The remarkable durability of non-establishment candidates — Sanders, Trump — in this year’s presidential race may reflect the widely held theory that, despite their rhetoric, our two major political parties are so close together that it doesn’t really matter which one is in power.
This theory has never been better expressed than by the colloquial George Wallace, former governor of Alabama and perennial presidential candidate: “There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Republicans and the Democrats.”
The idea implies that citizens who want real change are attracted to non-establishment candidates like Trump (“shake things up”) and Sanders (“political revolution”).
But, at best, this theory encourages cynicism and disengagement from politics, which corrode a basic foundation of our republic, an informed and interested voting constituency.
Further, the theory’s just not true, at least in recent decades, if it ever was. This is nowhere more evident than in foreign policy.
Cuba is a good example. Whether you believe it’s a good idea, President Barack Obama’s rapprochement with Havana after a feckless 50-year embargo is not something that would happen under any of the Republican candidates for president.
Donald Trump’s indifference about Cuba (“I think it’s fine, but we should have made a better deal.”) separates him from more conventional Republicans. Under President Cruz or erstwhile candidate Marco Rubio, Cuba would continue to be a half-century-old Cold War anomaly.
On climate, the difference between the two parties is vast. At least Obama acknowledges the existence of an international crisis, and halting steps have been taken. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are willing to talk about climate change, as well.
Again, Trump is indifferent about the climate (“I believe it goes up and it goes down, and it goes up again.”) Other times he’s more emphatic (“The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese.”) Ted Cruz, on the other hand, is an outright denier.
Here’s another difference: Iran and Saudi Arabia. For almost forty years, Iran has been our “enemy” and Saudi Arabia has been our “friend.” This is despite the fact that Iran has a democratic tradition that dates back over a century and in recent years has been showing significant signs of moderation and inclination toward modernization and the West.
Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is a hereditary kingdom in which women are not permitted to drive or vote.
In terms of the future of the Middle East, these two are the essential nations. Their rivalry is built on jealousy of each other’s power and regional influence, and it is stoked by the ancient Sunni/Shia divide.
This is a dangerous stalemate, largely beyond our control. The best we can do is to be smart, diplomatic and reluctant to come down on the wrong side.
Thus Obama negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran last year, a calculated move that gives up some things in exchange for others but which, overall, has a decent chance of urging Iran toward moderation and integration with the rest of the world.
Then Obama visited Saudi Arabia last week. The atmosphere lacked the glad-handing cordiality of the past. Riyadh isn’t thrilled about potential reconciliation between the U.S. and Iran; the Saudis would rather have us entirely on their side. But, beyond our support for Israel, some ambiguity about our precise position might be healthy for the players in the region. It’s called diplomacy.
The Republican candidates for president are less subtle. They’ve talked casually about carpet bombing and making the desert sand glow in the dark. Trump has said clearly that we will be on Saudi Arabia’s side (“…how much will Saudi Arabia pay us to save them?”) Cruz says, “I will rip to shreds” the Iran deal on his first day in office.
This imprudent language reflects the kind of carelessness that led to the source of many of the current problems in the Middle East, George W. Bush’s ill-advised invasion of Iraq. It’s impossible to imagine that Al Gore would have taken that action if he had been elected in 2000. Whom we vote for does appear to make a difference.
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John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at