Finally, we are well into the nominating season and two things about 21st century presidential politics remain unchanged: a manic media and the manna of money. (The alliteration is easy, so please forgive.)
From the beginning of the debate season almost a year ago with that massive field of Democratic candidates, nearly all of us in the media have been breathlessly sizing up the real contenders — those with big money or ready access to it — and pushing them to the fore. They were Biden, Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg and the media’s task was to get them to go after each other over the smallest pretext, like an ancient private remark. Reporters, moderators and commentators love a good fight as much as you do.
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The Democratic Party went along, putting billionaires and their friends or else ideologues with noisy followers on the debate stage while people who had shown actual voting strength in competitive states and a real record of governing, like the westerners Michael Bennet and Steve Bullock, were kept off the stage until their candles were extinguished. They were neither rich nor had connections with the plutocracy. Either Bennet or Bullock would have destroyed Donald Trump, but they were too boring. What the Democrats actually need in November is boring — the dullness of competence and moral fiber.
Now that Michael Bloomberg, a politician with the same elastic morals and endlessly shifting political creeds as Donald Trump, has dumped nearly a half-billion dollars into media advertising in a few weeks to pump his poll numbers, he will be on the stage and all the moderators will bring him into the sniping. He will fit very well.
I set out to get on record early this season with a prediction of some kind, with a fifty-fifty chance of being able to boast that, for a change, I was right, in the most vital election of our lifetimes. Four years ago, I early on thought Trump was almost a shoo-in for the Republican nomination in a field of pretty smart candidates because I had been enamored for years with his facility for transforming immorality, corruption, greed and self-aggrandizement into stardom. He was the showman in the race, collecting the media’s attention and the public’s fascination with his crazy ramblings every day. A media star is always going to win the Republican nomination, even in left-coast California, which elected the muscled buffoon Arnold Schwarzenegger and the pleasant actor Ronald Reagan to inept terms in Sacramento.
So my prediction is that the Democrat will win the presidency. In the unlikely event that Bernie Sanders becomes the nominee, I’m a lot less confident of the prediction. He is Donald Trump’s vain hope. I arrive at the conclusion by simply recapitulating the last election.
I thought Hillary Clinton, although she never demonstrated a trace of the essential instincts for defending herself in the malicious world of politics, would defeat Trump because the polls showed that a significant majority of Americans believed that Trump was morally and intellectually unfit to be president, as Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz said.
But Trump had a strategy that, with unusual luck and the help of the Russians, actually worked. From the moment that Clinton sewed up the nomination against a socialist who disavowed the Democratic Party, Trump’s campaign harped on one theme: that Clinton was a crook who was under investigation by the FBI and that if she were elected, the president of the United States would be marched out of the White House in leg irons. It was a forbidding thought for everyone. Crowds loved it, and in every town every day he led them in chants of “Lock her up.”
Then Jim Comey, the Republican director of the FBI, did something he was not supposed to do: reveal that the investigation of her emails had been completed and that agents and lawyers in the Justice Department had found no wrongdoing. He went ahead and castigated her for poor judgment in using a private email server while she was at the State Department, like nearly all other Americans and as did nearly the entire George W. Bush administration, including his secretary of state, did for five years, 2001–06, until they were discovered. (They used the Republican National Committee server and then tried to destroy 22 million emails.) The FBI’s job is not to quantify poor judgment by public officials, or else it would need to increase its staff and budget at least tenfold and just forget about crime.
Clinton enjoyed a big lead in the polls but then Comey reversed himself and announced that he was reopening the investigation because new emails had been found. She sank in the polls to a tie the week before the election. Many voters decided that this was the last straw. Russians were pushing conspiracy theories on social media and encouraging Bernie voters to vote for the Green Party candidate or else Trump. They supplied the 70,000-vote margin of victory for Trump in the three northern industrial states. Comey clumsily corrected himself before the election, but it was too late. Clinton won the popular vote by exactly the polling margin, but Trump won, thanks to the extra voting power given to unpopulated rural states by the electoral college and Clinton’s disdain of the three industrial states.
