Building the Frankencandidate

Photo: From left: Corbis; Getty Images

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.”

Introducing the Purple Party Building the Frankencandidate But Is a Third Party Possible? Ladies and Gentlemen, the Next President and Vice President…

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.

Although Perot’s popularity proved ephemeral, the yearnings he stirred up—for a more-or-less moderate, pragmatic straight shooter, light on pomposity and pabulum-spewing, heavy on authenticity—have hardly faded from the scene. You could see them in 1996 in the brief but tantalizing boomlet around an independent run by Colin Powell. You could see them in both 2000 and 2004, when millions of voters pined for John McCain to split from the Republican Party and seek the White House under his own steam.

The craving for candidates like these has only been heightened by the fare on offer in the past two national campaigns. Whatever qualities might be ascribed to Bush, centrism and pragmatism are not among them; on foreign policy, fiscal policy, and much else, he’s been the soul of immoderation, neither compassionate nor conservative, but instead a reckless, feckless radical. As for the Democrats, John Kerry demonstrated in 2004 a congenital incapacity for plain talk and a reliance on mindless market-testing—going so far, Joe Klein reports, as to focus-group his response to Abu Ghraib (in the end, he said nothing)—rivaled only by his inability to remove the proverbial stick from his tightly clenched Brahmin bottom.

Improbable as it might seem, 2008 augurs little better. It’s often noted that the coming campaign will be the first since 1928 in which neither the sitting president nor vice-president will be grasping for the ring—so, in theory, the race is wide open. But, in practice, it’s likely to be a battle between two formidable front-runners: Hillary Rodham Clinton and McCain.

The problem with Clinton, pace the right, isn’t that she’s a nuthouse sixties liberal. And, pace the left, it isn’t that she’s willing to betray her principles in order to get elected. The problem is that, even after watching her on the national stage for more than a decade, it’s impossible to ascertain if she has any principles at all that are independent of political calculation. Does she, in her heart of hearts, believe in the bill she co-sponsored to criminalize flag-burning? No one—including, I suspect, her closest confidants—really knows. Thus we have the template for the campaign that she will run: a campaign of perpetual triangulation, a maddening, wearisome game of hide-and-seek, executed with none of her husband’s finesse or his grander vision.

McCain, meanwhile, is playing a different game but one no less confounding. Where Clinton is triangulating to position herself for the general election, McCain is racing to the right to ensure his nomination—cozying up to Jerry Falwell (whom McCain denounced in 2000 as an “agent of intolerance”), cheerleading for Bush, endorsing the teaching of “intelligent design” in the public schools, supporting a constitutional amendment in Arizona to ban same-sex marriage. For the partisan androgynes who have long regarded McCain as a maverick, the genuine article, his maneuvers present a devil’s choice: Believe your eyes and accept that he’s actually a more conventional conservative than you thought—or believe your gut, assume that he doesn’t believe a word he’s saying, and accept that he’s a panderer, a standard-issue hack.

What of Rudy Giuliani? Certainly it’s true that our former mayor is polling as strongly as Clinton or McCain (and, in some surveys, more strongly than either). But Giuliani knows that once his stances on social issues (abortion, gay rights, gun control) are widely apprehended (and once the pictures of him dolled up in drag make their rounds on the Internet), his acclaim among GOP-primary voters may prove evanescent. So he travels the country, raising cash for raving rightists such as Senator Rick Santorum. In a speech to the Global Pastors Network—whose leaders believe that the apocalypse is just around the corner—he declares, “I appreciate what you are doing: saving people, telling them about Jesus Christ, and bringing them to God.”

Depressing? Sure—unless you happen to be fomenting a third party. Taken together, the machinations of Clinton, McCain, and Giuliani provide a vivid illustration of precisely why the Democratic and Republican duopoly has become so intolerable to so many: It has eaten away at the vital center, hindered new thinking, and made ever rarer the manifestation of conviction in politics. And it’s created a yawning vacuum to be filled by the candidate of our dreams.

The candidate is a prismatic figure. Glimpsed from one angle, he bears a resemblance to the m embers of a cadre of Washington politicians, current and retired, unusual for their independence, whatever one thinks of their individual positions. Joe Biden, Chuck Hagel, Gary Hart, and Warren Rudman have all demonstrated the requisite ideological ambidexterity. So have Barack Obama, vintage 2000 McCain, and, duh, Bill Clinton. And so have two transplanted New Yorkers and one true Gotham original: Bob Kerrey, Bill Weld, and the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, each of them heroically eccentric, iconoclastic, and ill-disposed to pat answers and knee-jerkery.

But our candidate’s character is richer, more eclectic than that. We like to think of him (in just this one respect) as biblical: He contains multitudes.

On matters of national security, the candidate is a mash-up of 24’s Jack Bauer and Colin Powell. In an age of terror, he approaches foreign policy from a bedrock posture of strength and resoluteness—but also savvy and humility. Unlike too many Democrats, he takes seriously the notion that America is in the midst of a global struggle with jihadism (hence the Bauer gene). But unlike many Republicans, his instincts are multilateral (hence Powell—in his Bush 41 incarnation, that is—or Bush 41 himself, for that matter).

