollow victory at best.
This is a replay. We can’t take comfort in the idea that the office will make the man. Rather, we feel this time, in either case, the office will unmake the man.
Both are too old to be expected to deliver in the toughest job in the world. Much of the attention about age has focused on Biden, but Trump is only three years his junior and doesn’t appear to be in good health, and he delivers incomprehensible messages on social media and in public speeches.
We know what we would get from a Biden administration: more of the same but more liberal. His administration will lean toward the issues he has fought for — climate, abortion, equality, continuity.
From Trump, we know what we would get: upheaval, international dealignment, authoritarian inclinations at home, and a new era of chaotic America First. The courts will get more conservative judges, and political enemies will be punished. Trump has made it clear that vengeance is on his to-do list.
One candidate or the other, we are facing agendas that say “back to the future.”
But that isn’t the world that is unfolding. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late, great Democratic senator from New York, said “the world is a dangerous place.”
Doubly so now, when engulfing war is a possibility, when there is an acute housing crisis at home, and when the next presidency will have to deal with the huge changes that will be brought about by artificial intelligence. These will be across the board, from education to defense, from automobiles to medicine, from the electric power supply to the upending of the arts.
How have we come to such a pass when two old men dodder to the finish line? The fact is few expect Biden to finish out his term in good physical health, and few expect Trump to finish his term in good mental health.
How did we get here? How has it happened that democracy has come to a point where it seems inadequate to the times?
The short answer is the primary system, or too much democracy at the wrong level.
The primary system isn’t working. It is throwing up the extreme and the incompetent; it is a way of supporting a label, not a candidate. If a candidate faces a primary, the issue will be narrowed to a single accusation bestowed by the opposition.
What makes for a strong democracy is representative government — deliberation, compromise, knowledge and national purpose.
The U.S. House of Representatives is an example of the evil the primary system has wrought. Or, to be exact, the fear that the primary system has engendered in members.
The specter of former Rep. Liz Cheney, a conservative with lineage who had the temerity to buck the House leadership, was cast out and then got “primaried” out of office altogether, haunts Congress.
No wonder the political class shelters behind the leaders of yesterday, men unprepared for tomorrow, as a new and very different era unfolds.
There is a sense in the nation that things will have to get worse before they get better. A troubled future awaits.