The spectacular strangeness of this presidential election may require a new display in Ripley’s Odditorium of believe-it-or-nots.
Among the exhibits, curators might place the History of Conventional Wisdom, wherein the page titled “Populists Never Win in America” has a large, red X drawn through the word “never.”
Like all things status quo, this bit of wisdom seems aimed for retirement. Indeed, no one wins this year by promising to keep things just the way they are. From the candidacies of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Donald Trump to the many thousands of fans who stand in line to catch a glimpse of these two, the letters in “unbelievable” are being worn off the keyboards of political commentators these days.
Then again, when have news folks been more delighted by the horror before them? Sad but true: What’s bad for the republic is good for cartoonists and columnists.
Further evidence of the uniqueness of this season is the power of small purses against the big money that Americans now find so offensive. You want to end income inequality? How better to send a message to Wall Street than to out-fund the nominee of the conventionally wise?
For the past three months, Sanders has outraised Hillary Clinton with mostly small, grass-roots donations, while Clinton, whose greatest deficit may be her membership in the pantheon of power politics, relies on big-donor fundraisers.
It is still Clinton’s nomination to lose, again according to conventional wisdom, but in a sense both Sanders and Trump would win by losing. Both have forced their respective parties further to the fringes and neither, one suspects, really wants to be president. Who would? Only a fool — or the truly duty-bound.
Into this camp I would place Clinton, who may feel it her duty to become president, and not only to satisfy what is necessarily a personal goal as an example to women the world over. I’d also put Ohio Gov. John Kasich next to her. In addition to seeming decent and sincere (and sometimes annoyingly cheerful), he conveys that he mostly wants to do the work.
And then there’s this other guy named Paul Ryan. Over on Capitol Hill, far from the madding crowd of rallies and racehorses, the newest speaker of the House of Representatives has been quietly reinventing the Republican Party by creating a new governing template.
Ryan recently spoke to Hill interns of his philosophy in terms of subsidiarity as an organizing principle in both his Catholic faith and his politics.
Politically, subsidiarity is the idea that matters should be handled by the smallest or least centralized competent authority. Similarly, in Catholic social thought, it means that nothing should be done by a larger centralized organization that can be done as well by a smaller organization.
Structurally, this is the argument behind federalism and the conservative case for limited government. Practically, subsidiarity means that Ryan is taking a bottom-up approach to leadership. This means that debating and promulgating policy proposals take place at the committee level, where a more diverse cross-section of voices and ideas can be aired.
Not all Catholics favor certain applications of subsidiarity, especially when it comes to welfare reform and other poverty programs. The schism within the church, in other words, reflects the divide between the two political parties. But both Republicans and Democrats may find common ground in Ryan’s application of subsidiarity to the conduct of the House, which is fundamentally aimed at inviting the American people to the table.
With a jaundiced eye, one notes that Ryan’s pro-people template seems rather well-timed for a contested convention and perhaps for unifying the party given the divisiveness and repulsion posed by Trump and, almost equally, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). Plainly, it would be dicey for party leaders to bypass Cruz or Kasich, but Cruz will lose in a general election and Kasich may lack sufficient support to justify promoting him from last to first.
Thus, an argument could be made for a fresher face, a former vice presidential pick, who has a record of working with Democrats, a man of faith and family values whose only real baggage is the suitcase he carries home each weekend to Wisconsin.
Finally and surely — surely — Ryan had something more in mind when he agreed to take the speaker’s job against the advice of so many. They feared, ironically, that he would be damaged by infighting and lose any shot at the presidency some day. Alas, he has done the opposite. We live and learn. And while President Paul Ryan may not fit today’s conventional wisdom, his nomination would barely register on Ripley’s odd-o-meter.