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.