The Novem­ber reck­on­ings

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Ruth Mar­cus

— Now that the con­tours of the gen­eral elec­tion are rea­son­ably pre­dictable, it is time to start think­ing about the tri­par­tite in­sti­tu­tional reck­on­ing that should come in Novem­ber’s af­ter­math — for the me­dia, Re­pub­li­cans and Democrats.

For the me­dia, the as­sess­ment is sim­ple, and un­spar­ing: We un­der­per­formed our con­sti­tu­tion­ally pro­tected role. Sure, ev­ery cam­paign cy­cle fea­tures hand-wring­ing over the pri­macy of horse race over sub­stance.

This one feels demon­stra­bly worse. Mes­mer­ized by the bright, shiny ob­ject that is Don­ald Trump, we col­lec­tively failed to plumb his gap­ing lack of pol­icy knowl­edge and pro­pos­als. Not com­pletely, just not enough, and way too late. And not just his: Dis­tracted by Trump, we let the whole field off the hook.

The purely com­mer­cial ex­pla­na­tion for this dere­lic­tion would be that the me­dia, tele­vi­sion in par­tic­u­lar, didn’t want to kill the golden goose of traf­fic. That’s too sim­plis­tic — and too sin­is­ter.

I think we also be­lieved that ex­pos­ing Trump’s out­rage du jour was do­ing our job, and would, even­tu­ally, sink him. Trump’s bom­bas­tic im­per­vi­ous­ness to se­ri­ous ques­tion­ing — tele­vi­sion hosts and de­bate ques­tion­ers gamely tried, only to see him talk out the clock — con­trib­uted as well.

The re­sult­ing para­dox was that, un­til re­cently, Trump was a can­di­date who made him­self more con­stantly avail­able than any in mod­ern me­mory, yet evaded se­ri­ous ques­tion­ing.

Would vot­ers have cared, par­tic­u­larly those tempted by Trump? Per­haps not — they aren’t sup­port­ing him for his tax plan. But that isn’t the test. Our role is, or should be, to pro­vide the in­for­ma­tion es­sen­tial for vot­ers to make an in­formed de­ci­sion. We fell short.

Re­pub­li­cans’ Novem­ber reck­on­ing could be even uglier. The party has lost the pop­u­lar vote in five of the last six pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. Given Democrats’ in­her­ent Elec­toral Col­lege ad­van­tage and Trump’s un­pop­u­lar­ity, Re­pub­li­cans ap­pear headed to lose the White House again, along, per­haps, with con­trol of the Se­nate. The party faces fun­da­men­tal, in­ter­con­nected de­ci­sions about what ide­o­log­i­cal path to em­brace, how to at­tract vot­ers in a chang­ing Amer­ica, and how to man­age the an­gry, pop­ulist, anti­estab­lish­ment forces un­leashed by Trump.

To look back at the GOP’s post2012 au­topsy re­port is to con­clude that Democrats read the doc­u­ment and sent Trump as a Manchurian can­di­date to fur­ther alien­ate vot­ers.

WASH­ING­TON

“Pub­lic per­cep­tion of the party is at record lows,” the re­port con­cluded. “Young vot­ers are in­creas­ingly rolling their eyes at what the party rep­re­sents, and many mi­nori­ties wrongly think that Re­pub­li­cans do not like them or want them in the coun­try.”

Trump makes that bad sit­u­a­tion worse, but he is not a cause of the party’s prob­lems; he is a symp­tom of them. The risk em­bed­ded in a Trump nom­i­na­tion — as­sum­ing a Trump loss — is that Re­pub­li­cans will de­rive the wrong les­son. The party’s most con­ser­va­tive mem­bers will ar­gue that Trump’s fail­ure was a mat­ter of in­suf­fi­cient or­tho­doxy, and that the one true path to elec­toral suc­cess would have been to nom­i­nate a Ted Cruz-like true be­liever.

If Re­pub­li­cans were doomed — or, more ac­cu­rately, doomed them­selves — to lose in 2016, it would have been better for them to lose with Cruz. That would at least have had the cleans­ing, Gold­wa­teresque ef­fect of prov­ing the con­ser­va­tive ar­gu­ment wrong and re­turn­ing power to the sup­pressed voices of rea­son within the party. Now, that fight seems des­tined to be re­run in 2020.

Democrats have their own re­think­ing to do, even if they re­tain the White House.

Be­neath the pres­i­den­tial level, it is in dire shape. Since 2008, Democrats have lost 69 House seats, 13 Se­nate seats, 12 gov­er­nor­ships and 900-plus seats in state leg­is­la­tures. That drains the party of leg­isla­tive power and emp­ties its bench.

Mean­time, Clin­ton would take of­fice with his­tor­i­cally high neg­a­tive rat­ings and be the first Demo­crat since Grover Cleve­land in 1885 to be elected to a first term with­out the party’s com­plete con­trol of Congress. Per­haps chas­tened Re­pub­li­cans will feel a new urge to con­cil­i­a­tion and pro­duc­tiv­ity, but the ex­pe­ri­ence of the Obama pres­i­dency sug­gests a rock­ier path.

Fi­nally, mir­ror­ing the Re­pub­li­cans with Trump, Democrats need to grap­ple with their ide­o­log­i­cal fu­ture and the restive forces of eco­nomic anx­i­ety and anti-es­tab­lish­ment anger given voice by Bernie San­ders. His pres­ence in the race has been no boon to Clin­ton, but it did jump-start a nec­es­sary, un­fin­ished de­bate over the party’s path ahead, and what will be the con­tours of a post-Bill Clin­ton, postObama Demo­cratic party.

Novem­ber is not the con­clu­sion of an ar­gu­ment. It is, or should be, the be­gin­ning of a self-ex­am­i­na­tion by all the play­ers in this dispir­it­ing cam­paign.

Ruth Mar­cus is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact her at ruth­mar­cus@wash­post.com.

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