What did we learn about America’s trends, tribes, and political battles after the U.S. midterm elections? Nancy Gibbs, visiting Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice of Press, Politics, and Public Policy and former editor in chief of TIME, explores the political landscape and answers callers’ questions on these crucial elections.
Wiener Conference Calls recognize Malcolm Wiener’s role in proposing and supporting this series as well as the Wiener Center for Social Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.
Good day everyone. I am Mari Megias from Alumni Relations and Resource Development at Harvard Kennedy School, and I am delighted to welcome you to this on-the-record Wiener Conference Call. Today we are joined by Nancy Gibbs. Nancy is the visiting Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice of Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School. Until September of 2017, she was editor-in-chief of TIME Magazine, where she directed news and feature coverage across all platforms for more than 65 million readers worldwide. In 2013, she was the first woman to be named editor-in-chief of TIME, and she remains an editor-at-large.
During her three decades at TIME, she covered four presidential campaigns, and she is also the author of more cover stories than any writer in Time’s nearly 100-year history. She served as a consultant to CBS news and as an essayist for the News Hour on PBS. She’s the co-author of two bestselling presidential histories, The President’s Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity, which spent 30 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List, and The Preacher and the President: Billy Graham in the White House. She has interviewed five U.S. presidents and multiple other world leaders, and has lectured extensively on the American presidency. We are very fortunate that Nancy has come to talk with us in today’s Wiener Conference Call, which I’d like to note again is on the record and will be recorded and posted online after the call. Nancy?
Thank you, Mari. Thank you for having me. I look forward to taking your questions because having read the bios of some of the people on this call, the sheer amount of expertise and insight after such an interesting 24 hours, it is a privilege for me to get to hear from you. I wish you all could have been with me in the Forum last night. It was quite an extraordinary scene. It was packed to the brim with pizza and beer and students from all over and Dan Balz, who’s a senior IOP fellow this semester Skyping in from the Washington Post newsroom, and calls from multiple representatives from multiple campaigns giving us real-time insight into what was happening.
But the main thing I think you would have been struck by was the level of engagement and energy among the students. There was a spectacular initiative that they led, the Harvard Votes Challenge, that many of you will have heard about that succeeded in registering more than 90 percent of the eligible voters in the student population for this election, and the number of “I Voted” stickers on their backpacks and sweaters was quite something to see. I have to say, as a recovering journalist, being with my students yesterday in class and then in the Forum, there really is no place I would have rather been. If you come through this election season with any concerns about the health and future democracy, let me say, being with these kids would restore your faith and their passion and interest and idealism and creativity about what it’s going take to solve problems is really the thing that makes me most hopeful.
So, with that said, I thought I’d offer a couple of thoughts about what happened. We’re all still digesting I think, what this meant. I was on the phone early this morning with my successor as the editor-in-chief at TIME, because they had to close an issue today. And there were lots of different directions they could go, if you are trying to take snapshot of what is the takeaway of this election. And that ranges everywhere from those who were suggesting this means that hate wins to those saying Madisonian democracy is alive and well. To those who could point out that everyone could and indeed have claimed victory, which means everyone can also, at some level say it could have been worse. So, I fall still somewhere in the middle.
But here are the things that I’m celebrating this morning because I’m an optimist and I will always start with the good news. The thing I was most concerned about, beyond any particular results and the surprises that we knew would come last night, the thing I was most watching for, would the results be accepted? Given the conversation we’ve been having particularly in the technology sphere for the last two years about the ability to undermine if not democratic machinery itself then at a minimum people’s confidence in that machinery, the spread of disinformation, the insidious nature of efforts to interfere with democratic processes, all of that has laid the groundwork for the possibility that we could wake up this morning with large numbers of people on either or both sides contesting the results, saying that there had been interference, meddling, hacking, fraud, disenfranchisement, disinformation that suppressed the vote or destroyed the vote, any number of ways in which the results could be delegitimized.
