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Presidential Fever Dreams

Our broken primary system sets few barriers to entry beyond a lack of shame and consuming appetite for celebrity.

Supporters celebrate as they find out that then-presidential candidate Donald Trump won the New Hampshire primary during on February 9, 2016. (Photo by Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images)

“I have so long and so often seen the evil effects of the presidential fever upon my associates and friends that I am determined it shall not seize me. In almost every case, it impairs if it does not destroy the usefulness of its victim.” — Then-Rep. James Garfield in a February 1879 diary entry, 16 months before he would be nominated for president without ever seeking the office.

Of all the ways in which shallow democracy afflicts our republic, none is more obvious than in the long, downward arc in the qualifications, character, and fitness of our presidents and presidential candidates.

Among the 45 men to hold the office, we have had many who were inexperienced, rotten, or infirm. But to have all three in a row points to serious problems with the process. 

We have all said at one time or another in recent years, some version of the following: “Out of a nation of 330 million people, are these two really the best we could come up with?” But the problem is not with our national character. There are thousands of men and women in this country who might make great presidents. The fault lies with political and media mechanisms that reward shallowness, selfishness, and cruelty and punish their opposites, especially that most essential quality of any great leader, humility. 

I will not bore you here with another of my jeremiads against our broken primary election system. The 50 years of declining discourse and deepening dysfunction that have followed the introduction of the modern system of primary elections makes the case better than I ever could. 

The introduction of more direct democracy into the work of partisan candidate nominations has been a disaster. We have been living in the wreckage for long enough that this should be clear to all. At every level, but particularly for the presidency, allowing what ends up being about 15 percent of the electorate to choose candidates for the nation as a whole has not delivered on any of the promises of the reformers who instituted the system four and five decades ago. 

As the poor quality of nominees continues to affirm, it is very possible to have a process that is both democratic and unrepresentative. 

But that’s not going to change in 2024. There is little appetite in either party for needed reforms, which is not surprising when you have an incumbent on one side and a de facto incumbent on the other. Perhaps changes working their way through the system at the state level, like ranked-choice voting, may improve our circumstances in future election cycles.

But in the meantime, we are left to consider a system that tends to set few barriers to entry beyond a lack of shame and consuming appetite for celebrity.

There is quite a rush of candidates entering the field of late, Republicans, Democrats, and others. And why not? The same thinking that causes voters to despair at their choices—“Out of a nation of 330 million people…”—makes  potential candidates wonder why they should stay out. Nor should we foreclose the possibility that one of them may be an agent of reform; that a person of capability, character, and compassion could still emerge. 

But whatever happens, please bear in mind that the good things that may come will occur in spite of how our parties choose nominees, not because of it. And for the ills that befall us in the next year and a half or thereafter, don’t forget how much a neglected, broken system is to blame. 


Holy croakano! We welcome your feedback, so please email us with your tips, corrections, reactions, amplifications, etc. at STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. If you’d like to be considered for publication, please include your real name and hometown. If you don’t want your comments to be made public, please specify.


STATSHOT

Biden Job Performance
Average approval: 42.4%
Average disapproval: 53.2%
Net score: -10.8 points 

Change from one week ago: ↑ 0.8 points                        
Change from one month ago: ↑ 2.4 points

[Average includes: Emerson: 41% approve-51% disapprove; NPR/PBS/Marist: 47% approve-49% disapprove; Quinnipiac: 42% approve-54% disapprove; USA Today/Suffolk: 40% approve-54% disapprove; Fox News: 42% approve-58% disapprove]

Republican Nomination, Average National Support
Trump: 50%
DeSantis: 23%
Pence: 6%     
Haley: 3.9%
Scott: 3.6%

[Average includes: Emerson, CNN/SSRS, Quinnipiac, USA Today/Suffolk, Reuters/Ipsos]


