Is this insanity? Presidential elections have become a choice between the lesser of two evils

We're practicing Groundhog Day politics

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The American voter has a Marxism problem. It’s Groucho’s Marxism, not Karl’s.

A Hollywood gossip columnist named Erskine Johnson reported on Oct. 20, 1949, that Groucho had recently sent the Friar’s Club a telegram containing his resignation. “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members,” it said.

The gag line became a classic. In the opening monologue of Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall,” his character, Alvy Singer, says that famous Groucho line is “the key joke of my adult life in terms of my relationships with women.”

A variation of the Groucho joke has become the key joke for American voters in terms of their relationships with presidential candidates – and, perhaps, presidents. We don’t want the kind of person who runs for president to be president.

Our Marxist problem is a Catch-22, but perfectly understandable.

The essential activities of running for president include: pretending you’re not running while you’re actually running; raising money from special interests and wealthy individuals; using that money to buy TV ads that are manipulative, misleading and obnoxious; marketing yourself, your history, your family and your policies; enduring every imaginable insult, indignity and exposure for months and months.

Would you be willing to run for president? Would you want your child to run for president? Would the most impressive and qualified person you’ve ever encountered be willing to run for president?

It makes sense that we don’t really want to vote for anyone who is willing to run. Or maybe it’s that the process of running turns a saint into schnook.

It doesn’t matter. What’s clear is that popular, respected candidates are as rare as Spotted Owls.

The HuffPost Pollster publishes a constantly updated aggregation of other polls. It tracks the favorability ratings of Hillary Clinton and eight potential Republican opponents.

Of these nine candidates, only two are viewed favorably – barely: Marco Rubio and Ben Carson each have a favorability rating that is one percentage point higher than their unfavorable numbers. Of course, neither of these candidates is well known nationally.

The “hold your nose and vote” phenomenon is not new, though it seems to be growing more entrenched.

In the 1992, 1996 and 2000 elections, the winner did not win a majority of the popular vote. Ronald Reagan got 58.5 percent of the popular vote in 1984, and that was the last time a presidential candidate had anything close to a blowout victory. These are elections about the lesser of two evils.

So it’s no big shocker that recent presidents have not been able to hold on to good will and public approval. George W. Bush was wildly popular right after 9/11 but his approval rating steadily declined after 2002 and was under 50 percent during his second term. Obama started his presidency with astronomical numbers, but they soon sank like Bush’s though not quite so low.

Groucho Marxism also applies to our big national clubs, not just public figures. According to Gallup, there are literally only three clubs a majority of Americans would want to belong to – the military, small business and the police. These are the only institutions that majorities have confidence in – not the Supreme Court, not medicine, not the presidency, not journalism, not organized religion and not big business.

What’s the least popular club in America? The United States Congress: A whopping 8 percent of Americans have confidence in Congress, an historic low.

Someone – not Groucho Marx – once said that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  If so, we’re clinically insane when it comes to elections. We do the same thing over and over again.

The same two teams use the same alienating tactics and the same tuckered-out formulas, and we experience the same disenchantment when the results are the same as the past 10 elections. This is Groundhog Day politics.

Reformers have focused on tinkering with only one element in this dynamic, the financing of campaigns. That project is now kaput thanks to the Supreme Court. And there is no serious push for other logical campaign detox steps: shortening campaigns, altering the primary calendar, encouraging third parties or curbing gerrymandering. Voters do not insist on change and express their displeasure mostly with passive contempt that is easily and repetitively ignored by office-seekers and office-holders.

Another quote from Marx is apt. This time it’s Karl Marx. He said, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”

[Also by Dick Meyer: Audio books for your summer ‘reading’]

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