While there are a number of very close races, there are likely to be recounts, there are a lot of races that are contested as races always are because they’re very close, we didn’t wake up to anything like widespread rejection of the results and a further poisoning of people’s faith in our democratic systems. So, that was my first reason for relief and optimism this morning.
The second was that, it is related, is that we saw record midterm turnout as had been widely predicted, but you never actually know. The early vote turnout had already been substantially higher than in the past, and we won’t know the final turnout numbers but it speaks to people’s basic faith that their vote matters and their voice can be heard, and that our system is worth engaging with deliberately, that the early guesses that about 48 percent of voters turned out, with more than 60 percent in many states, that at the moment amounts to about 114 million votes cast. That compares with 83 million in 2014 when we saw record low turnout, and it isn’t actually that far from the presidential turnout of 2016, which was 138 million, so that level of engagement again, regardless of results, regardless of which outcomes you liked or didn’t like, I think it is good for democracy that that many people voted.
Third, we saw the end of one-party rule, and again wherever you come down on who you wanted to see win, that represents another I think vote of faith in our system. Our system was designed for us to be able to experiment and take risks and then adjust for outcomes and iterate. So the extent of the country took a risk two years ago in electing a president who ran an extremely disruptive campaign, who brought less experience in public life than any president in our history, to the extent that he very deliberately made this a referendum on how the country is feeling about that experiment. The fact that the victory of the Democrats in the House, which reintroduces some checks and balances into our system, again I think speaks to the fact that this system, as unwieldy as it can be, as frustrating as it can be, and at times as undemocratic as it can be, also has all sorts of safeguards and guardrails built into it.
Finally, my last source of optimism are the number of new faces that we see now onstage. Certainly a great deal has been written about the historic election of more women. There will now be more than 100 women in the House of Representatives including the first Muslim-American women ever, Native American women, a record number of veterans, again in both parties. A Teacher of the Year is the first black woman to be elected to Congress from Connecticut, we have female governors for the first time in Maine and South Dakota, the first Latinas ever elected from Texas, and a bunch of people who were new to politics, maybe most importantly in both parties, who will bring to Washington or to their statehouses the perspective of those who have not spent their entire careers in political combat, and I think that is healthy for how we move forward.
So that was the good news. The less encouraging news that is still I think being much digested is that in many places this was an exceptionally ugly campaign, and the results suggest that that is not going to change, and that in fact the ugliness was vindicated. States where the president went to campaign particularly to increase the Republican hold in the Senate were largely successful. Most of those who cleaved to him succeeded, while those who broke with him did not. That makes it harder to have independent Republicans, if the Republican takeaway is that crossing the president comes at considerable risk. How much does that embolden him and others remains to be seen, but it’s fascinating that when, while midterms are always a referendum on the party in power and particularly the president and his policies, he made this much more explicitly about him. He said this over and over and over again, and to some extent reminded the commentariat of the ways in which he understands things about this electorate better than many of the experts do.
We certainly saw in the last days of the race, I thought it was a fascinating division that 68 percent of the country approves of the economic condition and direction of the country and his policies. They like the record low unemployment, they like the success in renegotiating trade deals, 68 percent positive numbers on the economy, but only 38 percent who were positive about the direction of the economy, that’s a remarkable gap, and my feeling was that that 38 percent right track number reflected the division and the polarization and the poison in our politics and people for whom the tactics being used, the overt appeals to racism and nativism in many races, that that is not the kind of public discourse that they’re looking for, that there’s a hunger for a return to sanity and civility and the possibility of compromise and therefore progress, and to the extent that the campaign that the president was running in many key battleground states in the last weeks was even more divisive, even more polarizing. When the Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is repeatedly calling him and imploring him to talk more about the economy, and he is saying to crowds at rallies, “Yeah, I could talk more about the economy, but that’s boring and you’d start leaving, and we all want to have a good time,” and then proceed to have extremely positive response from crowds to the message that he chose to deliver instead, that I think is likely to only embolden those who see the outcomes, see how those races ended up breaking, see the number of people he campaigned for in the last days who ended up winning in close races, and I don’t think that that bodes well for the return to civility in our politics.
