The candidate comes across, first and foremost, as not being completely full of shit. The journalist Joe Klein once wrote, in his guise as Anonymous, that “the handshake is the threshold act, the beginning of politics.” But today—at a moment when the national stage is cluttered with figures adept at left-right posturing but lacking utterly in authenticity—the threshold act is candor. Our man (or woman) is blunt and plainspoken, allergic to cant, averse to obfuscation. He’s never voted for the $87 billion before he voted against it. He’s never vowed to fire a leaker who turned out to be himself. He’s never professed to have any doubt about what the meaning of is is.
His frankness endows the candidate with a certain Bulworth quality. He assails the hypocrites and hypocrisies rife on both the right and left: the corporate-welfare parasites prattling on about the virtues of free enterprise; the teachers unions’ lobbying, in the name of education, for rules that feather their members’ nests; the Evangelical moralists touting their piety while deploring those of God’s children who happen to be gay; the Hollywood liberals preening over their hybrid cars while flying around in private Gulfstream jets that swallow more petroleum in an hour than a fleet of Escalades sucks down in a week. Thus does the candidate succeed in pissing off an assortment of muscle-bound constituencies. But he delights countless voters who crave a leader capable of surprise. Who, upon hearing yet another of his forays into the realm of the impolitic, find themselves nodding, smiling, gasping, “I can’t believe he said that.”
What’s most surprising about the candidate—especially since he doesn’t actually exist outside our imagination—is that he’s recognizably human. His résumé is flawed, his family life imperfect; he’s made mistakes and keeps on making them. But unlike George W. Bush or either of the Democrats who ran against him, the candidate is able to admit his errors and explain how he’s learned from them. Confronted with a question to which he doesn’t have an answer, he utters a phrase—“I don’t know”—that most politicians avoid as if it were synonymous with “I buggered the babysitter.”
The candidate is not a creature of the Beltway Establishment. Like most voters, he sees the capital as a vainglorious swamp, awash in cynicism and petty corruption; he views Washington machers almost universally as useless, witless gasbags. But his weapon of choice is subversive humor rather than populist rage; he carves up the political class not for engaging in a vast conspiracy but an absurdist comedy of manners. He’s more Jon Stewart than Howard Beale.
Yet the candidate’s critique is deeper and more nuanced than that. Behind the popularity of Stewart—and the rise of the Purple Party—is the simmering frustration with an increasingly polarized system that coughs up a series of false choices. As the academics (and former Clintonistas) William Galston and Elaine Kamarck put it in a recent paper, “Many Americans do not want to choose between a vigorous economy and a strong safety net, between individual liberty and national security, between social tolerance and moral tradition, or between military strength and international cooperation, and they resent a politics that forces them to do so.”
The candidate embodies an alternative. He borrows his campaign theme from Newt Gingrich, who suggested a slogan the other day that Democrats might employ against the GOP—though our candidate wields it like a cudgel against both parties at once. The slogan is a model of brevity. Just two words: “Had enough?”
“Had enough?” candidacies are, of course, not new to our politics. The Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley has written that “third parties are a constant presence in American public life”—and “Had enough?” has been the animating spirit behind all of them. But it wasn’t until Ross Perot trotted onto the political stage that “Had enough?” became the mantra of the center, as opposed to the periphery.
Now, Perot was a deeply unattractive candidate: short, bat-eared, prone to Tourette’s-like outbursts (“It’s just that simple!” “End of story!” “Here’s the beauty part!”) that indicated (not misleadingly) a substantial degree of dementia. And yet, even after quitting and blithely reentering the race in 1992, he pulled 19 percent. His appeal that year was not to the electoral fringes. He ran at George Bush and Bill Clinton squarely from the middle, arguing that the dominant parties had become knavishly beholden to their financial backers and terminally inept at dealing with the nation’s problems, notably the deficit. Like a cackling Texan version of Michael Dukakis, Perot promised competence, not ideology—to climb under the hood of government and overhaul the engine.