The year was 1991. Republicans nominated David Duke, once the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, for governor of Louisiana. His Democratic opponent, a rakish former governor named Edwin Edwards, wanted to reclaim his old job after narrowly surviving a corruption scandal.
Talk about an unpopularity contest.
A sardonic bumper sticker slogan captured the dilemma faced by the citizens of Louisiana: “Vote for the crook. It’s important.”
Edwards won in a record landslide, even though an exit poll showed that about half of the voters thought the ex-governor was a crook.
They were right. Edwards eventually landed in prison. So did Duke.
But there isn’t a scintilla of doubt that Louisiana voters made the right choice — the only rational choice — in the 1991 election.
Are you starting to see some parallels with this year’s presidential election?
There are, of course, the ongoing investigations of Hillary Clinton’s personal email server. And we’re getting accustomed to regular eruptions from Donald Trump, who has given the phrase “shock and awe” new meaning while maligning a melting pot of ethnic and religious minorities.
But those are best viewed as contributing factors, although either of them could blow up into a full-fledged scandal before the election.
Here’s the important parallel: Clinton and Trump are the most widely disliked presidential candidates in the past four decades. Clinton is viewed unfavorably by 55.6 percent of voters in an averaging of the most recent national polls by Real Clear Politics. No major party candidate has ever been less popular. Except Trump. He has an unfavorable rating of 61.1 percent.
Despite their virtually unprecedented unpopularity, one of them almost certainly will be the next president of the United States.
And come November, there’s only one palatable outcome, just as there was only one 25 years ago in Louisiana.
Unfortunately, that isn’t as clear to GOP leaders today as it was to their counterparts in 1991. Prominent Republicans in Louisiana and nationally disavowed Duke. They urged voters to repudiate his noxious views. And, as the bumper sticker suggested, many of them openly sided with Edwards, shady history and all.
Trump isn’t a Klansman, but his repeated calls for religious profiling and his sweeping denunciations of Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug runners are antithetical to America’s pluralistic values. His policy proposals run the gamut from the unwise to the unworkable to the unconstitutional. And the fallout from his election, at home and abroad, would be exponentially worse than anything we’ve witnessed in the wake of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. Yet many of the bold-faced names of the GOP establishment, even Paul Ryan and John McCain, are uneasily lining up behind Trump as the Republican Party gets ready for its national convention this month in Cleveland.
He is, after all, not Hillary.
Fortunately, rank-and-file voters are beginning to distinguish between unpopular and unqualified.
In an ABC News/Washington Post poll published this past week, 64 percent of Americans said Trump isn’t qualified to be president, up 6 points from an already-high 58 percent in May. Thirty-four percent see the businessman turned reality TV star as qualified.
Clinton’s numbers are essentially the opposite, and unchanged since May: Sixty-one percent see her as qualified for the office, and 37 percent say she isn’t qualified. Moreover, while 33 percent feel strongly that Clinton isn’t qualified, many more — 56 percent — feel strongly that Trump isn’t up to the job.
Clinton isn’t my first choice — or my second or even third choice. She’s smart, she’s serious, she’s experienced. And, yes, she’s qualified. But she’s secretive and controlling. Her insecurity about personal finances may explain why she’s so chummy with Wall Street. She’s also a lightning rod for controversy, even if much of it is manufactured by partisan rivals. And they’ll work double-time if she returns to the White House. It’s all part of the Clinton package.
Barbara Bush was right. America has had enough Clintons and enough Bushes, at least for now. But Bruce Babbitt’s days on the national political stage are done. John McCain sold out. Brian Schweitzer flamed out. John Kasich dropped out. Deval Patrick stayed out. And, as Michael Bloomberg realized, a third-party campaign is doomed to failure.
So we’re left with Clinton vs. Trump.
It isn’t an inspiring choice. It really isn’t a choice at all. As Lionel Sosa, a Republican marketing executive and political consultant, wrote in the San Antonio Express-News: “I may just go for the devil we know instead of the lunatic we don’t know.”
Will that fit on a bumper sticker?
Jim Sweeney is assistant editorial director of The Press Democrat. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.