The presidential election: Office is still worthy of a real contest

Some months before America’s transformative presidential election, David Axelrod, the chief strategist for Barack Obama’s election campaigns, used an all-too-smart phrase that is remembered for all the wrong reasons.

The presidential election: Office is still worthy of a real contest

Some months before America’s transformative presidential election, David Axelrod, the chief strategist for Barack Obama’s election campaigns, used an all-too-smart phrase that is remembered for all the wrong reasons.

Just as President Trump’s candidacy was no longer a matter of bemused conjecture Axelrod could not hide his contempt. “In a parlance, Trump would appreciate: We’re still in the swimsuit competition. It gets harder in the talent rounds,” he said. The phrase resonated with those who could not countenance that Obama could be replaced by a man who is his polar opposite in nearly every way.

Axelrod and millions of others were certain that Mr Trump would wilt under scrutiny.

We are not yet at the swimsuit stage of our presidential election but most of the ever-lengthening, and occasionally implausible, list of candidates will wilt under scrutiny.

Before they do, it might be wise to reconsider the role of the office of the president and if it gets the genuine political support and affirmation it should.

That Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have, as yet, agreed not to run candidates and to endorse a second term for President Higgins suggests they do not.

This is not a criticism of Mr Higgins but rather an acknowledgement of the hard political realties facing our world.

From the two parties’ perspective there are reasons to avoid a contest that, to use that phrase again, wilt under scrutiny.

As Government partners, albeit at a face-saving arm’s length so grandfathers might not spin in graves, they might not relish a knock-and-drag; that will come soon enough — and both would prefer to ring-fence resources for that main-event adventure.

As a consequence, Mr Higgins gets a free run of sorts in his last election to protect Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil election funds. Hardly the encore he envisaged.

That decision must be influenced too by a dearth of likely candidates in either party. In the normal course of events, a graduate or two from the Ahern or Cowen cabinets, the Kenny ones too, might have hoped to run but the blood-letting of 2011 ended the political ambitions of many of that generation of Fianna Fáil politicians.

How Micheál Martin must wish they had ended Éamon Ó Cuív’s ambitions. If Jacob Rees Mogg is the MP from the 19th century, then surely Mr Ó Cuív would be, in the unlikely event of securing a nomination, the candidate from Craggy Island.

This calculated distancing may not be a tacit suggestion that the office should be, like the Seanad might have been, consigned to history. However, that may be an eventual consequence.

Another may be that Sinn Féin, hardwired to exploit every opportunity, may run a candidate to generate momentum that might transfer to a general election.

Should that transpire, the parties of the centre will again have failed their constituency through hubris, neglect and the kind of imperception that led to Axelrod’s swimsuit misjudgement.

Stable, dignified leadership, the kind shown by Mr Higgins, was never more important.

However, it is also important to show that the prizes of democracy are worth fighting for, that the highest office in the land is not a vapid sinecure in the gift of those so indifferent to it that they will not compete for it.

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