On the eve of the U.S. Republican presidential debates, with no fewer than seventeen Republican hopefuls competing for their party’s nomination - the crowded field has sparked a race to the bottom when it comes to flame-throwing rhetoric that will grab a headline.
Donald Trump was the first to realize that remarks that were once considered objectionable are now the key to attracting attention and generating a “buzz.” That spotlight and attention added to the advantage of name recognition he possessed and it bred shockingly high poll ratings - which spurred more coverage - which gave him more attention, in an upward cycle that his rivals haven’t been able to break.
It’s not as if they haven’t tried. Mike Huckabee grabbed a few headlines away from Trump by denouncing the nuclear agreement with Iran with an accusation that President Barack Obama is marching Israelis to "the door of the oven,” first saying it, and then, to make sure nobody missed his lightning-rod Holocaust reference, tweeting it as well. Ted Cruz, who pre-Trump, was considered the “loose cannon” in the field, echoed the sentiment by calling the Iran deal a “jihadist stimulus bill.”
The remarks drew a White House response, which pretty much had no choice but to react to a statement that horrific. A disgusted President Obama called the Huckabee remarks “part of just a general pattern that we've seen that is, would be, considered ridiculous if it weren't so sad." and that “what has historically made America great is that part when it comes to foreign policy there's been a recognition that these issues are too serious that issues of war and peace are of such grave concern and consequence that we don’t play fast and loose this way … we don’t just fling out ad hominem attacks like this because it doesn’t help inform the American people.”
To the jaded post-2015 Israeli ear, the American president’s observation sounds almost hopelessly naive. Inform? Our right-wing politicians cared nothing about “informing” us, doing everything in their power to scare us - one in which ugly comparisons of political rivals to Nazis and terrorists was a regular occurrence.
Watching these candidates jockey for position over this long hot summer in the United States evokes a certain amount of déjà vu for Israelis who have lived through its own national political campaign and election last March.
It’s depressing to see such familiar tactics taking place in such a large and powerful democracy like the United States that one would hope know how to behave better. But it seems to be a universal truth that there is a part of the electorate that is so sick of politicians repeating careful worded and tested platitudes and stick to a carefully honed message, that sound rehearsed and insincere.
Maverick politicians who seems to be saying what they actually believe - as offensive as it may be - wins a certain grudging admiration along with media attention for speaking out with brutal honesty, as Naftali Bennett puts it, with “no apologies.”
Some Republicans are clinging to the high road, trying to be the responsible adults and preserve their image for a national race. Jeb Bush says Republicans must “tone down the rhetoric” if they want to win next November. For now, the polls are not rewarding Bush for doing so, with Trump leapfrogging over him by a double-digit lead.
Meanwhile, the Democrats are holding their tongues and crossing their fingers, hoping that loose cannons like Trump, Huckabee, and Cruz are doing enough damage to the Republican brand that it will hurt the party in the general election.
They do so at their own risk. Left-wing and centrist Israelis also believed during their campaign that reason and sanity would win out over the bluster of the loose cannons of the right wing, and failed to attack them aggressively in the early weeks of the campaign. They were convinced that the right had taken their scare tactics and racism too far and that the electorate would react against it - opting for more responsible and measured leadership. They were wrong. Instead, positions that seemed like outrageous, fringe, anti-democratic positions at first were repeated so frequently, that by the end of the campaign, they began to sound mainstream.
It will take a while to see whether the story of the 2016 U.S. race has a different and better ending - that the disturbing circus of the campaign’s early days aren’t going to set the tone for the entire election, as it did in Israel. One can only hope.
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