The four-year charade is over. Since the last presidential election, those angling to be the next chief executive have been wandering around Iowa and New Hampshire pretending that not only do they really, really, really care about the residents but they have so much in common with them.
Well, the gloss is off the snow now. Both early-voting states have rendered their verdicts and asserted their disproportionate influence on the campaign. As usual, they created losers and winners, mainly because we pretend that the lily-white populations of Iowa and New Hampshire somehow represent the nation’s electorate as a whole.
Now it’s on to the — how shall we say it — colorful states, the ones with demographically diverse populations, like most of the country. In the case of the Democratic candidates, they will be trying to show in every way they can that some of their best friends are minorities. Republicans will just as aggressively court white people, competing to demonstrate that their best friends are those who have varying degrees of animosity toward nonwhites.
The champion bigot thus far is, without question, The Donald, the billionaire who has used his supreme demagogic skills to manipulate the anger many feel about being cheated by our nation’s wealthy. In that time-dishonored way, he has created scapegoats by unleashing ugly racism and sexism with his simple-minded nasty rhetoric. He also has masterfully taken advantage of those in the news biz who love a great showman and, more passionately, the profits that ratings bring.
But he’s not the only one in his party who is pandering to those who seek solace in their irrational fears. Ted Cruz is marching into South Carolina looking to rally the religious hard-liners — a formidable base in the GOP, particularly in Dixie. Ben Carson is seeking the same support, but he’s barely holding on.
Marco Rubio isn’t quite so bad off, but he’s clearly damaged goods since the last debate, when he was outed by Chris Christie as an automaton reciting the same robotic script. Unfortunately for Christie, he still tanked in the New Hampshire primary. Realizing that Donald Trump has stolen his main shtick — obnoxiousness — Gov. Christie has now pulled out of the race and will return to running New Jersey, which he has largely ignored. Then there are candidates like John Kasich and Jeb Bush, who are going for the Republican moderates out there, all three of them.
As for the Democrats, they’re both making a strong case for my belief that elections are not won, they’re lost. Hillary Clinton is frittering away her every advantage, because as a candidate, she’s a stiff. She’s being done in by doubts about her honesty. Not only has she blown the questions about her hidden emails. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders exploits the bitterness at the wealthy who rule by purchasing our system of government. He makes grandiose promises. Hillary counters that she’d be more effective at taking on the financial behemoths, but her rhetoric rings hollow when we realize that she and her family have been made obscenely rich by the same oligarchs she’s promising to confront.
She’s so desperate that she’s already had to play the woman card, emphasizing how she would make history as the first female U.S. president. So far, however, the women voters are breaking for Sanders, which is pretty amazing. Maybe it’s because she and her surrogates have overplayed their hand. Madeline Albright may have done more harm than good with her remark, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” One would assume she wasn’t talking about Carly Fiorina. That’s a good thing, because Carly says she’s out. We’ll assume she’s telling the truth.
The defining issue this go around is anger. People realize that they’ve been had, and they want something done about it. The upcoming election is a test of whether our democracy can accomplish that. Don’t bet on it, when the promises we’re offered range from empty to full of hate.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.