TIME OUT: BASEBALL’S SEXTONS 

New York Times: “With their varied surfaces and dimensions, baseball fields require some of the most meticulous care of any sports surface. For decades, grounds crews customized their fields to enhance the attributes of the home team. If your club’s pitchers induced ground balls, you might leave the grass higher to slow them down. Basepaths could be sloped toward fair territory if your team liked to bunt, or the other way if you had trouble fielding them. … Today’s grass height is usually determined by the requirements and health of the plant, depending on whether it is Kentucky bluegrass or Bermuda. The bluegrass at Camden Yards grows about the length of a fingernail overnight, [groundskeeper Nicole Sherry] said, so they cut it back every day to about 1¼ inches. … All of it, combined with years of gained expertise and an understanding of the climate surrounding each park, helps produce those luscious carpets of vivid green grass seen all across baseball.”


GOP SPENDING COULD ROCKET NORTH OF $1 BILLION

NPR: “The Republican presidential primary is getting crowded. With a former president and well-heeled politicians running, plus super PACs boosting them, it all points to what’s likely going to be the most money ever spent to win the GOP nomination.Early projections show it will likely cost close to or more than $1 billion. … One big reason for the potential jump in spending is … because many of them have deep pockets. [Trump’s] a billionaire, who can lend himself millions of dollars, but he’s also shown an ability to raise heaps of money from small donors. … Ron DeSantis has a significant donor base and tens of millions left over from his gubernatorial campaign … At the end of 2022, [Sen. Tim Scott] had more than $20 million cash on hand left over from his Senate races. No one is quite sure how much North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum is willing to spend, but he’s got it if he wants to use it.”

Ya Hurd? Texas moderate joins the field: Texas Tribune: “Former U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, announced Thursday he is running for president, becoming the first Texan with experience in elective office to enter the Republican primary. … Hurd, who represented Texas in Congress from 2015-21, begins his campaign as a major underdog. He is an unabashed moderate and a Donald Trump critic. … ‘Too many of these candidates in this race are afraid of Donald Trump,’ Hurd told CBS.”

Pence team blasts Trump over late pardons: Fox News: “Marc Short, who served as chief of staff for former Vice President Mike Pence, condemned the pardons former President Donald Trump handed down in the final hours of his administration. … ‘One of the most unseemly parts of the end of our administration was the pardons that Donald Trump gave to cocaine traffickers, to family members, to people guilty of violent crimes,’ Short said. … Short’s comments came the same day that Pence defended former President Donald Trump’s right to have his day in court, but dodged questions about whether Trump should be convicted if allegations against him are proven true.” 

Nancy Mace, MAGA adjacent: Politico: “He called her a ‘grandstanding loser’ and a RINO. She said his ‘entire legacy was wiped out’ on Jan. 6, 2021. But all of a sudden, Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) has turned into one of former President Donald Trump’s unlikeliest top defenders. … And [she] likely won’t be the last, as Republican elected officials maneuver ahead of a 2024 presidential primary that Trump continues to dominate. … ‘I’m willing to bury the hatchet to save the country, and I know President Trump is too.’ … Mace changing her tune on Trump and leaving open the possibility of backing his campaign is a sign that some of his one-time critics may soon enough wind up in his camp.”

REMOTE WORK RESHAPES DEMOGRAPHICS

New York Times: “During the pandemic, people who worked from home became significantly more likely to move — and more likely to do so than all other workers. … For New York, San Francisco, Washington and Los Angeles, significantly more remote workers left than arrived. By contrast, Austin, Denver, Dallas and Nashville all attracted a net influx of people working from home. That mirrors a pattern…that showed college-educated workers were increasingly migrating away from the most expensive parts of the country and toward relatively more affordable major metros. … ‘The real power of demographic change isn’t in one year — it’s whether these patterns persist year over year over year,’ said Hans Johnson, a demographer. … For some parts of the country, however, these trends already raise big questions.”

