Just two more days to the next Republican Primary debate in the long-running, messy spectacle known as the 2016 Presidential election. So, gather round, pop the popcorn and settle down to watch the next episode of Donald Trump and Friends.
This Tuesday, the leading GOP candidates will assemble in the ornate halls of The Venetian, that gaudy temple to bad taste in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Donald should feel right at home.
Here in Annapolis, we have an excellent perspective on this carnival. We are close enough to Washington to follow the action, but far enough away so your shoes don’t get splattered with mud. All we have to do is tune in to CNN at 9 p.m. Tuesday and watch Wolf Blitzer herd the cats.
It is not really a debate in the Lincoln-Douglas sense, of course, rather a calculated cage fight in which Trump is expected to rail against immigration and Muslims, and Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush and others will struggle for air time.
Along with most political and world leaders, many in the media started to turn on The Donald in the past week in the wake of his xenophobic proposal to bar Muslims from entering the country. He was widely criticized — but widely covered — on social media and most evening and morning news shows. My former paper, The New York Times, had the story at the top of page one, describing Trump’s remarks as “an extraordinary escalation of language aimed at voters’ fears about members of the Islamic faith.”
The result: Trump remains at or near the top of most polls of likely Republican primary voters, and the GOP establishment is starting to worry about a brokered convention.
The dirty little secret over the last several months is that the media has been fully and joyfully culpable in the extraordinary rise of Donald Trump, giving him almost unlimited air time with scant hard questioning, aiding and abetting his rise in the polls.
There is an unacknowledged-but-profitable symbiotic relationship between Trump and news organizations: the more outrageous his statements, the more coverage — “free media” is the term of art — the greater the ratings.
The GOP debates are a case in point: they have been a revenue bonanza for the cable channels that have carried them.
The first Republican debate on Fox News last August attracted a record audience of 24 million. A month later, CNN pulled in 23 million, half-again its largest audience ever. CNBC attracted 14 million in October. The November debate on the Fox Business channel , which rarely has 100,000 people watching, pulled in 13 million viewers.
Four years ago, the Republican primary debates drew 4-to-6 million viewers. Needless to say, this year’s record ratings translate into serious ad revenue.
I’m not suggesting the debates are not worthwhile; they are. I’m not disputing that the coverage of Trump is justified; it is. A presidential candidate who is leading in most polls six weeks before the Iowa caucus is news, no matter how outlandish his positions.
But more rigorous questioning of Trump would be welcome, along with more consistent fact-checking of his fabrications. The wall-to-wall coverage of his pronouncements is wearing thin.
Many in the media have been and remain skeptical of The Donald and his chances of actually securing the GOP nomination. In fact, my former colleague on the PBS NewsHour, David Brooks, has doubled down on his prediction that Trump will collapse from the weight of his own baggage.
And Dana Milbank in The Washington Post dropped all pretense of objectivity in his column when he flatly labeled Trump a racist and bigot and compared him to Il Duce.
But perversely, the more Trump is denounced, the more popular he becomes with his hard-core supporters who see him as refreshingly honest. The running controversy is likely to build audience for Tuesday’s debate, not diminish it.
And in the now-familiar Trump playbook, any publicity — even this column – is good publicity.
Terence Smith, who lives in Annapolis, is a former media correspondent on the PBS NewsHour.
Summer is normally a drowsy, dull time in the news business. Papers struggle on a diet of shark sightings and weather stories, waiting for things to pick up after Labor Day.
But this summer was different: desperate migrants streaming across Europe, the Iran nuclear deal and the Greek debt crisis filled the front pages. There were wildfires in the west and wild market gyrations on Wall Street. There were shootings around the country and riots in Baltimore. The Supreme Court upheld same-sex marriage and subsidies for Obamacare, while Congress fulminated and mercifully left town. Pope Francis remade the face of the Catholic Church by everything he said and did.
On the normally somnolent political front, we had Bernie rising, Hillary sinking and Joe Biden pondering; we had17 – count ’em, 17 – Republicans volunteering to be president, with Jeb! slowly subsiding, The Donald and Dr. Ben ascending in the polls and all the others struggling to get a headline.
The biggest cable audience of the summer – 24 million – watched the Aug. 6 GOP debate on Fox and then followed along as The Donald trashed Megyn Kelly and insulted most of the others on and off the stage.
For news organizations, the Donald Trump spectacle was summertime catnip. Talk shows like “Morning Joe” and “The O’Reilly Factor” couldn’t get enough of him. Stephen Colbert had a running joke on his inaugural “Late Show” in which he could no more stop talking about Trump than stop eating Oreos. Even when The Donald phoned it in, as he often did, ratings jumped as he ranted and raved about immigration, China or his “low-energy” competitor, Jeb!
