There’s a defining scene from the 1967 classic, “Cool Hand Luke,” where the movie’s title character is captured after another prison escape, shackled in front of his fellow inmates, and scolded by the prison warden.
The warden, portrayed by Strother Martin, tells Luke that the lessons being taught are for his own good. It’s obvious that Paul Newman, as Luke, is still not buying into the warden’s logic, as he responds with sarcasm. The warden then beats Luke to the ground before delivering one of Hollywood’s most recognizable lines.
“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,” the warden says, seizing another opportunity to make Luke an example for the other prisoners.
The entire scene, these 52 years later, serves as a metaphor for the current Democratic presidential campaign.
There is a profound communication failure among the crowded field, but it has nothing to do with the message. Like Luke’s views toward the system attempting to tame his free spirit, the public simply isn’t willing to accept the message from most of the Democratic field. Unlike Luke, who could always find a way out, potential voters have no viable escape routes other than an addled 76-year-old well past his political prime. There may be no other way to explain how former Vice President Joe Biden is still leading the Democratic candidates.
According to an average of major polls compiled by Real Clear Politics, Biden maintains a lead of 13 percentage points over his nearest rival. Biden’s 30.4 percent is followed by Bernie Sanders (17.2) and Elizabeth Warren (16.8). No other candidate is polling in double digits, with Kamala Harris leading the rest of the field with 8 percent.
With a lull before the next round of debates, scheduled for September 12-13, and Iowa Caucuses less than six months ahead, we’ve reached the midpoint of the campaign cycle to determine the Democratic nominee.
So what have we learned at this point? Biden’s reputation as a center-left politician, built over 46 years in public office, is providing a safe alternative for voters unwilling to accept the radical positions of other candidates.
There may still be time for a candidate to emerge from the shadowy fringes of the far left. The entire process, however, may prove to be no more than a missed opportunity for otherwise electable candidates, particularly if Biden doesn’t self-destruct as expected.
That an avowed socialist, Sanders, and a candidate in favor of a massive expansion of the federal bureaucracy, Warren, are second and third, respectively, may foreshadow the difficulties faced by Democrats as they search for a candidate to unseat Donald Trump.
A checklist of candidate positions reads like a wish list compiled by a dreamy adolescent. The Green New Deal…free healthcare for illegal immigrants…Medicare for All…free college tuition—all are proposals by people like Sanders and Warren who should know better. The positions are likewise supported by a dreamy social media bloc known for its shallow self-indulgence. Think Alexander Ocasio-Cortez.
Inject a heavy dose of anti-Trump venom into the Democratic mix and there’s little opportunity left for connection to the middle-class voters—particularly those in fly-over country—who helped put Trump in office.
Note to candidates: When much of your platform will impose a massive tax burden on your target audience of middle-class voters, then expect to ultimately fail at the ballot box. Radical ideas scare voters; likewise, fanaticism weakens and demeans wild-eyed politicians. When it produces hysteria, such as that among many anti-Trumpers, fanaticism clouds the mind and shades all thought processes.
Especially problematic is the maddening tendency to blame Trump for all the ills of society. That habit serves no real purpose, other than to possibly make candidates feel good about themselves.
Hysterical fanaticism ultimately undermines messaging (as it did with the prison warden) and damages the process of Democracy, potentially destroying the will to vote.
Nonetheless, Democratic candidates are now attempting to co-opt the Trump style, hopeful that voters can’t see---through the thin, course facade of political rhetoric—that they’re fakes. Trump’s magic in 2016, and now, is his ability to connect with rural America. Yes, it’s an earthy, often-coarse style, but it is genuine, and it provides an antidote to the polished, patronizing political class.
Rather than attempting to out-Trump one another—rather than wallowing in Twitter land with Trump himself—a serious Democratic candidate would offer reason and logic on the campaign trail. No matter how polished Elizabeth Warren’s delivery, reason and logic are not factors in the aforementioned Green New Deal, Medicare for All, or free college tuition. All are impractical or impossible from a fiscal standpoint (read: impossible to implement without massive tax increases for the middle class).
The unknown is the state of the economy between now and November 2020. Already we’re beginning to hear murmurs of a looming recession. Often that seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy—incessant talk of a recession leads directly to a recession. Expect to hear a lot of recession babble on the campaign trail during the next 14 months.
History dictates that a recession signals a death knell to a sitting president. Recall 2016, however, when virtually no one expected Trump to win, as he became our first billionaire to progress from TV star to the Oval Office.
Given the weak field of candidates opposing Trump, he may prove to be our first recession-proof president. Voters, like the seemingly indomitable Luke, may be rendered too weary to care.
Larry Cothren is a former newspaper and magazine editor who currently teaches marketing at the high school level.