BRIEFLY

Delaware Dem Rochester launches heavily favored bid for open Senate seat —Politico

Lefty Dems victorious in Virginia legislature primaries—Washington Post

Cornel West laterals to Green Party ticket with help of Jill SteinBloomberg

WITHIN EARSHOT: ANOTHER SATISFIED CUSTOMER 

“Impressively correct.”—Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, describing to reporters a quote attributed to her reportedly calling Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colorado, “a little bitch.”


You should email us! Write to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM with your tips, kudos, criticisms, insights, rediscovered words, wonderful names, recipes and, always, good jokes. Please include your real name—at least first and last—and hometown. Make sure to let me know in the email if you want to keep your submission private. My colleague, the learned Nate Moore, and I will look for your emails and then share the most interesting ones and my responses here. Clickety clack!


CUTLINE CONTEST: IN THE NAME OF THE DONALD 

Former President Donald Trump waves after delivering remarks at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in Bedminster, New Jersey, on June 13, 2023. Trump appeared in court in Miami for an arraignment regarding 37 federal charges, including violations of the Espionage Act, making false statements, and conspiracy regarding his mishandling of classified material after leaving office. (Photo by Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump waves after delivering remarks at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in Bedminster, New Jersey, on June 13, 2023. Trump appeared in court in Miami for an arraignment regarding 37 federal charges, including violations of the Espionage Act, making false statements, and conspiracy regarding his mishandling of classified material after leaving office. (Photo by Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

Another fabulous week of funny entries as the Cutline Contest barrels into summer. Next week we’ll name June’s monthly winner, so get your entries in for the picture at the top of this week’s note to get your chance at immortality … or at least obscure political memorabilia. This week’s winner will be a serious contender. He read the countenance of the subject and the moment captured in the photo perfectly:

“… and with a wave of my beautiful hand, you are now ALL declassified.”—Tripp Whitbeck, Arlington, Virginia

Winner, Raise Your Hand if You’re Very, Very, Totally, Massively Sure Division: 

“Trump Deodorant—Keeps you dry for 24 hours!  Indictment? No problem. Try it today, and you’ll have pits like nobody has ever smelled before!”—Chris Lee, Corvallis, Oregon

Winner, Can He Get a Witness Division:

“Show of hands, who thinks I’m innocent?”—Brett Houseman, Vista, California

Winner, Know Your Worth Division:

“Who here has been indicted more times than he’s been elected?”—Jack Burnett, Chesnee, South Carolina

Winner, Fixer Upper Division:

“Former President Trump responds to a question about the height of the bathroom chandelier.”—Peter Gessel, Riverton, Utah

Winner, the Unger Games Division:

“I volunteer … someone else as tribute”—Tyler Ridden, Cleveland, Tennessee

Send your proposed cutline for the picture that appears at the top of this newsletter to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. We will pick the best entrants for each week and an appropriate reward for the best of this month—even beyond the glory and adulation that will surely follow. Be hilarious, don’t be too dirty, and never be cruel. Include your full name and hometown. Have fun!


THE OFFICE (MANAGER) OF THE KEYS 

Washington Post: “The owners of a Northern California taqueria chain will pay $140,000 in back wages and damages after federal investigators found they used a fake priest to elicit ‘confessions’ of wrongdoing from their employees. … As investigators contacted employees, they learned that a man who purported to be a priest had been introduced by the owner ‘to get the sins out’ of the restaurant workers. … The priest began the meetings with a prayer, Labor Department investigator Raquel Alfaro testified last year. He then asked the employees whether they were loyal to owner Eduardo Hernandez and whether they had ever stolen from him. … ‘As soon as the confession started, I found the conversation to be strange and unlike normal confessions, where I would tell a priest about the sins I wanted to confess,’ former employee Maria Parra said in her sworn declaration. ‘The priest mostly had work-related questions, which I thought was strange.’”

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics. Nate Moore and Jae Grace contributed to this report.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.