On economics, the candidate is one part Warren Buffett, one part Bob Rubin, and one part Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google. The candidate knows that, in an ever more tightly wound world, foreign policy and economic policy are inextricably enmeshed, that prosperity and security go hand in hand. He embraces free trade, gets the money markets, and is obsessed with restoring fiscal sanity to Washington. But much as he groks the transnational flow of goods and capital, he understands that the flow of information is driving globalization—and that innovation holds the key to helping America’s workers adapt to the new reality.

The candidate, if it’s not clear already, is a bone-deep capitalist. But like Hank Paulson, the head of Goldman Sachs, and Lord John Browne, the head of BP, he rejects the notion that raking in the dough is incompatible with being green. He rejects, too, the idea that being hardheaded precludes empathy; quite the contrary. Unlike almost anyone in either party, he talks about poverty and plans to attack it, and not just in the U.S. His makeup includes a dash of Bono and a pinch of Oprah Winfrey.

Onstage and on camera, the candidate is a cross between Tom Brokaw and The West Wing’s Josiah Bartlet—even-keel, charismatic, and fatherly, a new Great Communicator. True, the mildly messianic aura this creates can be a bit nonplussing, but he leavens it with a penchant for being politically incorrect. The candidate’s favorite television show is South Park, and his sense of humor draws from the well of Trey Parker and Matt Stone. In private, there’s a touch of Chris Rock in the mix—profane and funny as hell.

Clinton is triangulating, while McCain is racing to the right. Depressing? Sure—unless you want to start a third party.

One of the primary attractions of a third party is that it’s a venture into tabula rasa territory: Being built from scratch, it’s unencumbered with entrenched constituencies to constrain its policy options. The Purple Party’s platform would range across the spectrum, drawing from the best of the right, the left, and the radically pragmatic middle, advancing positions without regard to whose orthodoxies were offended—or whose oxen were gored. The candidate would wage a crusade on behalf of these ideas, few of which would ever be (could ever be) put forward by a Democrat or a Republican but which strike the party as crucial. Herewith, a few examples:

Tax gas. As Cornell economist Robert Frank has argued, imposing a hefty new tax on gasoline—$2 a gallon, say—would produce manifold benefits: “significant reductions in traffic congestion, major improvements in urban air quality, large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and substantially reduced dependence on Middle East oil.” The Washington smart set dismisses this idea as politically impossible. A new tax? God forbid. But, as Frank suggests, the proceeds could be refunded to voters in the form of lower payroll taxes—and with that twist, the idea has even been endorsed by anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist.

Make national service mandatory. Since 9/11, politicians on both sides of the aisle (and especially Bush) have chanted in unison that America is at war. And yet apparently this is a war that demands no shared sacrifice. Requiring every citizen to serve two years—ideally in the military, but at least in an expanded version of AmeriCorps—would eradicate that fiction. Back in the “ask not” days of John Kennedy, the draft not only guaranteed a full supply of soldiers, but ensured at least one sphere in our civic life in which rich, poor, and middle class mingled. And does anyone doubt that the invasion of Iraq wouldn’t have been undertaken so cavalierly if the elite had some skin (in the form of their children) in the game? Speaking of which . . .

End the war on terror. Or, rather, redefine it. The demagoguing of 9/11 has poisoned our politics at home and contributed mightily to the diminishment of our standing in the world. And terror is, after all, a tactic, and war can’t be waged on (let alone won against) a tactic. The goal instead should be combating the spread of Islamo-fascism. By that standard, the Iraq war was a mistake from the start, one likely to fuel the fire of jihadism rather than dampen it. Extracting ourselves from Bush’s disaster without allowing Iraq to implode will be no easy thing. But the process must begin with a recognition, now, that the enterprise has failed—and that, perhaps, as Les Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations has suggested, the proper course is to encourage Iraq to devolve into a loose democratic federation, with north, central, and south as self-governing regions, as opposed to insisting that it be a single democratic state.

Get real about homeland security. In the furor over the Dubai ports deal, we witnessed a perfect object lesson in bipartisan dysfunction: While both Democrats and Republicans beat their chests over a nonissue, the real crisis was left utterly unaddressed. As Baltimore mayor Martin O’Malley noted recently, the federal government’s abdication of providing resources to big cities for the actual securing of our ports has been so complete that O’Malley now assumes he’s on his own. The Purple Party would put an end to that, abandoning the fiction that Topeka and Tupelo are as equally at risk from terrorism as New York and Los Angeles are, flooding our big cities with the cash necessary to gird themselves against assault—and prepare for the worst.

Refuse to finger hot buttons. On scalding social issues, the Purple Party would be avidly new-federalist. South Dakota wants to ban all abortions? California wants to allow gay marriage? Fine and fine. Though the candidate may disagree in particular instances, his position is one of principled deference to state governments—which, being more attuned to local sensibilities, are the proper venues for deciding such matters—and let the chips fall where they may.

