Themes of 2015: the Presidential Race

I started 2015 with clear expectations about how I’d cover the campaign. But by Fall, I had to back up and try to answer a more fundamental question than the ones I ‘d been addressing: WTF?

Back in January, I had it all laid out.

I figured that for the first half of the year I’d resist the temptation to speculate about who was and wasn’t running, whether Clinton and Bush were inevitable nominees or not, and what the earliest Iowa polls meant (because they probably didn’t mean anything). Presidential politics has a way of crowding out all other political thought, and I wasn’t going to play that game.

By summer, I’d be looking at the candidates one-by-one, and cutting through the media’s endless horse-race coverage to focus on where each one wanted to take the country. I figured I’d have to sort through all sorts of tax-and-budget schemes, education plans, environmental positions, programs for giving more or fewer undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, and so forth. I’d have to argue that both global warming and racism are real, tax cuts don’t pay for themselves, privatization doesn’t work, the market isn’t going to fix inequality by itself, and so on. Different faces, different specifics, but basically the same philosophical battle the country has been having for decades.

Instead, we’re talking about throwing 12 million people out of the country, and banning Muslims from coming here at all. We’re discussing what fascist means, and whether one of our front-runners qualifies. A sizable chunk of the country believes that Planned Parenthood has a lucrative business in harvesting fetal organs, and wants to shut down the government (or maybe start shooting people) to put a stop to it.

In short, things didn’t go the way I expected.

The divergence started simply enough: Large numbers of candidates got into the race so early that I had felt I had to start covering them at the end of March, when I wrote my introduction to the Republican primary process. Shortly afterwards, I started my 2016 Stump Speeches series, which was intended to focus on each candidate’s implicit or explicit answer to the question: “Where does America need to go and why am I the person to lead us there?”

In retrospect, that looks ridiculously naive.

Democrats. On the Democratic side, I sort of did what I intended. I confess to ignoring Martin O’Malley, even though I’ve seen him twice and he seems like a competent guy. But he never convinced me that he brought anything special to the race, in policy, in message, or in electability.

Chafee and Webb were gone before they caught my attention. Biden didn’t run. Lawrence Lessig tried to run, and his exclusion from the process is an interesting and disturbing story I’ll get around to telling eventually. That left Clinton and Sanders.

I covered Sanders’ announcement speech and a later speech he gave at the conservative Christian Liberty University. It was easy for me to like Bernie and his message, but less easy to imagine him leading the party to victory. I know the polls don’t detect that problem yet, but I find myself wondering what completely bogus issues the Republicans will be able to throw at him if they start seeing him as something more than just a tool to use against Hillary. (I lived through 1988, when Bush the First was able to completely dumbfound Mike Dukakis by making a serious issue out of the Pledge of Allegiance. You never forget an experience like that.) Coming from the relatively pristine political environment of Vermont, is Bernie ready for that? Can he keep his composure when he’s waist-deep in bullshit? I have serious doubts.

Hillary strongest argument, from my point of view, is that she has endured everything the GOP could throw at her for more than 20 years. (The all-day Benghazi hearing in October was a microcosm of their inability to beat her down.) But what did I think of her as a person and what could I believe about her as a president? Is better-than-a-Republican all I can say about her?

So I did my homework. I pulled three Clinton speeches into one article, and added the insight I got from reading three books by her and two about her. After spending that much time listening to her author’s voice, I kind of get Hillary now, in a way that I don’t think most of her critics on the left do. If God tasked me with picking our next president, I’m sure I could find somebody I liked better. But I’ve gotten to be OK with Hillary. I will probably vote for Bernie in the primary to send a message, but when Clinton is nominated — as I expect her to be — I’ll have no problem with that. Given that we live in a you-can’t-always-get-what-you-want world, Hillary will do fine.

Republicans. With the Republicans, though, my project broke down. I started out diligently analyzing the speeches and proposals of Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, and even Ben Carson.

And then, suddenly, we were in the Year of Trump, and any hope of a sensible, substantive discussion on the Republican side went away. It wasn’t just Trump; it was also what everyone else thought they had to do to compete with him. There was a chunk of the electorate energized by Trump, and suddenly everyone had to try to reach it.

I characterized one Republican debate as “Three Hours in Bizarro World“, but basically all of them have been that way. Fact-checking them has been pointless, because the distortions, lies, and mis-statements of fact have not been isolated incidents that can be picked out and corrected. The Republican campaign is happening in a completely different reality from the one I live in.

The NYT’s Patrick Healy nailed something important:

One of the most striking takeaways from the first two Republican debates and Tuesday’s first Democratic debate is that the two parties do not just disagree on solutions to domestic and foreign policy issues — they do not even agree on what the issues are.

That’s the root cause of the country’s polarization: People who want to solve a problem can usually find a way to compromise their solutions. But you can’t compromise about whether something’s a problem or not. If one side is discussing climate change while the other is trying to decide how big a wall to build on the Mexican border, what’s the compromise?

Eventually, I stopped trying to explain that Ben Carson’s “tithe” tax plan wouldn’t work, or why Jeb Bush’s claims about his economic record in Florida don’t stand up to scrutiny. I didn’t quite realize it at the time, but by the Fall I was trying to answer a more fundamental question: What the fuck?

Instead of mapping out policy differences, I found myself describing the difference between hucksters (Trump) and crackpots (Carson). I looked at models of fascism, and discussed how the Trump campaign did or didn’t fit them. I tried to figure out what leadership means to me, and what kind of leader we should be looking for. I traced the history of freedom rhetoric, and why it so often runs counter to rights. And whether it qualifies as fascist or not, how the Trump electorate has been building for years, and is the logical culmination of Republican politics.

