When Joe Lieberman was named Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, there was some discussion about the potential for America’s first Jewish vice-president. With the exception of the dustiest corners of the internet, the discussion was respectful and more curious than bigoted. It was probably less heated than the issue of America’s first Catholic president that came up when John F. Kennedy ran in 1960 and, because the Republican base is made up of a great number of evangelical Christians, probably even less significant than Mitt Romney’s Mormonism in 2012.
Now that Bernie Sanders is a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for this year’s U.S. presidential election, there has been almost no discussion of the potential for America’s first Jewish president; the discussion has been far more about the potential for America’s first avowedly socialist president.
After a seemingly interminable campaign, voting begins next week, launching the process of elimination that will determine the Republican and Democratic candidates for president this November. Voters in the first caucus state, Iowa, will gather in church basements and town halls on Feb. 1. In New Hampshire, eight days later, voters will cast ballots in the first primary of the season.
While American politics has always had many differences from European politics, the U.S. version this year seems to reflect, to some degree, the trend in Europe away from the centre. The Republican candidates are largely clustered on the right side of the spectrum, if not the far right. Donald Trump, the leading candidate according to polls, does not fit easily into ideological boxes, but his many very extreme comments appeal to at least some of the people we would describe as far right.
On the Democratic side, Sanders, an erstwhile low-profile junior senator from Vermont, who self-describes as a democratic socialist, is fomenting what is no doubt a very unwelcome sense of déjà vu for the once-presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Clinton was to be the unbeatable Democratic candidate in 2008, until an almost unknown senator from Illinois caught fire and bolted into the White House on a wave of reformist zeal. While not a single ballot has been cast yet in the 2016 battle, Clinton’s inevitability has almost evaporated.
What is it that explains Clinton’s inability to seal the deal, even with voters in her own party?
Part of the issue is her gender. How could it not be? If elected, she would be the first female president. But is gender an advantage or disadvantage for her? Perhaps it is both. Part of the challenge and opportunity Barack Obama faced was around his race. Whether race or gender are, in the end, advantages or disadvantages depends on a huge range of factors, including time and place, and the individual embodying them.
However, perhaps gender, race or religion will be less significant in this election because voters seem to be craving something different altogether. Even left or right may not be such key factors as (apparent) authenticity.
After decades in the public eye, Clinton is a consummate politician. Yet consummate politicians, even exceptional diplomats, are not what Americans seem to be seeking right now. Quite the opposite. American voters, in both parties, seem to be gravitating to unorthodox figures who do not follow scripts. Clinton seems both orthodox and tightly scripted.
Say what you will about Trump, his xenophobia and verbiage seem absolutely authentic. On the other hand, whatever Sanders’ ability or inability may be to get elected and then get any sort of socialistic agenda through Congress, his channeling of Americans’ economic realities and fears appears equally authentic. Both men have captured something in the zeitgeist that scripted politicians have failed to exploit.
And, while the Democrats and Republicans battle it out, a third option looms. There has been talk that, should the Republicans nominate Trump and the Democrats Sanders, a third-party candidate might emerge, appealing to wide swaths of the centre and chunks of both the left and right. Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg – a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent – is seriously considering a run and will announce his intentions by March, associates told the New York Times. Imagine a three-way presidential campaign – with two Jewish candidates. That would be an authentic landmark.