Things have changed very little. Most Americans — not Arkansans — think Trump is an uninformed liar who led a disgraceful personal life and a dishonest professional one, bankrupting one business after another while cheating contractors, employees, clients, his wives and the government.
The Democratic battle will have to sort itself out, perhaps all the way to the convention. The eventual winner is anyone’s guess, except I don’t think it will be Bernie Sanders, bless his angry old soul (he’s four years my junior).
Then the campaign will be about Donald Trump, no matter how much he tries to focus it on the rival, the media or a secret state. Trump has only one thing going for him, outside his 35 percent dedicated following: He has not wrecked the economy. He inherited the most resilient economy in history with near full employment. Barack Obama had inherited the worst economy since Herbert Hoover’s — it was shedding 2.5 to 3 million jobs a month — and he cut the payroll taxes of every working American, stopped the financial free-for-all and enacted a modest stimulus (he built Little Rock’s giant interchange at Interstates 430 and 630) to gin up the economy in every state. Trump may have ginned it up a little by running up massive deficits and giving rich businessmen and investors a huge tax cut. Otherwise, he has created a long series of foreign and domestic crises, settled each for next to nothing and then declared victory. Witness NAFTA, the tariff wars, North Korea, the Saudi assassination, Syria, Turkey and Iran.
Trump and all the voters will have to finally face the facts on Russia and Ukraine, which form the narrative of his presidency. Any sentient Democrat ought to be able to distill the clear message from all those investigations, largely done and exposed by Republicans. Although the president was not personally charged, the Mueller report (Mueller is a lifelong Republican) made it clear that Trump obstructed justice on a massive scale to stop the Russian investigation. The Justice Department probe, supervised at every step by Republicans, indicted 34 people and three companies who were involved in the Russian corruption and election interference, including five Trump campaign people and personal associates. A slew of them are in prison or fighting commitments and all of them are counting on pardons — after the election if not before. That does not include all the indicted Kremlin agents, who will make sure never to be caught on U.S. soil unless, of course, Trump is re-elected and could pardon them, too. Meantime, he is pardoning or commuting the sentences of corrupt high rollers — a tip to all his buddies to hold on because their time is coming. All the Arkansas Republicans in prison or heading there because of the state corruption probes are counting on the relief. Watch for it late this year.
The madness clearly has not reached its nadir, although it reached some kind of peak in the Bill Barr meltdown in late February. For a year, Barr had been carrying out Trump’s wishes to blunt the myriad investigations of him. And then Trump exposed the poor man by cheering on Barr’s bizarre intervention to keep Trump’s old pal and co-conspirator Roger Stone out of prison. Trump’s tweets made it clear — he wanted to make it clear — that the Justice Department was following his wishes, not the independent mandate of the law. Exposed so purposely by his own boss, Barr was threatening to resign and was advised to do so by more than a thousand former federal prosecutors and Justice professionals.
Remember that Attorney General Barr is the master of the pardon political strategy. After Ronald Reagan’s defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, was indicted by a grand jury and Republican prosecutor for participating in the illegal sale of weapons to Iran by the Reagan administration and channeling the money to rebels trying to overthrow the government of Nicaragua, Weinberger’s diary disputed President George H.W. Bush’s denial that, as vice president, he had any connection to or knowledge of the law-breaking. Barr persuaded Bush, who was in a tight race with Bill Clinton, that Weinberger, fearing prison, needed to know before the trial that he would be pardoned. Weinberger got the word. Bush lost the election to Clinton anyway, but Weinberger got the pardon immediately afterward and never had to stand trial or to give them Bush.
This time, Barr has spent his year as AG blunting or heading off investigations of Trump — first the Mueller probe and then a CIA whistleblower’s revelation that Trump was violating the law and blackmailing an allied country, with our tax dollars, to force it to announce an investigation of Joe Biden that would run through the 2020 election. Polls at the time showed Biden would beat Trump handily. Barr also directed Justice Department investigations that Trump wanted — another of Hillary Clinton (quietly folded after the prosecutor found nothing to the yarn that she gave a uranium company to Russia) and of Rudolph Giuliani’s accusations involving Biden’s boy. And then to be exposed and humiliated by his own boss!
Surely, no Democrat can mess up that scenario.