When George Wallace ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972, his slogan was “Send Them a Message!” Last night’s winners might as well have used the same catchphrase. The New Hampshire primary was a political Festivus, in which Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders performed feats of strength while the electorate undertook the airing of grievances. Voters wanted to show that they were fed up with the political and economic establishments, and the double-digit margins got the message across quite vividly.
Trump and Sanders have become the voices of discontent by positioning themselves as “outsiders.” In neither case is the mantle a perfect fit. Sanders has held office for 33 of the past 35 years, and has always caucused with congressional Democrats. His avowed socialism scarcely sets him apart in a party that has galloped leftward ever since Bill Clinton let go of the reins in 2001. Trump has direct experience in government. Rather, he bought his seat at the table of power by spreading money liberally among New York politicians. If Trump supporters are right that most political insiders are prostitutes, then Trump has distinguished himself by being a john.
In the weeks ahead, as the delegate totals increase and the general election draws nearer, voters might start to realize that they are not just sending messages but picking people who could actually become president of the United States. Will this realization change the way that they think about their choices? If it does, then Sanders and Trump will have some problems. It’s not just that either would be the oldest man ever to enter the White House. What’s more important, both would also face questions about their qualifications.
For all his years in office, Sanders seems to have some gaps in his knowledge. James Hohmann of The Washington Post reported on last week’s debate: “The Vermont senator, leading in polls ahead of Tuesday’s primary, conceded that the former secretary of state has more experience on international issues, but he argued that he has superior judgment. When pressed for specifics, though, Sanders offered simplistic answers that were anything but reassuring to experts and elites.” Sanders is scarcely more reassuring on domestic policy. He recently wrote: “Any Supreme Court nominee of mine will make overturning Citizens United one of their first decisions.” Apparently he did not realize that the court cannot change precedents at will: it has to wait for actual cases to come before it. And in any case, no president can bind justices to vote a certain way.
Trump’s qualification problems are even worse. His misstatements of fact are so numerous that fact-checkers have practically given up counting them. When someone does catch him in a whopper – such as his preposterous claim that he saw thousands of American Muslims cheer the attack on the World Trade Center – he just sticks to his false story. Given that a president has to make life-or-death decisions based on judgments about foreign intelligence, it would be disturbing to have a president who thinks, “If I believe it, then it’s so.”
George Washington could not tell a lie. Joe Isuzu could not tell the truth. Donald Trump cannot tell the difference.