Who Needs These Bums, Anyway?

2016 features the sorriest bunch of candidates in more than 150 years.


Iowans held their caucuses (cauci?) Monday. Not that it matters. Iowa does a lousy job of predicting final winners even in normal elections, which this isn't. Besides, the results left a bad taste in a lot of people's mouths—as, it seems likely, the rest of the election year will do

And well it should. Americans are looking over the sorriest bunch of candidates to run for president since, maybe, the 1856 three-way contest pitting James Buchanan against Millard Fillmore and . . . um, that other guy.

On the Democratic side we have Hillary Clinton, who is generally regarded as a scheming, manipulative liar—a woman so self-serving and smarmily disingenuous she makes a used-car salesman look like Thomas Merton. And that's just the opinion of her supporters. The undecideds think even less of her, and Republicans who hear her name have been known to spontaneously combust.

Then there's Bernie Sanders, a man of the hard left, the kind of socialist who thinks every American should have gainful employment—but nobody should be an employer, because that's not fair. He's so authentic he doesn't even pretend to like you, let alone running for president. He's just doing it to get some things off his chest, such as how the rent is too damn high. No, wait, that was someone else. ATM fees! That's it. Sanders thinks ATM fees are too high. Because of the millionaires and billionaires.

On the Republican side there's Donald Trump, whom a lot of people seem to really like because he's tough and brash and tells it like it is—even though he's about as coherent as a Skid Row bum reciting Dylan Thomas on Quaaludes. Trump is the farce part of Santayana's remark about history repeating itself. Or at least we hope so.

Trump's chief competitor is Ted Cruz, who comes across in public as a third-rate televangelist. He must come off even worse in private, because he seems to be thoroughly detested by everyone who has ever had the slightest contact with him. The word most often associated with Cruz is backpfeigengesicht, a German term that, loosely translated, means "a face begging to be slapped."

Republicans do have Marco Rubio—who appears to be smart, sane, and not evil, and many people think he will make a great president someday when he gets through puberty.

A bunch of other Republicans are running too, most of them polling around 1 percent or less. Don't want to peak too early.

Then there's Gary Johnson—a former Republican and two-time governor of New Mexico, an entrepreneur who grew his company from one employee to more than a thousand, the sort of guy who relaxes by climbing the world's seven tallest mountains and running 100 miles through the Rockies in 30 hours. But now he's running as a Libertarian, which means he would be lucky to pull even with Mike Huckabee, who has dropped out.

All of this might seem discouraging to anyone looking for a president who can rouse the nation to heroic feats of national glory. The sort of candidate whose speeches can make women swoon and grown men cry—who can make them forget their petty personal troubles, their small dreams and humdrum lives, and devote themselves to vast collective enterprises that are so much bigger and grander.

But why should anyone want a candidate like that?

After all, America was founded on the notion that people should be free to pursue their own happiness—not to fall in line behind someone else's. Granted, the right kind of policies can make the pursuit of happiness easier. And somebody needs to have a hand on the tiller when the country is staring down the Nazis or the Soviets. It's good to have an FDR or a Reagan around when you need one.

The trouble is that people can grow dependent on great leaders. Just look at the GOP, which is still mooning after Reagan more than a quarter-century later, like the Washington Redskins wishing they still had Joe DiMaggio. (Not sure if that's the right sports reference, but you get the idea.)

And isn't that a trifle sad? The idea that we're helpless to set things right again unless we find another Reagan or Kennedy or FDR? If it's true, that's quite an indictment of the American people.

Say this much for the current crop of presidential contenders: Nobody (except perhaps some of the more deluded Trump fans) is looking to November's winner to wave a magic wand and solve all our problems. Which means we'll just have to solve them ourselves. And despite what our would-be saviors say, some of us think Americans are still up to the job.