By any sane measure, Hillary Clinton would be an extraordinary president. She's an accomplished attorney, a champion of human rights. She's negotiated cease-fires, served on Senate committees, expanded family medical leave for service members, defended LGBT rights before the United Nations, and was Arkansas Woman of the Year 1983.
None of these achievements qualify her for participation in a reality show, which is unfortunately how she is probably going to spend the next eight months.
Like it or not, the American election is about to become the Hillary Versus Donald Show.
For his part, Donald Trump is a practiced master of watchability. He's a disgusting monster, or a triumphant hero, or a catastrophic fascist, or an oracle of truth. No matter what your opinion of Donald Trump is, the important thing is that you have one.
Hillary Clinton knows how to reform public school systems, and she launched the State Department's Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. Donald Trump knows how to grab attention like a hulking brute in a high-school locker room administering wedgies to carefully selected nerds.
I'm not the first to compare Trump to fictional bullies like Biff Tannen, the antagonist of Back to the Future. (In fact, the second Back to the Future movie made that comparison itself all the way back in 1989.) As easy as it is to imagine Clinton taking the presidential oath of office, it's just as easy to see Trump grabbing Supreme Court chief Justice John Roberts by the lapels and demanding, "Whadda you lookin' at, butthead?"
For many, the idea that Trump could be a real threat and not a kooky speculative skit on Saturday Night Live is a relatively new discovery. Normal humans tend to disregard the useless noise of politics until right before the election, so if you haven't been paying close attention, Trump's Super Tuesday victories last week may have caught you off guard. So far, his chances of becoming the nominee are excellent: His delegate count is well ahead of where it needs to be, according to FiveThirtyEight analysis. (So is Clinton's. Bernie Sanders and all of the establishment Republicans trail behind them.)
If Super Tuesday was a wake-up call, the subsequent Republican debate was a bucket of ice water. Viewers were treated to the sight of Trump bellowing onstage like a Rancor eating a Twi'lek. He bragged about the size of his dick, turned new shades of orange when challenged, and unleashed a torrent of abuse on the other candidates. He called Marco Rubio "Little Marco" and Ted Cruz "Liar Ted." What do you think the odds are that he's got some nicknames prepared for Hillary Clinton?
And this is the challenge that Clinton, an accomplished diplomat, attorney, activist, and senator will face in 2016. Her achievements should be assets, but in this competition, thoughtful leadership is a disadvantage. Clinton won't be running against Trump's record. Like any reality show, it's going to be a contest of personalities, snappy retorts, and evening wear.
For now, Clinton seems to be pursuing a strategy of niceness. "Despite what you hear, we don't need to make America great again. America has never stopped being great. But we do need to make America whole again. Instead of building walls, we need to be tearing down barriers," she's been telling crowds.
After recent victories, she expanded on that theme: "I believe what we need in America today is more love and kindness. Because you know what? It works. Instead of building walls, we're going to break down barriers and build ladders of opportunity and empowerment so every American can live up to his or her potential."
She said almost the exact same words last Sunday, at the most recent Democratic debate.
So there you have it. Clinton is making an appeal to our better selves, to the people we wish we could be. Trump's appeal is in attacking the people we're scared of. And that's the election we have to look forward to: optimism versus fear. Both are seductive. Both could win a reality show. At this point, it comes down to the charisma of the messenger.
It does not, however, come down to their CVs. It doesn't even come down to the actual words that come out of their mouths. How many times has Trump contradicted himself? Impressively, even more times than a professional politician. And it doesn't matter, any more than it would matter if your favorite resident of the Big Brother house said that he wanted bacon for breakfast and then changed his mind to waffles.
In this election—as, indeed, in all modern elections—showmanship is what counts. As a prime-time showrunner, Trump knows how to engineer ratings. Can Clinton do that? I don't know. Her Twitter feed is fun, and she gamely plays along with SNL skits. But excitement has never exactly been her middle name.
For the sad state of the current election, I've seen some critics blame Ronald Reagan, a policy dunce who proved that you can coast to the presidency not on skillful governance but on charm. Or maybe it's the fault of the second George Bush, carried into office like the president of a frat promising free kegs and then zipping out the back door as soon as the bill comes. Seen as one of those walking gibbon-to-caveman-to-human diagrams, Trump certainly seems like a logical terminus for the GOP's evolutionary branch.
My own feeling is that it's not the Republican Party's fault—a basket case could just as easily have emerged from the left, and in an alternate reality, we're currently wringing our hands over the candidacy of Kim Kardashian. (In fact, I may have just inadvertently predicted the next Democratic front-runner.)
If this were a normal election, the best hope of stopping Trump would be for the Republicans to somehow derail his candidacy at the convention in mid-July. In fact, many in the Republican establishment are talking about doing just that. If the other candidates can hang on long enough, they could create a tumult that somehow—and nobody seems to have a clear vision of how this would happen—pushes an alternative to the nomination.
This is why the Republican establishment has been trying to make him look weak. They certainly did their best at the most recent Fox News debate, with the candidates and moderators launching what seemed like a coordinated attack on Trump. But these are nerds trying to play a bully's game, and although they proved that they could make Trump angry, poking a predator only makes it more dangerous.
That's the challenge confronting the Hillary Clinton machine: How do you dethrone a reality TV champion? How do you make viewers vote against the most exciting character on the show?
Reality show stars are notoriously indestructible. It took a molestation scandal to cancel the Duggars, Duck Dynasty is still on the air, and The Real Housewives of Atlanta didn't slow down for a moment despite a fight that resulted in a battery charge.
Short of a monumental scandal—and it would have to be huge—there's only one thing that could possibly cancel Donald Trump's momentum: boredom. If Clinton can somehow make voters bored of him, Trump's audience will simply vaporize.
This is a man who just last week stood before America to brag about the size of his penis. We were aghast, we were gleeful, we were outraged, we were delighted. But we were not bored. We were never bored.
The Washington State Democratic caucus is on March 26. For more info, go to wa-democrats.org. We're not telling you when the Republican caucus is.