Howes: Is this the best country can do for president?

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Forget the cheering and bravado coming from Republicans in Cleveland this week.

The Republicans and the Democrats are each poised to nominate the most divisive candidates in the past 50 years.

Ignore the juvenile attacks, the crude analogies, the apocalyptic predictions of what could befall the United States should either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton be elected president in November. Ask yourself only this:

Is this the best we can do?

At a time of growing global instability and rising terrorism threats abroad, wanton cop killings, social division and the targeting of people at home because of their race, religion or sexual preference, American voters face a particularly dismal choice for president.

The Republicans offer a narcissist who says cogent policy is for losers. He mistakes name-calling for debate. He condemns entire demographic groups with sweeping generalizations. And evidently he thinks he alone can bend to his will Congress, allies and adversaries in the cause to “make America great again.”

The Democrats, meeting next week in Philadelphia, offer a high-functioning narcissist. Her rogue email practices exposed national security secrets to foreign rivals, the FBI director says, with staggering implications. And she mistakes the dull recitation of more government programs for leadership in an age devoid of it.

Unify behind either of these two? Hardly — not as parties, and certainly not as a nation. Don’t believe the rhetoric this week in Cleveland or next week in Philadelphia: both Trump and Clinton are preparing to head deeply divided parties with large constituencies alienated from their nominees — and each have themselves and their high self-regard to blame.

Trump’s coup d’GOP has the party in shambles. Scores of big-name Republicans are boycotting Cleveland, if they’re not being boycotted by Trump first for their lack of “loyalty.” Donors are hanging on to their wallets, or funneling their giving mostly to down-ticket races in hopes of retaining control of the House and Senate.

He’s readying for the general election push with, by presidential standards, a skeletal staff. He has few heavyweight advisers on foreign policy, economics or domestic affairs beyond his multi-tasking kids. His state-by-state campaign structures are dwarfed by their Democratic counterparts.

The party of seriousness, alleged realpolitik and fiscal rectitude this week will nominate a four-time bankrupt who gamed Chapter 11 like one of his failed casinos. He refuses to make his tax returns public, and only grudgingly offers policy proposals lest anyone get a sense of what he might actually do. He offers qualified praise for Saddam Hussein and Russia’s Vladimir Putin even as he trashes traditional U.S. allies.

By comparison, Clinton is the model of stability — or not. The party of FDR and JFK proposes for commander-in-chief a former secretary of state whose cavalier handling of sensitive government information likely would make her, much less her closest aides, ineligible to receive a security clearance. In any administration, that is, save her own.

What the Russians, Chinese or Iranians may have gleaned from Clinton’s basement servers, or the private e-mail accounts of her closest aides, the FBI isn’t saying. But you can bet the agency’s counter-intelligence arm is scrambling to determine just what the not-so-nice guys might have on the would-be president, the country she’s vying to lead and how enemies might use it.

Add her “secret” speeches to Wall Street, the sordid mess of the Clinton Foundation and at least the appearance that donations to it aimed to secure access in the next White House, and you have an Oval Office with “Compromised” stamped all over it. To what extent, the voters going to the polls in November so far do not really know.

Unifiers they aren’t. Neither of them.

It’s embarrassing, this choice between shrill incompetence on the right and rank corruption on the left. Amid unmistakable division over race and class, politics and economics, global trade and national security — and a crying need for unifying leadership — the Republicans and the Democrats are each poised to nominate the most divisive candidates in the past 50 years.

Both parties should be ashamed. Instead of fielding serious candidates for very serious times, they’re preparing to push flawed nominees who’d probably barely made it out of Iowa in saner times. You know, when policy, maturity and character still mattered to the body politic before it lost its collective mind.

Team Trump is proud that this week’s convention will be unconventional, as The Detroit News reported. Proud that former Republican presidents won’t be speaking, and that former Republican nominees won’t be, either, the stem-winders are expected to come from the star of “Duck Dynasty,” the president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and, of course, the Trump kids.

Wonder what they’ll say about the geo-strategic significance to the United States of the attempted coup in Turkey? Or Russian revanchism? Or the real costs of trade wars with the likes of Mexico and China and what they would augur for everyday folks whose standards of living are improved by access to less expensive (and foreign-made) goods?

The questions answer themselves, proving that American politics are slouching toward the conjuring of H.L. Mencken, the legendary writer of the first half of the 20th century: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.