No doubt our man (or woman), if he were elected, would lose some of these fights. But in waging them, he’d be standing foursquare against the culture of make-believe that prevails in Washington—what policy maven Matthew Miller calls the “tyranny of charades.” And he’d gain the allegiance of great swaths of the electorate in the bargain.

Or would he? Doubtless there are innumerable political professionals who would contend that the answer is no. Who’d argue that presenting an agenda like this one would amount to electoral suicide. Who’d sagely point out how easy these positions (not to mention the candidate’s unbuttoned-down demeanor) would be to tear to shreds. How, with the help of a few million bucks’ worth of negative ads, voters would come to see our man as hopeless, helpless, and goofy—a “Froot Loop story,” as Perot used to put it.

Maybe they’d be right. For the past three decades, American politics has been run by a consultantariat whose fundamental premise (though they’d give up their expense-account lunches at the Palm before admitting it) is that voters are entirely malleable, endlessly spinnable, infinitely manipulable. Stupid, in a word. And the consultantariat has a considerable body of evidence to work with.

But maybe that evidence is misleading. Maybe another reason our politics are so dumb is that it’s not in the interest of either party to assume or act otherwise. So what we have is a system whose essential dynamic is: garbage in, garbage out.The candidate, however, exists to test an alternative hypothesis. That the voters are more wised-up that the political professionals assume and that they can be wised-up even more.

The candidate cites a story the other day in the New York Times about support for a federal gas tax. Referring to a poll conducted by the paper, the story reported that, yes, it’s true, fully 85 percent of voters are against being compelled to pay more at the pump. But once the hike was explained to them as being part of a comprehensive strategy to end the country’s crippling dependence on foreign oil, the numbers did a backflip—with 55 percent saying they’d be in favor.

You might wonder why no presidential candidate has ever before framed the issue thus. Our candidate wonders, too. He senses that out there, on the hustings, the appetite for a grown-up conversation about where we are and where we need to go is palpable, bordering on ravenous. He believes that the polarization of our politics has finally run its course. That people—not all of them, but very, very many—care less about right and left than about conviction, imagination, and competence. The promises he makes are simple and direct: No more lies. No more Kabuki. No more false choices.

2008, here he comes.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Next President and Vice President …
(Not necessarily in that order) To create the perfect Purple Party people, we ran some of those listed on these pages through the computer, and these are the ones the machine came up with. They’re not gorgeous—but would you trust them if they were?

Making them up: Him: Bob Kerrey (head and hair), Bill Gates (eyes), Oprah Winfrey (nose), Michael Bloomberg (mouth and chin). Photo-illustrations by Michael ElinsPhoto: Nancy Kaszerman/Zuma Press (Bob Kerrey); Getty Images (Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey); Fernando Leon/Retna (Michael Bloomberg)

Barack Obama
Right now, before he gets destroyed by the system.

John McCain
The one who ran for president in 2000, not the one running for president in 2008.

Tom Brokaw
Because both red and blue can claim him as their own. And who knows which one is right?

Bill Clinton
Because, in his hands, triangulation was mostly an expression of democracy rather than chickenshittedness. But please, no lip-biting.

George Bush Sr.
Though possibly his child-rearing skills could be faulted, he really does have a head for this foreign-policy stuff.

Her: Geena Davis (head, hair, and chin), Maria Shriver (eyebrows), Barack Obama (eyes), Jon Stewart (nose), Arnold Schwarzenegger (mouth), Sandra Day O’Connor (body). Photo-Illustration by Michael ElinsPhoto: WireImage (Geena Davis); Getty Images (Maria Shriver); Globe Photos (Barak Obama); WireImage (Jon Stewart); Doug Peters/All Action/Retna (Arnold Schwarzeneger); Getty Images (Sandra Day O'Connor)

Steve Jobs
Because a great politician is a great salesman—and we’d love to see him redecorate the White House.

Kathleen Sebelius
A Kansas governor who’s a Democrat and a woman? She has to be doing something right.

George Soros
Because he’s committed, and iconoclastic, and—hello—we need his money.

Oprah Winfrey
Because she really does feel your pain. And will cause it, too (witness James Frey), when necessary.

Mike Bloomberg
(See The Third Man by Chris Smith)

Sandra Day O’Connor
The supreme example that a third way is the right way.

Jon Stewart
Because to get politics right, first you have to identify what’s wrong—and make fun of it. Bonus: Stephen Colbert for VP.

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver
They contradict themselves? So they contradict themselves. They contain multitudes (and some of them are Kennedys).

Bob Kerrey
Speaks the truth no matter which party it benefits. Can’t Swift Boat a man who lost a leg in Vietnam.

Bill Gates
Smart, we’ve heard. And, recently, very generous.

Rudy Giuliani
What’s not to like? Well, plenty. But for a few days after 9/11, he’s forgiven a lot.

Geena Davis as Mackenzie Allen
Because it’s time for a tough woman in the White House.

Building the Frankencandidate