Opinion: 2020 voters knew just what they wanted

There has always been something faintly Old Testament about the way we Americans pick our presidents. Remember the first election of the 21st century when, by a 2-to-1 margin in national polls, voters found the country to be “headed in the right direction” and the then-term-limited President Bill Clinton was given a favorable job rating by 65% of his fellow citizens. Yet the electorate was not happy; voters were both disappointed and disillusioned by the young president’s adulterous sexual relationship in the very home of the president’s with a college-age White House intern — and the lies that followed. The Republican nominee to succeed Clinton, George W. Bush, had a solemn pledge to restore “dignity to the Oval Office,” which had immediate appeal to voters. It can be said that Bill Clinton “begot” George W. Bush.

That’s the way it works in presidential politics. Voters go looking for in the new candidates what had been missing in the incumbent who, in performance, judgment or leadership, just disappointed us. Recall the back-to-back presidencies of Democrat Lyndon Johnson and Republican Richard Nixon; both men had served in the U.S. House, the Senate and as vice president. It’s hard to imagine two chief executives more qualified by experience. And what was the end result? LBJ sent half a million Americans into a deadly, unwinnable war in Vietnam, and Richard Nixon, driven by paranoia, orchestrated from the Oval Office a criminal break-in of Democratic Party headquarters and then compounded that offence with a criminal cover-up involving payoffs and perjury.

Because Johnson and, to a far greater degree, Nixon had given experience a bad name, Jimmy Carter, an-out-of-office, former one-term governor of Georgia, could offer himself credibly to the 1980 electorate as the pristine outsider, unsullied and unstained by a long (or any) career in Washington. Nixon begot Carter, and Carter, an honest man who once in office seemed, unfortunately, to change his mind often, made possible, if not inevitable, the election of the ideological leader of the nation’s then-decidedly minority party, Ronald Reagan, who hadn’t changed his mind since at least 1964.

Reagan, like Clinton, left office after two terms with a 65% job approval rating, so the fight was on as to who was the most deserving heir to the Reagan legacy, a tussle won by the Gipper’s VP, George H.W. Bush, who, it can be said, won Reagan’s third term in 1988. Carter begot Reagan and Reagan begot George H.W. Bush. Which brings us all the way back to Bill Clinton, whose ability to convince voters that, in the midst of an economic recession, he “felt your pain” worked when George H.W. Bush, at a grocery store checkout counter, was befuddled by the electronic price scanner. Bush begot Clinton, and then, voters, Clinton begot Bush.

How about 2020, you ask? Well, when voters were asked who was more honest, voters named Joe Biden over Donald Trump by 53% to 35%. Who was the better role model? Trump 28%; Biden 54%. Who will bring the country together? Trump 30%; Biden 50%. Americans value compassion and decency and kindness.

That was apparent recently when Republican statesman Bob Dole, a former GOP nominee for both president and vice president, as well as the Senate Republican leader (of whom his opposite-number Democrat George Mitchell said, “He never broke his word in all our private dealings; you could trust whatever Bob Dole told you”), was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. Joe Biden did what Joe Biden has always done: He visited the sick. He comforted the afflicted and spent some time with an old friend on his way to Mass at Holy Trinity in Georgetown. We got what we were looking for when we chose Biden. It may be said that Trump begot Biden.

— Mark Shields is a columnist with Creators Syndicate.

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