Last week was an interesting one for the two current leaders of the Republican polls. While Ben Carson was catching fire throughout the week for comments that he made recently, and parts of his autobiography which have apparent inconsistencies, fellow Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump appeared on famed comedy show “Saturday Night Live,” where he effectively spent the night doing nothing more than making fun of himself on national television.
In their own way, each of these events spoke to an important and often overlooked part of the modern day race for the American presidency: the need to be both strictly disciplined but also appear to be completely laid back.
On one hand, a candidate needs to appear calm, cool and collected all while maintaining strict message discipline. The masters of this in this current presidential cycle are Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. Very rarely, if ever, do they appear flustered by the questions they are asked in town halls, debates or press conferences, and very rarely do their answers to these questions not serve to reinforce the narrative they are attempting to build. When Rubio is asked so-called “gotcha” questions, he keeps composed and typically turns them back around on the questioner, and it is rare that any question he answers is not in some way linked to his theme of looking forward and embracing a “New American Century.”
This is not a natural thing to do, which can be clearly seen whenever individuals who are not professional politicians attempt to do it. When Carson is asked a “gotcha” question, he has a tendency to stumble and commit the dreaded gaffe. Take his recent pronouncement that a Muslim could not be president of the United
States. Not only does it make him sound bigoted and ignorant of the U.S. Constitution, but it is also completely unnecessary. Again, the entire mini-controversy over Carson claiming that the pyramids were not burial chambers but biblical grain silos constructed by Joseph falls into this area. There was absolutely no reason to bring it up, and as a presidential frontrunner, he needs to understand that he will be hammered by the media for comments like that.
Meanwhile, Trump walked a fine line on “Saturday Night Live” this weekend. We as voters hold presidential candidates to impossible standards. We want individuals who are on message and not committing gaffes, but we do not want them to appear so disciplined. Instead, in the words of that most legendary of political clichés, we want our candidate to be a “guy we could grab a beer with.” What we do not want are candidates who do not take themselves seriously at all.
Well, Trump does not have to worry about the gaffe part. His bombastic, made-for-TV personality and history as a reality TV star mean that he is simply not held to the same standards as other candidates. However, he should be very concerned about the second part. He is not taken seriously by half of the population right now, and directly mocking himself on SNL shows that he does not quite take himself seriously at all. The occasional self-deprecating joke by a candidate is one thing, but going full Palin and participating in an hour-and-a-half show that revolves around mocking yourself is dangerous territory indeed for anyone who aspires to the White House.
If Carson is serious about the presidency, he needs to tighten up on message discipline; and, if Trump is serious about his candidacy for presidency, he needs to stop being a caricature and start being a candidate.