Perhaps the most revealing development in this year’s unique — to say no more — choice of presidential candidates is this:
Even as we rumble toward the election’s Nov. 8 resolution, everyone from paid pundits to your next-door neighbor keeps replaying the events that brought us to this sad pass, and wondering how, out of 300-odd million American citizens, the finalists are an undisciplined, incurious billionaire reality TV star and a career politician who, evidence suggests, swapped top-level government access for financial gain.
And so, like survivors winding through the stages of grief, we spin up alternate realities. If only this had happened, or that, we might have at least one candidate to whom we could devote ourselves unreservedly.
If only, indeed.
Well, if it’s an encouraging alternate reality you seek, Saint Leo University is where to find it. Even now, up in the peaceful rolling hills surrounding Lake Jovita, students are embroiled in a mock presidential election campaign that — minus the combined 10-figure budget and personal invective — looks and feels remarkably like the real thing.
If the real thing was a contest rooted in ideas and policy proposals, that is.
This is not some lark. Instead, under professors Jeff Borden and Frank Orlando, it is a massive and massively serious undertaking that crosses majors and disciplines, involving nearly two dozen students on each side assigned almost every imaginable responsibility common to modern presidential campaigns: candidates, campaign managers, party chairs, policy advisers, strategists and — you don’t get more state-of-the-art than this — even social media operatives.
It is, in short, teaching by turning broad swaths of the student body into a full-time method-acting class. You catch a glimpse of their buy-in when, after the Oct. 3 debate between vice presidential contenders, one of the candidates introduces himself not as Mark Saunders, a 20-year-old junior majoring in economics from Temple Terrace via Land O’ Lakes, but as Paul Friedman, a libertarian-leaning Republican nominee for president. Yes, a libertarian economist named Friedman, as in Milton. Well played, Mr. Saunders.
Old-timers and traditionalists tempted to arch an eyebrow at play-acting-for-grades should know this: Alternate-reality education is an actual thing, dating back to the 1990s. And, also this: Borden was there at the start, putting students through their paces in such things as mock trials and viral contagions. Partnering with Orlando, the resident political science guru, the pair are in their second year staging a mock presidential showdown.
“The idea is to make it as authentic as possible,” Borden says. “We want to present them with realistic tasks, to get them thinking on their feet … and get them to realize that learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum.”
How real? Both campaign managers — the GOP’s Kevin Abbott, 20, from a New York suburb, and Emily Alfaya, 19, from West Palm Beach — love organizing and strategizing, but neither is keen on public speaking.
The same can be said of Democratic Party chairwoman Cassidy Whitaker, 21, a junior from Brandon, who regards her role as that of chief cheerleader, an impression she gleaned from working as a volunteer for Hillary Clinton over the summer.
The candidates, by contrast, feast on arguing in the spotlight. Unabashedly leonine in wondrous blond-tipped dreadlocks, bespectacled Jacksonville senior Leandrous Chieves — who tops the Democratic ticket of Marcus Howard and Angela Johnson (that’s right: Howard-Johnson) — says he’ll argue politics anywhere, anytime, with anybody, “as long as they’re coming with facts.”
Chieves/Howard and Saunders/Friedman are scheduled to tangle Nov. 7, Election Day eve, with a student vote immediately following.
“Last year, we even had demonstrators,” Borden says proudly. Students in the Department of Education rallied outside the presidential debate. “I expect it will happen again.”
The vice presidential debate was rather more sedate, the only sparks coming from the candidates themselves. Playing Johnson, Sophie Metellus, 20, a sophomore from Miami, brought the sort of passion for doing the right thing that can’t be faked. As Caterina Castillo, the former ambassador to Russia, 19-year-old Atlantan Amanda Miceli parried with earnest and deeply researched policy positions, revealing the self-admitted “political junkie.”
Most of their debate fell along the lines you’d expect, each taking the traditional party line on taxes, free college, public education, sanctuary cities, the Iran nuclear deal and hiking the minimum wage.
In a surprise, however, Republican Castillo/Miceli declared plans to slash military spending and shift that money to domestic projects.
Johnson/Metellus counterpunched with ISIS, retorting as long as ISIS is active, military spending shouldn’t be touched. The American people need to know, she said, if ISIS attacks, “We’ve got their backs.”
All of which prompted Chieves to tweet from his @Howard4prez account, “A republican wanting to slash the military budget? Unheard of.”
Still, this was substantive stuff, and with the possible exception of snarky exchanges over whether one candidate understood the point the other had made, it was collegial, even uplifting.
The candidates feel your pain.
As someone who is old enough to remember when the GOP nominated candidates whose knowledge of public policy was broad and deep — four years ago, then just 16, he worked the phones tirelessly for Mitt Romney — Saunders is already envisioning, if not outright plotting, a post-Donald Trump Republican Party.
“It’ll be a future without the extremists,” he says. “We have a chance to build a better way forward.”
Chieves is no less enamored of Hillary Clinton, who fairly curled his lip in describing her — within earshot of his I’m-With-Her party chief — as “no saint” and “far from perfect.” Just bringing the facts.
Imagine that. A committed Republican and an equally committed Democrat, each disappointed with their party’s nominees.
Maybe they’re not living such an alternative reality after all.
Published October 12, 2016