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2016: The Demise of Small-r Republican Politics

A Commentary by Michael Barone

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Among the many complaints I have seen about this squalid presidential election -- the most dismal choice of major-party nominees since 1856 -- there's one that I find missing: that it shows how our politics have become less republican.

That's republican with a small r, in contrast to royalist. This is not an entirely new trend, but it is one that has reached a dismal culmination.

In his magisterial book "The Origins of Political Order," Francis Fukuyama shows how the progress toward good government -- "getting to Denmark" is his phrase -- involves a change from the familial to the institutional. Progress comes when a nation has a competent state, the rule of law and public accountability.

The course of this election can be seen as more familial than institutional, with key roles played by the Clinton family, the Bush family and the Trump family.

The Clintons, by deciding that Hillary Clinton would run for president at age 69 despite possibly significant health problems, effectively foreclosed the Democratic nomination and prevented a younger generation of Democratic politicians from competing.

That gave an opening to 74-year-old self-avowed socialist Bernie Sanders, her one visible opponent, to foist a left-wing agenda on the world's oldest political party. Sanders won all but two caucuses and held Clinton to 56 percent of the primary and caucus votes. Exit polls suggest she trailed Sanders among white voters with incomes under $150,000 -- once the Democrats' core constituency.

The Bush family insisted on running a third member for president despite plenteous signs that neither Republicans nor voters generally were hungering for another Bush presidency.

Jeb Bush had an admirable record as governor of Florida and could speak knowledgeably on foreign and military policy. But his candidacy overshadowed younger Republicans in the first half of 2015 and provided a perfect foil in the second for the insurgent Donald Trump, who ousted Bush from his poll lead within a month after his ride down the Trump Tower escalator.

In the meantime, Jeb Bush's super PAC spent something like one-third of its $100 million on deconstructing his onetime Florida ally Marco Rubio, who might have been a much stronger nominee than Trump.

The Trump family banked on the notion that a highly publicized billionaire and reality TV star would dominate free media coverage and shut off information about his 16 Republican opponents. A good bet. Trump got $2 billion worth of free TV time, including full coverage of rallies and phone-in cable news interviews, to save him the trouble of traveling more than the several hundred yards from Trump Tower to networks' Manhattan studios.

There is a royalist, rather than republican, undercurrent in all this. "Is it nice to trace how the actions of a retired widow and an unemployed youth become of such importance?" Walter Bagehot wrote in "The English Constitution" in 1867, referring to Queen Victoria and Edward, Prince of Wales. His point was that the public's curiosity centered on the "dignified part" of government, while it had little interest in the personal lives of leaders of its "efficient part," Parliament, such as William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli.

Now we have Hillary Clinton complaining about Donald Trump's groping women and Trump complaining that Clinton trashed women assaulted by her husband, both with some basis in fact.

In the meantime, royalist politics are taking us further from Fukuyama's Denmark. Government has been growing less competent. Look at Obamacare, veterans hospitals and immigration authorities failing to deport some 100,000 immigrants here illegally, including some who committed other crimes.

The rule of law is under continued attack. Hillary Clinton was not indicted for violating criminal laws by setting up her private email system and repeatedly lying about it, and the Justice Department has hampered the FBI investigation into the pay-to-play operations of the Clinton Foundation.

Trump repeatedly criticized a federal judge and has called for changing libel law -- i.e., for revising a 50-year-old Supreme Court interpretation of the First Amendment -- so he can sue reporters who write stories he doesn't like.

Each candidate has argued, persuasively, that the other should be disqualified from the presidency. Under a proper republican standard of accountability, both candidates would be. Unfortunately, elections are a zero-sum game; all but one candidate must lose, but one must win.

At the end of the Constitutional Convention, a bystander asked Benjamin Franklin what kind of government it would produce. "A republic, if you can keep it," he said. We're not doing a very good job of that this year.

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

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