The November reckonings
— 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.
“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 email@example.com.