It all seemed like innocent summer fun. Pundits and hacks like me confidently predicted that the audience would tire of The Donald’s act and that he would fade like Herman Cain four years ago. Except he didn’t. He climbed in the polls as the other candidates sank and serious commentators seriously suggested that he could win the GOP nomination. Seriously.
The other summer phenom was Dr. Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon who became famous for being part of the large surgical team that separated a set of Siamese twins. “Gifted Hands” was the title of his bestseller. The media treated him gently, never mentioning the sad fact that the twins died shortly after the operation.
A soft-spoken African-American movement conservative, Carson climbed steadily in the polls, eclipsing Jeb! and the other establishment wannabes in Iowa and other early states.
Another of the Gang of 17, Carly Fiorina, also moved up in the polls. As the only woman on the Republican side, the former Hewlett-Packard executive stood out in the junior varsity debate when she prodded Trump and his pomposity. The Donald responded last week in an article on the website of Rolling Stone mocking her appearance. “Look at that face,” he was quoted as saying, “would anyone vote for that?”
These three overnight sensations have one thing in common: None has been elected to public office. All three consider the presidency a starter office. Beyond their egos, they share something else: They personify a massive protest vote, in which voters are expressing their exasperation with government in general, politics as usual and the current crop of candidates in particular. These voters evidently admire Trump as too rich to be bought, Carson as genuine and Fiorina as smart.
The question, of course, is whether these voters and more will still support these nonpoliticians when casting an actual ballot, not just answering a pollster’s question. Once they have “made a statement” in the polls, will they reconsider and choose one of the more experienced candidates?
I have no idea. But this unusual, news-filled summer has set us up for a fascinating fall and winter and spring.
Anyone with a modicum of common sense, and my record as a political prognosticator, would avoid making any predictions in a campaign as chaotic as the current Republican Presidential nomination sweepstakes. After all, I predicted Carter over Reagan in 1980, Gore over Bush in 2,000, (well, of course, Gore did win that one at the polls,) and Anybody-But-Bush over George W in 2004 (my reasoning that year: Americans are too smart to re-elect anyone who has misled them into an unjustified, unnecessary war.)
But here goes: despite the current Gingrich Boomlet, Mitt Romney will stagger through to the GOP nomination. The agent of Gingrich’s demise: Newt himself. Time and again, he has talked himself into political trouble. One voter in a Peter Hart focus group described Gingrich over the weekend as “careless and combustible.” Hard to put it more succinctly or accurately than that.
I remember interviewing Newt in the mid-1990’s in the Speaker’s expansive suite of offices in the Capitol. He was riding high on the Contract with America, and the new GOP majority in the House. Gingrich spent the entire time lecturing me on his remarkable accomplishments. He was particularly impressed that he was the only Speaker of the House with a Ph.D. His qualifications and innate skills were such, he explained briskly, that a long legislative career lay ahead of him. As it turned out, of course, he crashed and burned politically before he could remake America.
Today’s Newt is a more seasoned, more controlled political operator. He is smart enough to know that his mouth has hurt him in the past and that he must contain his rhetorical flourishes if he is to prevail against the political tortoise, Romney. But his ego won’t let him. His need to demonstrate that he is the smartest guy in the room is too strong. His confident prediction last week that he will be the GOP nominee is an example. “I’ll be the nominee,” he said cheerily, as though it was obvious to anyone with the wit to see the race clearly. Not prudent, as George H.W. Bush would say. Not with the Iowa caucuses looming.
The Obama re-election team seems to agree with this proposition. On the Sunday shows yesterday, David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs separately resisted the temptation to attack Gingrich and reserved their criticisms for Romney. Clearly, they see Mitt as the likely opposition in the general, despite the latest polls. (Of course, privately, they may hope that Gingrich gets the nomination, on the grounds that he will reprise Barry Goldwater’s 1964 performance, but they don’t seem to expect it.)
In one sense, Gingrich’s great strength is his greatest weakness: his unpredictability, his tendency to say whatever passes through his mind. He is not boring, and in this GOP field, that is saying something. Jon Huntsman should know that by now.
Mitt Romney is boring, at times, apparently, even to himself. His visible frustration at having to repeat his defense of his health care program in Massachusetts on Fox last week is a reflection of his own fatigue with the issue and the mind-numbing repetitiveness of the campaign process. But he is steady, and careful and likely, at this point, to prevail.