First of all a disclaimer: I despise the fact that we start our presidential cycle the morning after a new president is elected. That drove me nuts in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, and it’s even worse today in the age of cable news and a 24/7 news cycle. Are we ever going to govern again, or are we simply going to search and destroy?
I’ll never forget Mitch McConnell’s clandestine meeting on the first day of the Obama presidency instructing his republican colleagues to simply say “no” to it all. “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,” he said. And in all fairness, I am sure that many of my republican friends feel as if that pattern has repeated itself during the first two years of the Trump presidency. However, given the chaotic, illegal and unethical nature of our collective journey since 2016, I respectfully disagree, but you get my point. We no longer govern. We run.
I swore that if I ever had the opportunity to write about the world of politics I would rise above the “what’s next” syndrome, in this case the 2020 presidential battle royal, until a few months before the Iowa Caucuses. Yet here we are more than nine months and 286 days before Iowa, and I’m off. Lesson to self: don’t make silly promises that you can’t possibly keep.
Half Empty? Half Full?
Will it be hope or anger that drives people to the polls in 2020? For answers, let’s try to make some sense of 2016 with an eye toward 2020. Matthews versus Beale: Let’s get ready to rumble.
In this corner, meet Hardball host Chris Matthews. In his 2001 book “Let Me Tell You What I Really Think” he lays out a clear formula that may be used to select the winning candidate in any election: “Look for the candidate you picture with the sun in his face,” he writes. Given the progress we’ve made over the past 20 years, I am confident that if Chris issued an updated version, which in light of all that has transpired since 2001, I encourage him to do, it would read “his or her” face, but I digress.
Fifteen years before The Donald paraded down the elevator toward the presidency, Matthews continued, “Although we Americans may vote indoors, we seem to want to elect presidents with the look, feel, and freshness of America.” His standard then is clear: find the candidate that presents the most optimistic view of our community, our state, our nation. Identify that person, and you have picked the winner. Welcome to punditry. Could it really be that simple? Well, as we’ve come to see, maybe not.
In the opposing corner, please mee the larger than life fictional character Howard Beale, currently being introduced to another generation on Broadway by the gifted actor of Breaking Bad fame, Bryan Cranston. The current production playing at the Belasco Theater on West 44th Street breathes new life into Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 classic, Network. If you’ve seen the movie or made a recent visit to Broadway, you are familiar with the iconic monologue:
I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth. Banks are going bust. Shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
We know things are bad – worse than bad. They’re crazy. It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is: Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.
Well, I’m not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get MAD! I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot – I don’t want you to write to your congressman, because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say: I’m a human being, god-dammit! My life has value!
So, I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell: I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!
Beale’s rage is palpable. In the theater, your hair stands on edge. He is fed up, and he wants you to be fed up as well. There is no hope, only despair. But the truly prescient moment in his outburst, and its frightening connection to 2016, can be found in Beale’s final primal scream: Things have got to change. But first, you’ve gotta get mad!…You’ve got to say, I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore! Then we’ll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis. But first, get up out of your chairs, open the window, stick your head out, and yell, and say it: I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!
“First you’ve got to get mad, and then we will figure out what to do.” That is worth rereading with 2016 in the rear view mirror. “First you’ve got to get mad, and then we will figure out what to do.” So is it Chris Matthews or Howard Beale?
Supporting Team Beale, Psychology Today reported this past December, “Some people are supporting Trump simply to be rebellious or to introduce chaos into the political system. They may have such distaste for the establishment and democrats like Hillary Clinton that their support for Trump is a symbolic middle finger directed at Washington.”
But Team Matthews can also take heart: A joint study completed in 2014 at Stanford and Tel Aviv Universities reinforced numerous others over the years concluding that Americans continue to prefer those with a forward-looking, optimistic view of our nation’s future. The study states that, “This helps explain why, traditionally, presidential candidates have offered optimistic visions of the country’s future, from FDR’s 1932 campaign song ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’ to Ronald Reagan’s 1984 Morning in America’ campaign commercial to Bill Clinton’s 1992 use of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.’
And there’s Barack Obama accepting his party’s nomination for President in Denver, Colorado while Brooks and Dunn’s Only in America blared onstage and across the nation. We certainly opened the windows on Edmondson Avenue in Catonsville that August evening because we wanted everyone to know that “hope and change” had indeed prevailed that summer. And that was just 11 years ago. So, if Matthews and the academics are right, what went wrong in 2016?
What Happens When We Don’t Like Either Team?
In the final Gallup Poll prior to Election Day 2016, Donald Trump’s unfavorables stood at 61%, the worst in the history of polling. Yikes. But wait for it: Hillary Clinton had a 52% unfavorable rating with the American people, the second worst poll numbers in history. Cue Bill Withers: “Ain’t No Sunshine.” In 2016, we faced an election with very little, if any, sunshine. And as we discovered, there were millions of Americans opening their windows to scream in collective rage- who were willing to just “figure out what to do” at a later date. Like many of you, I am still waiting for that later date to arrive.
But a closer look at the public’s relationship and response to Donald Trump is also insightful. Public perception of the Trump presidency today and its perception in November 2016 has changed very little. As this blog is published, his approval rating stands at 43.9%. There has been very little movement in those numbers over the past two years. Approval peaks at about 47% and it dropped as low as 37%. He is the only president in the history of the Gallup poll to never exceed 50% for even one day. How can that be?
Well in exit polling done on Election Day 2016, 35% of voters found the current president to be temperamentally unfit for the job, 38% saw him as unqualified, and as we stated above, 61% had a negative overall opinion of him as a person. There certainly doesn’t seem to be much sun shining on his face. But, and this is a big but, as my republican friends and relatives like to remind me, elections are indeed binary choices. And faced with a choice between two historically unpopular candidates, with one who promises to punch Washington in the face, the American people voted, and the Electoral College (I couldn’t resist) certified, Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States of America, making sure that the Washington establishment got one big juicy black eye.
So as we move toward a 2020 analysis- a blog coming soon to your inbox- remember that Ronald Reagan implored us to join him on that Shining City on a Hill, Barack Obama promised an era of hope and change, and Donald Trump invited us to the Bates Motel. Sunshine versus anger? Matthews versus Beale? Who will be standing on the morning of November 4, 2020? One of the dozens on democratic candidates schlepping their way through Iowa and New Hampshire or Donald J. Trump?
The answer to that question will speak volumes about the future of our republic, and about who we are as a nation. And it will tell us whether Chris Matthews needs to get to work on his next book with another and much darker premise about the preferences of the American voter. Stay tuned.
Don Mohler is the former Baltimore County Executive and President and CEO of Mohler Communication Strategies. He may be reached at email@example.com.
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