I end this political year with more humility. I thought I knew what it meant to cover a presidential campaign, and it turns out that this year I didn’t. It’s not about taxes or infrastructure or education or drone strikes any more. Maybe someday it will be again, but for now I’ve still haven’t gotten past “What the fuck?”

I think I’ll be working on that question for a considerable chunk of the year to come.

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  • Dave  On December 28, 2015 at 10:42 am

    The consequence of living in a post-rational world. We all have to adjust.

  • Abby Hafer  On December 28, 2015 at 11:30 am

    Doug–the Bizarro World problem is the one I deal with as a foundation for my writing about evolution and Creationism/Intelligent Design. So many wrong things are said, from an incorrect perspective, that it’s hard to know where to start, and doing point-by-point analyses is tedious for readers and writers alike. (In evolution circles, by the way, Bizzaro World is known as the Gish Gallop, after Duane Gish’s style of “debating”.) This is why I have chosen to get outside those arguments and explain from the outside why the whole box is crazy. This, I think, is much more effective, if you have the broad knowledge base necessary for this kind of analysis. I suspect that you do.

  • John  On December 28, 2015 at 11:53 am

    “If one side is discussing climate change while the other is trying to decide how big a wall to build on the Mexican border, what’s the compromise?”

    Build the wall out of solar panels, obviously.

    (Mic drop)

  • stevesidner  On December 28, 2015 at 9:33 pm

    I have a request: could you modify your WordPress theme so that it displays the publish timestamp on your posts? This post is a great example. I have really enjoyed following the links, but when I get there, I have no idea when you wrote them. Thanks.

    • TimBo  On December 30, 2015 at 9:29 pm

      Yes! Please do this if it isn’t too much trouble, it would help immensely.

    • weeklysift  On December 31, 2015 at 8:27 am

      I use a theme created by somebody else, and am only minimally WordPress-capable, so I’m not sure how to do that. But I could just put the date at the beginning of each article. In case I forget: the date is always in the URL.

    • Anonymous  On January 1, 2016 at 8:41 pm

      I see the timestamp just above the comments. This post says “By weeklysift, on December 28, 2015 at 7:18 am, under Articles.”

    • Rocjard Drewna  On February 7, 2016 at 9:00 pm

      The date of publishing is also included in the URL itself, fwiw.

  • coastcontact  On December 28, 2015 at 11:34 pm

    It was foolish of you to think that you could predict the outcome of a presidential race two years in advance. Even now you don’t seem to understand that this is the year of the outsider. Bernie Sanders for the Democrats and three outsiders in the GOP race. Ted Cruz is trying to participate in the outsider group. When you look at the polls it is evident. Many of Trump’s supporters are Democrats. The public is disgusted with Washington’s gridlock and refusal to acknowledge the nation’s problems. Donald Trump is capitalizing on that anger. Hillary Clinton and the rest of the GOP candidates represent more of the same that has not provided any satisfaction for any group. Prepare for a wild ride in 2016.

  • sglover  On January 3, 2016 at 7:39 pm

    I guess anybody who slogs through books by and about Clinton rates some respect for doggedness. But it seems like an incredibly round-about and tedious path to understanding. Nobody doubts that Clinton can **say** all kinds of things, and maybe even say some of them well. But most people find what she’s **done** rather more revealing.

    By now Clinton’s accrued a history in public office that’s two decades long. A charitable take on that record is that it’s pretty damn underwhelming — she never really accomplished anything in either the Senate or the State Department. Add in the policies that she’s supported — always as a follower, never really at her own initiative — and her record is positively odious to any self-identified leftist. After endorsing or advocating strategic and moral disasters in Iraq, Libya and Syria, she has learned NOTHING. She is a menace.

    And in terms of pure political calculation, Dems should be very, very nervous about anointing Clinton. She is almost uniquely capable of mobilizing right-wingers to show up at the polls, **and** encouraging Dems to stay home. This doesn’t even take into account whatever scandal surfaces in the last month or week before the election: Wherever the Clintons are involved, there is ALWAYS another episode of sleazy self-dealing waiting for exposure.

    • weeklysift  On January 4, 2016 at 7:17 am

      In retrospect, the Clinton scandals all seem empty but for Bill’s sex life. There’s always a new one for the same reason there’s always a new Obama “scandal” — the Right wants to make something a scandal. If Bernie is nominated, there will be a last-minute Bernie scandal. If the Democrats nominated the Archangel Gabriel, there would be a Gabriel scandal too.

      In terms of accomplishments, I think Hillary deserves a lot of credit for getting the world behind the Iran sanctions that forced them into the recent nuclear agreement.

      • sglover  On January 11, 2016 at 1:50 pm

        I agree that Republicans will gin up any “scandal” they can. Really I think American English needs a new word for political sleaze, because Republicans have totally debased the meaning of “scandal”. But… You don’t think there are real, severe instances of, ahem, creative ethics in HRC’s background? No “understandings” based on the millions she and/or the Clinton Foundation have received from oligarchs all over the world? Come on….

        For reasons that I simply cannot fathom, you seem to think that HRC is uniquely resilient, because she’s already had to put up with lots of attacks. I believe that the cumulative effect of those attacks (warranted and unwarranted) is to tar her with a (deserved) reputation of untrustworthiness. Anyway, enduring attacks isn’t exactly an inspiring political gift, nor is it unique to her. In fact, Sanders just countered — very well!! — a data confidentiality “scandal” ginned up by — the DNC!

        I’d really like to see some links supporting your assertion about the Iran nuclear agreement. For one thing, I’m not sure that sanctions per se were the primary goad — Iran’s been in the cold for decades. For another, setting up a sanctions regime doesn’t seem like the hardest thing in the world, when the target is a middling-size economy and a political pariah. Finally, to the best of my knowledge it was Kerry who did the hard work of negotiating the deal.


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