I'm old enough to remember when it was important for presidential candidates to be, you know, presidential. If a particular candidate couldn't quite wrap his or her head around the idea, they were usually weeded out by voters relatively quickly.
For the sake of clarity, being "presidential" is generally a have-it-or-don't personal character trait that's difficult to define and difficult to learn, but we know it when we see it. Generally speaking, it's about carrying oneself with unflinching dignity, self-confidence, and discipline. It includes a natural gift for projecting an ability to lead, and to do so without too many embarrassing, awkward gaffes. Whether we admit it or not, we like to feel as though the president is awake all night, every night, hunched Kennedy-style over the Resolute Desk worrying about how best to improve our lives.
(I was never able to get past the idea that George W. Bush went to bed earlier than most children.)
So, in the aftermath of the first Republican presidential debate the other day, and with a scant few exceptions, it's become extraordinarily obvious that the GOP has offered up a slate of candidates who utterly lack the presidential quality. While, yes, the debate proceedings were aired on Fox News Channel -- where it's de rigueur to flail and shout -- we're still talking about a presidential contest here. And that's true no matter how many candidates are in it simply to augment their speaker fees.
There's a reason why "clown car" has been the most oft-overheard zinger used against the Republican field, and it's all about the disgraceful lack of presidential stature. They're an island of misfit toys -- herky-jerky oddballs and circus-sideshow geeks who might seem acceptable inside the Fox News and talk radio bubbles, but the rest of the world can't help but to point and laugh. It all feels perfectly in line with the Trumpification of the Republican nominating process -- an alarmingly rapid change being driven by a reality show star with, admittedly, more media savvy than all of the other candidates combined.
Chris Christie, Rand Paul and, naturally, Donald Trump were the worst offenders during last Thursday's cattle call. Christie shouted at Rand, Rand shouted at Christie, Trump shouted at everyone except John Kasich, who was just happy for the national exposure. Contrary to what various focus groups have determined, and certainly contra-polling, Trump couldn't be less presidential in his bearing. Christie and Rand Paul are improvements, but not by much.
What we're observing now is the fruition of the idea that it's okay for candidates to blurt things out rather than conveying something like discipline and dignity. Prior to this year, the GOP managed to introduce and normalize the ridiculous idea of voting for candidates who are "just like us," candidates who we'd like to have a beer with. This is the next logical step.
Big deal. Anyone can blurt. YouTube commenters blurt. Twitter trolls blurt. The salient question is whether a guy who can blurt is president material.
I get it, though. In a post-Watergate, post-Lewinsky, post-Bush and Cheney era, we've grown cynical about the presidency; we're more susceptible to the idea that anyone can do the job. We've somehow figured, especially with the ascension of Trump, that personal discipline and carrying oneself with dignity is unnecessary because, I don't know, we want someone who can out-Putin Putin?
In a sane world, however, we ought to champion leaders who are considerably better than us in every way imaginable. We should vote for candidates who are vastly smarter, better organized, more self-disciplined. Our leaders should be elected based strictly upon how good they are. Not how ordinary or blurty. But, for the most part, the GOP presidential field is mostly the result of our diminishing standards. Lowering our standards to the level of a beer mug has already led to one Texas-sized two-term disaster. Six years following the end of the W. disaster, you'd think we would've learned our lesson. But it's only gotten worse.
Again, in a sane world, candidates like Trump would be summarily rejected, not elevated to frontrunner status. I mean, during the debate, he referred to all of our leaders as "stupid." Twice! Sure, there are many of them who aren't very adept at governing. But that's mostly our fault. George Carlin once described the reason why our politicians suck: It's garbage in, garbage out. He said, "If you have selfish, ignorant citizens, you're gonna get selfish, ignorant leaders."
The reality of the statement aside, the fact that Trump behaved like a petulant mean girl at recess should've been terrifying. Is this behavior statesmanlike? It statesmanlike or presidential, for that matter, to call one of the debate moderators a "bimbo," as Trump seemed to say about Megyn Kelly after the debate?
Oddly, some of the more traditional politicians on the stage Thursday night, such as Jeb Bush, or, in the earlier debate, Lindsey Graham, seemed like dinosaurs in a new world of obnoxious reality-show inspired grabassery. There's definitely no room these days for a Republican who accepts science, and more and more every day there's less room for candidates who carry themselves with that traditional presidential swagger.
We have to be very careful about where this trend will lead us. I realize that it's shouting at the clouds to demand that we somehow jam the Idiocracy egg back into the shell, but if there's any good judgment remaining in our collective tank, we'll snap back to where we should be. We'll remember, somehow, why exactly we need to elect presidents, not showmen who know how to pop-off controversial remarks. If we don't, we might as well throw in the towel and welcome our doofus overlords, because they're lining up around the block right now, waiting for the keys to the Oval.