The current presidential campaign is blowing up lots of political myths.
For years, the conventional lament was that the “wrong” Bush had run for president in 2000. George W. Bush was supposedly tongue-tied. He was said to be polarizing. He was derided as too much the twangy, conservative Texas Christian.
If only his younger, softer-spoken brother, then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, had run instead!
So the myth went.
Jeb was said to be far more bipartisan and judicious. Jeb, not W., was deemed by many to be the more likable and more competent descendent of their father, former President George H.W. Bush.
The 2015 debates now remind us how false that comparison was. W. may have been more controversial, but he was decisive, unshakeable, charismatic and connected with crowds in a way the bookish, distracted and “low-energy” Jeb has not been so far.
For four months, pundits wrote off the flamboyant Donald Trump for his brash name-calling, political inexperience, bombast, over-the-top narcissism – and even his wild, dyed, combed-over hair. But the wheeler-dealer Trump only rose in the polls each time pundits wrote his epitaph.
Why? Trump’s candidacy was largely created by underestimated popular outrage over the federal government’s politically motivated refusal to enforce immigration law. That issue divides elites, who are not so much affected by their own open-borders advocacy, from the middle classes, who certainly are.
Trump saw that angry divide and so far has brilliantly capitalized on it. Illegal immigration sent the Trump candidacy from nowhere to front-runner status – in much the same way that uncontrolled borders have all but imploded the once-popular German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
After Barack Obama’s two successful presidential elections, liberal and supposedly far more inclusive Democrats declared themselves the only party that looks like the new multiracial America. Republicans, in contrast, were written off as mostly old white fogies – has-beens bitterly clinging to their fading prior privilege.
The campaign has exploded that myth, too. The Republican field is far more diverse, although the candidates see their ethnicity as incidental rather than essential, in bumper-sticker fashion, to their personas. The candidates include the young (44-year-old Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal and Marco Rubio), the ethnically diverse (Cruz, Jindal, Rubio and Ben Carson), and successful outsiders who do not have political backgrounds (Carson, Trump, Carly Fiorina).
In contrast, the Democrat candidates appear far older, are all white, and are all political has-beens. Multimillionaire Hillary Clinton alone boasts of her female status (in a way her Republican counterpart, Fiorina, does not). But Hillary is neither young nor a fresh outsider. She represents half of a tired Clinton dynasty, whose old-boy network of Wall Street/Washington insider, big-money politics goes back well into the last century.
President Obama polls poorly, especially among conservatives. His team often hints that racism is the culprit. But the meteoric candidacy of Carson, an arch-conservative African-American who in some states is outpolling front-runner Trump, illustrates that Obama’s divisive left-wing agendas, along with his failed economic and foreign policies, are what finally turned off over half the country – not his race.
Media bias is usually dismissed as the whine of conservative crybabies. But anyone who saw last week’s CNBC debate noticed the embarrassing difference between the interviewers’ treatment of Republicans and how CNN had conducted its Democratic debate earlier last month.
Suddenly, an emboldened media gave up all pretense of objectivity in a brash way not seen since 2012, when presidential debate moderator Candy Crawley jumped in to help Obama’s floundering defense after Romney had criticized the administration’s handling of the Benghazi attack.
Hostile CNBC moderators grilled Republicans with “gotcha” questions along the lines of, “How long have you been beating your wife?” In contrast, CNN moderators in the Democratic debate created a love fest between front-runners Clinton and Bernie Sanders – and mostly ignored the back-of-the-pack candidates.
Usually an impartial media is not so crude in its liberal bias. But this time, the prejudices were so flagrant that they finally boomeranged on a discredited CNBC, whose moderators limped home from the debate licking their self-inflicted wounds.
Conventional wisdom also stated that governors make far better candidates – and presidents – than do senators. Supposedly, they are not Washington insiders, have executive experience and actually ran something.
But so far there is not a single former or sitting governor among the front-runners of either party. In fact, the most successful past or present governors – Bush, Jindal, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich, George Pataki, Rick Perry, Scott Walker and Martin O'Malley – struggle in the polls or have already quit the race.
Perhaps give-and-take governors have to make compromises and sound namby-pamby in the debates and on the stump. Senators and outsiders do and talk as they please, and seem more savvy about the media – and about raising big money.
The campaign has just started, and already past wisdom is proving to be ignorance – with more debunking to come.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of “The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern” You can reach him by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.