Just a few short months ago, the pundits were suggesting that many voters might grow a tad weary of another Bush-Clinton race.
That now looks like the understatement of the decade.
With the media’s designated front-runners both struggling, the prognosticators who deemed Donald Trump a sideshow and Bernie Sanders a nuisance are picking their jaws off the floor and forging a new theory: The voters are so angry they’re rejecting anyone who remotely reeks of being a professional politician.
And can you blame them? Washington has been mired in gridlock for decades. Most of the intractable problems, from a weak economy to ISIS, have not been solved. Politicians make promises they can’t or won’t keep. President Obama’s second term has accomplished little beyond executive orders; George W. Bush left office very unpopular; Bill Clinton was impeached; George H.W. Bush was a one-term president.
In that environment, it’s little wonder that another Bush and another Clinton are a tough sell.
There’s a “hunger for political outsiders,” says Bloomberg, whose Iowa poll, with the Des Moines Register, hit with nuclear force over the weekend.
In case you were busy at the barbecue, the survey showed Hillary leading Bernie by just 7 points, 37 to 30 percent. In May, the former first lady was at 57 percent. And Iowa was supposed to be her safe bastion compared to New Hampshire, which is tailor-made for a liberal insurgent.
In the same poll, Trump is leading with 23 percent, but Ben Carson has 18 percent—meaning four in 10 Iowa Republicans now favor candidates who’ve never held public office. If it weren’t for The Donald, this surge by the retired neurosurgeon would be the big story.
And Jeb, the $100-million candidate who everyone in the media saw as the man to beat? He’s tied with Marco Rubio at 6 percent, behind Ted Cruz and Scott Walker (who’s faded in recent months) with 8 percent.
And a Monmouth University poll out yesterday has Trump and Carson tied for first in Iowa with 23 percent, and Carly Fiorina at 10 percent—the three no-pols taking the top three spots. Jeb is back in the pack at 5 percent.
And the Bloomberg poll has this killer kvetch: 82 percent of the Democrats surveyed, and 91 percent of the Republicans, said they were either “unsatisfied” or “mad as hell” about politicians.
Ross Douthat, the conservative New York Times columnist, had a very shrewd observation: “Trump is essentially using the Republican primary to run a third-party campaign, not a right-wing insurgency.”
Think about it. While Trump is hitting such hot-button issues as immigration, he also says he wants to raise taxes on wealthy hedge fund managers. People are drawn to him because of his flamboyant personality, his record as a successful developer—and because he’s not a politician who has to beg donors for money.
In fact, the Trump phenomenon is reminiscent of Pat Buchanan, the “Crossfire” commentator and ex-White House aide who created problems for an earlier Bush in 1992 and won the New Hampshire primary in 1996. As National Review’s Jim Geraghty points out:
“Both are harsh critics of free trade, both staunchly oppose illegal immigration, both spoke out against the Iraq War and find themselves at odds with the party’s hawks. They each wear accusations of racism, xenophobia, and hatred as a badge of honor for bravery against the forces of political correctness. And they share a certain style: blunt talk, raised voices, jabbed fingers, and pounded podiums.”
But Buchanan was heavily focused on the culture war, as Geraghty notes, while Trump avoids social issues and vows to be the greatest jobs president ever.
On the Democratic side, the Berniementum is fueling a media narrative that Hillary is in deep trouble. Clearly, she shouldn’t be so threatened by a 73-year-old self-described socialist. Clearly, the email controversy has taken its toll and her trustworthy numbers in a spate of polls are awful.
But does anyone believe that Sanders, who’s not even a member of the Democratic Party, will be the nominee? It’s more plausible that Joe Biden or some other late entrant could knock her off, but she has a huge head start.
The fatigue factor is understandable. There was a Bush on the national ticket in 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 2000 and 2004. There was a Clinton on the ticket in 1992 and 1996, and of course Hillary would have been in 2008 had she not been upended by Barack Obama.
Organized journalism sees its vetting role as examining whether candidates are ready to be president. Jeb Bush was a successful two-term governor. Hillary Clinton was first lady, a senator and secretary of State. But what if that’s not the kind of experience voters want this time around?
That’s the challenge the media are just beginning to grasp.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.