Every presidential campaign is a choice not just between two paths forward, but also two visions of where the country is right now. If things are going well, the incumbent party says, "You've never had it so good!" and the opposition says, "Things could be a whole lot better!" If things aren't going so well, the opposition says "Everything's terrible," and the incumbent party says, "Things could be a lot worse, and they will be if those knuckleheads win!" But it's hard to recall a campaign where the two parties painted such a starkly different picture of the country's status than this one.
Earlier this week, Barack Obama offered the Democratic version in his State of the Union address. "The United States of America," he said, "has the strongest, most durable economy in the world. We're in the middle of the longest streak of private-sector job creation in history. More than 14 million new jobs; the strongest two years of job growth since the '90s; an unemployment rate cut in half." And it isn't just the economy: "The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It's not even close. We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined." Even if you can argue that those facts are only part of reality, or that they obscure some deeper problems, you can't say they aren't facts.
Or maybe you can.
The Republican candidates hoping to replace Obama met for another debate last night (they'll have one more before the voting starts in Iowa in two weeks), and they described a nation not just in decline, but one whose decline was already complete. They agreed not only that Obama has been a failure and that Hillary Clinton would be a disaster, but that America right now is the lowest of the low, suffering at home and mocked abroad, a dark pit of misery and shame. Here's just a taste of what they said:
- "Our military is a disaster." — Donald Trump
- "We need to rebuild our military, and this president has let it diminish to a point where tinpot dictators like the mullahs in Iran are taking our Navy ships." — Chris Christie
- "The idea that somehow we're better off today than the day that Barack Obama was inaugurated president of the United States is totally an alternative universe. The simple fact is that the world has been torn asunder." — Jeb Bush
- "In this administration, every weapon system has been gutted, in this administration, the force levels are going down to a level where we can't even project force." — Jeb Bush
- "We have enemies who are obtaining nuclear weapons that they can explode in our exoatmosphere and destroy our electric grid. I mean, just think about a scenario like that. They explode the bomb, we have an electromagnetic pulse. They hit us with a cyberattack simultaneously and dirty bombs. Can you imagine the chaos that would ensue at that point? He needs to recognize that those kinds of things are in fact an existential threat to us." — Ben Carson
- "I'm very angry because our country is being run horribly and I will gladly accept the mantle of anger. Our military is a disaster. Our healthcare is a horror show. ObamaCare, we're going to repeal it and replace it. We have no borders. Our vets are being treated horribly. Illegal immigration is beyond belief. Our country is being run by incompetent people. And yes, I am angry." — Trump
- "Let me tell you, if we don't get this election right, there may be no turning back for America." — Marco Rubio
- "This country is not respected around the world anymore." — Christie
- "You know, we have to stop this because, you know, if we manage to damage ourselves, and we lose the next election, and a progressive gets in there and they get two or three Supreme Court picks, this nation is over as we know it." — Carson
- "This country is changing. It feels different. We feel like we're being left behind and left out." — Rubio
- "There's something going on and it's bad. And I'm saying we have to get to the bottom of it. That's all I'm saying." — Trump
Add it all up, and you have the prism through which the Republican candidates will view any event or development that comes along. Job creation looks excellent? Obama must be cooking the books, because everybody knows the economy stinks. Millions of people have gained health coverage? Nope, it's a disaster. We still spend over $600 billion a year on the military? Nuh-uh, we couldn't invade the Bahamas if we wanted to.
Consider the incident in the Persian Gulf this week, where a small Navy boat lost power and drifted with a second boat into Iranian waters. What could have been a dangerous international incident was instead resolved in a matter of hours, with the American sailors and their vessels returned to us. But to the Republicans, the fact that the sailors put their hands on their heads when boarded by the Iranians — to repeat, in Iranian waters — meant that not only wasn't the whole episode a triumph of diplomacy, it was a disaster, a humiliation, a defeat so catastrophic that it might literally have been worth bombing Iran over. As Ted Cruz intoned with every ounce of steely resolve he could muster, "any nation that captures our fighting men will feel the full force and fury of the United States of America." If only there had been some more force and fury!
There's always an incentive for the opposition party to paint the current president's record in the worst possible light. You can't convince voters to make a change if they don't agree that there are problems that require fixing. But Republicans have taken that natural impulse and, like so many things in this campaign, turned it up to 11. It isn't enough to say you'll increase military spending; you have to say that "our military is a disaster." It isn't enough to say we face serious foreign policy challenges; you have to say "the world has been torn asunder." It isn't enough to say that electing the other party's candidate would be bad; you have to say that if we do, "there may be no turning back for America."
Perhaps the Republican candidates have hit on the right formula, and whichever prophet of doom wins the nomination will ride this apocalyptic vision all the way to the White House. But they shouldn't be surprised if the voters end up saying, "Gee, things don't seem quite that bad."