The new year, 2016, may be when America will pick a president. But 2015, in keeping with the permanent campaign and endless “election years,” was when the political-media industrial complex hit its recent peak.
Of course, media has always meshed with politics. What’s heightened is how several consequential candidates’ interactions with media have been central to their narratives.
Exhibit A (would he have it any other way?) is Donald Trump, bestselling author, top-rated reality TV host and oft-booked talk show guest. Trump also has been ubiquitous tabloid fodder, which may make him immune to the kinds of skeletons that might spook voters if they jumped out of another candidate’s closet. Similarly, the velocity (and ferocity) of Trump’s provocative pronouncements on Mexicans and Muslims, reporters and rivals hasn’t seemed to faze a growing audience of supporters.
Over the years, Trump’s real-time riffs on events often became events in themselves, and the resulting exposure has helped him. “Every time things get worse, I do better,” the candidate declared in one of his few uncontested statements. And while there had long been a political tinge to his histrionics, a sharper partisan edge emerged during the Obama era as the billionaire “birther” questioned the president’s provenance and progressive policies.
What Trump didn’t do early was raise or spend money. Indeed, to date, the dog that didn’t bark is yapping ads. Oh, sure, they’ll come (Trump signaled he’ll soon spend, just as Jeb Bush cuts back), but in 2015 the Citizens United era was no match for citizens united against the establishment. Ted Cruz, too, aggregated those aggravated by media and Beltway ways.
Not exactly how Bush had diagrammed it. In fact, massive money may have cost him, since it cast him as establishment in an insurgency.
A Democratic insurgent, Bernie Sanders, had a breakthrough 2015, too, fueled in part by online buzz (and fundraising). Which shows that new media isn’t just for upstarts: Rival Martin O’Malley’s campaign logo may look like a text message, but it was political veteran Sanders who had youths talking, just as it was in 2012 with another august, “authentic” candidate, Ron Paul.
Ron’s son Rand hasn’t caught on the same way. But he has had his moments, including an intense and interesting debate exchange on NSA surveillance with Chris Christie, who seems to have crossed (for now) “Bridgegate,” in part because of a viral video of the New Jersey governor offering an off-the-cuff, heart-on-his-sleeve riff on the devastation of drug abuse.
Others seeking to be the establishment candidate include John Kasich, steeped in experience that would shine in more conventional elections, as well as Marco Rubio, whose Senate record is notable not for legislation passed but votes skipped. But the Florida senator has certainly shown up for debates, and his rhetorical skills have swayed pundits, if not party faithful. Time magazine may have once dubbed him “The Republican Savior,” but right now he’s struggling just to save his candidacy.
So is Ben Carson, whose life story was the stuff of a bestseller and TV movie. But debates are unscripted. And his back story became front-page news when questions forced him to defend the veracity even of his unflattering accounts of his early life.
Another notable novice is Carly Fiorina, whose credentials as Hewlett-Packard CEO were questioned by both business and political analysts.
Computer troubles of a different kind have hobbled Hillary Clinton’s quest to coalesce Democrats. The general election could be tough, too, given steady releases of Clinton’s e-mails. Another impending release — January’s premiere of “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” — may be unhelpful, too.
Other candidates also had their 15 minutes (or seconds), but some came from lower-polling pols during the “happy-hour debates,” which made some candidates angry, since these pre-prime-time contests didn’t get the record ratings the main events did. Voters should be mad, too, since a cabal of cable and party bosses culled the list based on increasingly unreliable polls. After all, it’s one thing if candidates make media central to their image. The news media, however, should report the story, not create it.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.