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October 19, 2015

Few things about Donald Trump surprise me anymore.  But I must admit to being caught off guard when I read that the blame for his continued political buoyancy should be laid squarely at the foot of the incumbent President.

Nay nay you say?  Surely there are systemic issues with our nomination process or perhaps the asymmetric partisanship of the last 7 years has come back to haunt the Republicans.  Perhaps the “outrage industry” so thoughtfully laid out by scholars has had a cultural impact among the Republican base.

Nope. 

You see the rise of Donald Trump is a direct result of Senator Barack Obama’s successful nomination and election in 2008 and his reelection in 2012.

Here’s Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal describing the situation we find ourselves in with The Donald:

“The only thing I feel certain of is how we got here.  There is many reasons we’re at this moment, but the essential political one is this: Mr. Obama lowered the bar. He was a literal unknown, an obscure former state legislator who hadn’t completed his single term as U.S. senator, but he was charismatic, canny, compelling.  He came from nowhere and won it all twice.  All previously prevailing standards, all usual expectations, where thrown out the window.” 

So this “literal unknown” went ahead and “lowered the bar.”  And Trump stepped right over it.

Well.

Let’s dispense first with the word “literal.”  Any one of the following makes the use of the word literal incorrect:

  • Obama delivered an address in 20004 witnessed by millions of people at home and an electrified audience of Democratic public officials, party officials, and activists.
  • He wrote two best selling books. 
  • He won a statewide race in Illinois. 
  • From the moment he entered the US Senate, he was widely discussed as a possible presidential candidate. 

"He was a literal unknown" is literally incorrect. 

Furthermore, even if we grant that he was not as well known as others who ran for President in 2008, it is wrong to suggest that his victory represented something new in American political history.

Let’s take a stroll.

While Bill Clinton had served as Governor of Arkansas for 11 years when he took on George H. W. Bush in 1992, he was hardly a national figure.  For many reasons, Arkansas wasn’t viewed as a producer of prospective Presidents.  And given the immense popularity of Bush in 1991 Clinton was viewed as a decidedly second tier candidate at the outset.

It might be said that Clinton came out of nowhere to win.

Or we can go back to 1976 when former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter won the Democratic nomination.  Carter had served one term as Governor of Georgia, another state not known for producing prospective presidents.  He was hardly known among Democratic activists, public officials or just about anyone when he launched his bid for the nomination. 

Carter came out of nowhere and won.

If coming “from nowhere” and winning is an example of defying “previously prevailing standards” then it’s not Obama we should point fingers at but Clinton or Carter.  Or the other extremely unknown figures who won their party’s nomination: Wendell Willkie (never held any office), Warren Harding (also a first term Senator elevated to the White House), and John W. Davis.

Abraham Lincoln in 1860 was also an obscure former state legislator who served one term in the House and failed in a bid for the Senate.  He was a far more obscure figure nationwide than Obama was in 2008.

We might go all the way back to James K. Polk who won the Democratic nomination in 1844 over far better known candidates.

The reality is that American political history is replete with figures that seem to come out of nowhere to capture presidential nominations and sometimes the presidency.

But, seriously, no one paying attention to American politics between 2004 and 2008 could call Barack Obama obscure.

Now he certainly brought less experience in elective office than most of his modern predecessors.   Those who don’t like his politics often dismiss the experience he did bring as a community organizer, law professor, state senator, and US Senator. 

Fair enough. 

But it is an incredible stretch to suggest that a person with those experiences somehow lowered the bar in presidential nominations.

Laying blame for Trump at the feet of Obama is sloppy but easy.  It avoids the difficult conversations around why Trump has been so successful.

Our system has largely removed parties and party leaders from the process of nominating prospective presidents.  It encourages participation and is relatively open to those with no political experience but with a cause.

Trump punctuates a long line of those who hadn’t been elected to office: Jesse Jackson, Pat Robertson, Alan Keyes, Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes, and Herman Cain all thought they could translate their successes in other fields into successful presidential runs.

As I noted over the summer, “Donald Trump isn’t the first, merely the loudest” of this group. The difference this year is that the candidate pursuing a sideshow routine continues to lead in the polls.

This might tell us that something is seriously wrong with one of our parties.  It might suggest that the outrage trumpeted so regularly, so loudly, and with such great damage has come back to harm the party that has so skillfully used it.  It might cause us to reflect on some of the flaws of the system.

But doing so is complicated.  It’s much easier to say, “Trump? Thanks, Obama.”

Peggy Noonan, Donald Trump, Barack Obama

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