Election 2016

Phonies Dominate Presidential Race

Don't hurl yet, you've got more than a year of this left.


"One of the biggest reasons I left Elkton Hills was because I was surrounded by phonies. That's all. It was the phoniest conversation you ever heard in your life… I was all set to puke when it was time to go sit down again. I really was."

– The Catcher in the Rye

Speaking in Northern Virginia just after the Supreme Court ruled for gay marriage, Hillary Clinton seemed deeply disappointed in her Republican rivals, and the GOP generally, which she labeled the party of the past. "They all decried the Supreme Court's ruling," she said. "We even heard them call for a constitutional amendment" to overturn it.

Wow! Those Republicans have some nerve, don't they? What kind of reactionary extremist wants a constitutional amendment to overturn a Supreme Court decision?

Well — Hillary Clinton, for one. Apparently she is still seething over the court's ruling in Citizens United. "We need to fix our dysfunctional political system and get unaccounted money out of it once and for all," she said a couple of months ago, "even if that takes a constitutional amendment."

At least the Republicans who were talking about a constitutional amendment to overturn the gay-rights ruling can claim they were speaking in the heat of an emotional moment. Clinton has had five years since Citizens United to "move on," as she instructed Republicans to do.

She's had even more time to get over the high court's rulings on gun rights. It's been seven years since the Supremes correctly read the Second Amendment as protecting an individual right to arms. Yet in her remarks in Fairfax, she called for "common sense" gun control. A few days before that, she declared: "The president is right — the politics on this issue have been poison. But we can't give up. The stakes are too high, the costs are too dear, and I am not and will not be afraid to keep fighting."

Fair enough. But then why should Republicans who feel just as strongly about gay marriage, or the Affordable Care Act, just lie down and quit?

Republicans can be phonies, too — no doubt about that. When he started running for president, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal promptly flipped from supporting Common Core educational standards to opposing them. So did Chris Christie. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has changed his tune on immigration. Rand Paul, who once wanted a Pentagon small enough to drown in the bathtub, now wants to jack up defense spending.

And a special place in the Phonies Hall of Fame must be reserved for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. He opposed arming Syrian rebels or bombing the Syrian regime, which he said would turn the U.S. into "al-Qaida's air force." And then, months later, he blasted the White House for following his own advice: "President Obama announced his now infamous red line in Syria and then did nothing," he proclaimed, which "gave the green light to aggressive or oppressive regimes across the globe that America is not to be feared."

The phoniness of American politics has become so entrenched that people expect it as a matter of course. It's common to read news stories analyzing how candidates will tack hard to the left or right during a primary, and then swerve back toward the political center for the general election. It's so common, in fact, that Jeb Bush has spoken openly about trying a different strategy: He will "lose the primary to win the general."

Little wonder that the public is cynical. Little wonder people are turning out in droves when Bernie Sanders appears. "People are used to candidates who are calculated, produced and measured," one Sanders supporter told The Washington Post recently. "Bernie's different." Said another, "My impression [of Hillary Clinton] is she'll say whatever she needs to say at the moment." Sanders might not beat Hillary in the primaries, but he already has thrashed her in the authenticity sweepstakes.

Which is a mixed blessing, admittedly. Brutal honesty usually has an inverse relationship with winnability. Just ask Walter Mondale, who in 1984 told the public, "Let's tell the truth… Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did." Reagan won 49 states that year. For his part, Jimmy Carter was a pretty sincere fellow. Fat lot of good it did the country.

And authenticity has its drawbacks. It's a defining characteristic of history's greatest monsters, for one thing: Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot — nobody ever would have accused them of insincerity or ironic detachment. Then again:  Nobody would have accused George Washington, Mother Teresa, Winston Churchill or Nelson Mandela of insincerity or ironic detachment, either. A late-night comic never sent anyone to a concentration camp — or liberated one, either.

Granted, it's a trifle naive to ask for authenticity from most presidential candidates. You might as well ask a school of hungry piranha to show a little self-restraint. Still, if recent history offers any clue of what is to come for the next 18 months, it's a safe bet Holden Caulfield won't be the only one who wants to throw up.

This column originally appeared in the Richmond-Times Dispatch.