I never thought I’d look back fondly on the days when a political campaign could be crippled by the public’s reaction to a snowflake that looked like a teardrop.
We used to have so little tolerance for anything that even hinted of scandal in our public servants that even the slightest (perceived) imperfection could disqualify them.
In 1971, Edmund Muskie was the Democratic frontrunner for the presidency until his reaction to a published letter attacking his wife tested his composure. He appeared to wipe away a tear at a news conference, and that was all it took to send him on a downward trajectory in the polls. Muskie himself said he was wiping away a melting snowflake that landed on his face, but it didn’t matter. He was done as a viable candidate. Just like that.
In 1987, Douglas Ginsburg withdrew his name from consideration for the U.S. Supreme Court after it was revealed that he’d used marijuana “on a few occasions.” Around the same time, Gary Hart went from early favorite to also-ran in the Democratic presidential race based on accusations of an extramarital affair. Both he and the woman in question, Donna Rice, denied (and continue to deny) the accusations, but that didn’t matter. Hart was finished.
Compare Hart’s alleged dalliance with the numerous accusations against Bill Clinton, who became president a few years later – including one that involved a White House intern and a blue dress. Clinton survived in what may have been the turning point in the public’s perception of political faux pas.
Instead of going on the defensive, Clinton acted as though he was the victim of some affront, declaring forcefully that he “did not have sex with that woman,” while his wife, Hillary Clinton, proclaimed that her husband was the victim of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” Republican lawmkers’ insistence on pursuing impeachment charges, when it was already clear that the Democrat-majority Senate would never convict Clinton, only added to the impression that they were out to get him.
The great story here for anybody willing to find it and write about it and explain it is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president. - Hillary Clinton
Suddenly, the Clintons, not Lewinsky, were the aggrieved parties. Never mind that Clinton’s actions were, at best, highly inappropriate and, at worst, a flagrant abuse of power. But those actions became obscured by the Republicans’ determination to make him pay, come hell or high water, for their own political purposes.
To this day, supporters of the Clintons routinely answer any criticism against them by maintaining it’s all merely part of a Republican strategy to discredit them. Of course, Republicans do want to discredit them – often with accusations so blatantly partisan that they border on the ridiculous to most objective observers.
But the flipside of the coin is this: The public has become numb to serious accusations against the Clintons that don’t stem from Republican sources at all. Is Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist, really at tool of the Republican party? It’s hard to argue that. Yet his campaign’s charges that the Democratic National Committee sought to tilt the playing field in Clinton’s favor are hard to deny in the face of recently released emails.
What it comes down to is this: The public is so fatigued at wading through the he said/she said morass of accusation, denial, conspiracy theory and high dudgeon that they’ve thrown up their hands and stopped paying attention. They don’t want presidents to do … that … with White House interns, but they don’t want interminable impeachment hearings that distract Congress from addressing the issues facing the nation, either.
The Bengazi hearings proved the Republicans hadn’t learned their lesson from the impeachment debacle. The biggest winner was Hillary Clinton, who wound up looking like the victim of a ridiculously expensive partisan witch hunt.
He’s not a war hero. He (John McCain) was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured. - Donald Trump
Which brings us to Donald Trump, who, if anything, has upped the ante to unprecedented levels. He can insult a former POW (John McCain), claiming he wasn’t a real hero. He can falsely accuse Barack Obama of being a noncitizen. He can make crude and demeaning comments about women, do the same thing about immigrants and falsely claim that thousands of American Muslims cheered the collapse of the World Trade Center.
And nobody cares. They don’t care about his bankruptcies, Trump University or, really, anything else he does.
They don’t care because they’re tired of the blame game that’s been going on between the Clintons and Republicans for decades now. Some even call Trump “refreshing” because he “tells it like it is” and doesn’t lock everything up so tightly no one can tell what’s real and what’s not. They’re so sick of pervasive secrecy on the one hand and the endless investigations on the other that Trump seems like a breath of fresh air ... no matter what he actually says.
The irony is that the Clintons – along with congressional Republicans – paved the way for Trump’s success by making it possible to do or say virtually anything with impunity, because so many people stopped caring.
Just eight years ago, our presidential ballot presented us with the choice between a law professor and a war hero. Today, we have a matchup between a pair of candidates who behave very much like Huey Long and Richard Nixon, the two most unpopular candidates in modern history.
What I wouldn’t give for a wayward snowflake now.