Moment of Truth: A Confounding Presidential Election Year

EI-NatalieGBy the time this column is read, the 2016 presidential election will be in full gear. Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina will be a fait accompli or thereabouts. No longer will voters be able to settle for entertainment and cheap talk. It’s time to vote.

If you are like me, you find the 2016 presidential election absolutely confounding. One need to look no further than to the remarks made by Gov. Nikki Haley in her official Republican response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address. Instead of focusing her criticism on the Democratic Party, she challenged the front runner of her own party: “During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation.”

Seeking change

Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan has said a new playbook is emerging. According to Noonan, conventional candidates are reading from the old playbook and wondering why their plays aren’t working. The competent Jeb Bush comes to mind.

This year calls for a new set of plays.

Enter Donald Trump—the most entertaining, bombastic, inconsistent, angry, offensive, straight talking and popular candidate on the stump. He’s offended women, religious minorities, Latinos, other Republicans and, yes, even hairstylists. Through it all he keeps attracting crowds and continually steps closer and closer to the presidency.

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders present a choice to the American public that feels like no choice at all. This country may have taken a step toward the center left because of the Republican Party’s missteps on immigration and government shutdowns, but I doubt the American public will elect a socialist president any time soon. This leaves Clinton, a voice from the past, as the only option for Democrats. This does not feel like an option for many people with the future in mind.

Earlier in the election cycle I was OK with the craziness. I felt much like New York Times columnist David Brooks when he opined: “Voters aren’t making final decisions…they’re in the dressing room. They’re trying on different outfits. Most of them are finding they like a lot of different conflicting choices.” Our time in the dressing room has now past.

And here’s the truth. In a world with the Islamic State group terrorizing the civilized world, Vladimir Putin acting like a thug, North Korea treating nuclear weapons like a sporting event and cybersecurity threats mounting, we don’t have the luxury of trying on a lot of outfits, shoes and jewelry. It’s time to make a serious decision. We need to decide whose finger is on the nuclear trigger for the next four years.

Healing divisions

Which brings me back to the anger and division I sense in the American people. Our U.S. government isn’t working.

In his State of the Union Address, Obama acknowledged the problem and his role in it. He said, “It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency—that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.” He continued, “There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.”

I appreciated his honesty. And for me, it provided a glimmer of hope.

Within our polity we have differing views about the proper role of government and America’s role in the world. I get that. I also believe most of us see some value in every candidate—Sen. Rand Paul’s respect for markets, Gov. Chris Christy’s dogged focus on getting things done, Ben Carson’s remarkable personal story, Clinton’s intellect and experience, Sen. Marco Rubio’s fresh ideas, Gov. Jeb Bush’s executive experience, Sanders’ focus on helping society’s most vulnerable people, and so on.

What I don’t get is why one of these very talented candidates doesn’t start speaking from their heart about what America really needs, and what Obama opened the door for them to magnify. America needs unity. It’s not Republican or Democrat right now. It’s American. We need to unify as an expression of our patriotism for this great country. The world needs us; and we need our better selves.

In the final analysis, Trump is popular not because he’s entertaining. He’s popular because he mirrors the disgust of the American citizenry with a political system that isn’t working. As Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens said, “The leader isn’t the problem. The people are. It takes the demos to make the demagogue.”

We need to find a way to unify and take our politics back. The person who can do this will get my vote.

Natalie Gochnour is an associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber.