Monday, February 11, 2019


The real and (mostly) imagined scandals of Hillary Clinton received more coverage during the 2016 campaign than the very real, very serious should-have-been-scandals of Donald Trump. The standard explanation is that most political insiders assumed that Clinton would win, so the press was getting a head start on holding the next president accountable.

In an ideal world, a presidential election with no incumbent wouldn't be a referendum on one candidate rather than the other. Sometimes, as in 2008, it's a referendum on the previous president. That was a year when Democrats were fortunate: George W. Bush was so reviled, and John McCain had done so little to distance himself from Bush, that much of the public was voting against the status quo. The outcome that year is also a tribute to the Obama team's campaign skills; the 2012 election was also a referendum on the incumbent Obama's opponent, who was successfully (and accurately) portrayed as a rich elitist with no ability to feel the pain of ordinary citizens.

But far more presidential elections in recent years have been referendums on Democrats -- even when the Democrat on the ballot isn't in office. The 1988 election was a referendum on Mike Dukakis rather than the Reagan/Bush record. The 2004 election was a referendum on John Kerry, alleged Swift Boat liar. The 2000 election was a referendum on Al Gore and the sins ascribed to him (earth tones! lying about inventing the Internet!); oddly, after Bill Clinton's polarizing presidency, that election wasn't a referendum on the Big Dog.

It wasn't a referendum on Clinton because Clinton was very popular as he left office, just as Barack Obama was popular in 2016. In both cases, the right-wing noise machine knew it had to make the election a referendum on the Democratic candidate rather than the sitting president (or the Republican candidate). In both cases, the mainstream media eagerly fell in line.

But surely this election will be referendum on the incumbent, won't it? The 2018 midterms were about Trump. How can 2020 not be?

Well, we're seeing signs that it will be a referendum on the Democrat. Here's the lede of a Washington Post news analysis:
Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential rollout has been upended by questions about why she called herself Native American decades ago. The governor and attorney general of Virginia are under fire for darkening their faces in a racist cultural appropriation that has rocked the state and placed their careers in limbo.

The past week has seen a combustible collision of politics focused on racial and ethnic identity, highlighting how much the national discourse is being fragmented not only by partisan loyalties, but also by factors innately personal.

As both the Warren and Virginia cases show, Democrats are engaged in a vigorous debate over how to talk about identity politics at a time when the country’s growing diversity is scrambling the electoral map, and as a diverse field is gathering to run for president.
Warren's presidential rollout hasn't been upended, as far as Democratic voters are concerned; she's meeting enthuasiastic crowds and she's being asked questions about issues, not about ancestry. But the media perception of her rollout is that it's been upended, just as the media perception of Amy Klobuchar's rollout is that she's gravely wounded by reports of tyrannical behavior as a boss. Kamala Harris is in trouble because her record as a prosecutor wasn't ideally progressive, and because her stated desire to get rid of private health insurance is assumed to be too frightening for the heartland.

Oh, and the whole party is doomed because ideas Democrats are discussing are believed to be too progressive. Politico headline: "Republicans Can't Wait to Debate ‘Medicare for All.’" Axios headline: "Trump's Lifeline: Democrats' Socialism Surge." Headline for an opinion piece by National Journal's Josh Kraushaar:

The Democrats and their ideas should be vetted. But some of this isn't vetting -- it's the media telling us that Democrats are outside the Overton window (while Trump is presumably within the window, because as president he has a large part in defining where the window is).

The right will work hard to assassinate the Democratic nominee's character and marginalize his or her ideas. That's to be expected. But the mainstream press doesn't have to cooperate. Yet apparently it will.

Does the MSM assume, again, that the Democrat will inevitably be the winner? I don't think so -- the press was burned by 2016 and now realizes that Trump can win an election. I'd say that the press is no better at resisting the ref-working of the right than it was in 2016 or 2000 or 1988. Also, the plutocrats are coming off the sidelines and attacking economic progressivism, with the Beltway press parroting every corpocrat's complaint.

So the 2020 election really might be a referendum on the Democrat, and on Democrats in general, while Trump skates.

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