We come out of this more divided than ever. The red states got redder while liberal turnout in suburbs also got bluer, the extent that the Republican base played to rural white male voters and as a result helped increase the Republican lead in the Senate while the Democrats appealed to liberal, progressive, female, suburban voters helped to seal their victory in the House. This just suggests that the polarization that we have seen is going to grow deeper, and that has real implications beyond the impact on the tone of our politics. Polarization I think is a threat to progress. It turns politics into a zero-sum game in which opponents become enemies. It means that particular positions and policies or who has the best ideas and solutions to problems don’t matter as much as where your tribe stands. If any victory for the other side represents a loss for your side, then that precludes the idea that there are outcomes in which everyone wins and everyone gains. I think that that is a dispiriting message at a time when a lot of voters I think are trying to signal that they would like to see solutions, whether on immigration, on healthcare, on trade, on tax policies, that they would like to see some level of cooperation in solving problems. And instead, you have an outcome that invites people to dig the trenches that they are in even deeper.
And finally, the outcome is a reminder that democracy is not exactly democratic, that the nature of the map and the races that were in place, particularly the Senate races, meant that there were 10 million more Democratic votes for senators, and yet the Democrats lost ground in the Senate. There were 44 million Democratic votes cast in Senate races versus about 33 million in Republican races, and yet the Republicans ended up picking seats because of the states that were in play and how our electoral map works. And so to the extent that this was another reminder that the way the Constitution was written and the way in the case of House races, districts are drawn, is another reminder that this is not a plebiscitary democracy. There are many ways in which that’s a good thing, but it concerns me about whether that undermines the legitimacy of results going forward.
Finally, and then I will throw this open to you so we can have a conversation, there are lots of really fascinating important questions that now confront us, starting with the president. To the extent that he has shown that he doesn’t hold a great many hardcore ideological positions, what are the prospects that he is willing to do any kind of a deal, particularly with House Democrats, over DACA, over other immigration policy, over infrastructure spending? Or does he prefer to set up Nancy Pelosi as a foil and has no interest in cutting deals on anything? That is certainly going to be one of the most fateful questions. Does he do anything other than campaign? Going forward, since people around him have noted that the rallies that he held in the last two weeks reminded him that really he enjoys campaigning much more than governing, which is one of many, many fascinating contrasts to his predecessors in the White House, for whom campaigning was a necessary means to the end of being able to govern, and then that took particular set of policy priorities.
On the Democratic side, the great question is to what extent these next two years become all about investigations, subpoenas, inquiries, hearings. During the campaign they were quite disciplined in many cases about focusing on health care, focusing on corruption transparency, cleaning up government, resisting the temptation to take the bait, to talk about impeachment, to make this about containing the president rather than removing him. Does that discipline of focusing on issues continue, or do they listen to a base that according to exit polls is overwhelmingly in favor of impeachment proceedings? One thing in that regard that is more likely is that whatever Robert Mueller ends up reporting, whenever he ends up reporting it, we are much more likely to see the outcome of that report. It will be harder for that report to be buried in the Justice Department or the House when you have one chamber of Congress controlled by the opposition party.
Another great question on the Democratic side, given the fact that some of the most high-profile, buzziest, nationally followed, rising star progressives have failed. Whether Gillum in Florida or Beto in Texas or we don’t know for certain the outcome of Stacey Abrams in Georgia, but it’s not looking like she’s going to prevail there. These were some of the most closely followed races and these were the candidates who were placing a bet that an avowed progressive could turn red states more purple, that it’s not turned out to be the case, so what are the implications for that and any of these other developments for the next campaign, for 2020, which, as you know, started this morning. So with that I invite your questions. I look forward to hearing where you want to go with this.
Q: Are you optimistic that we’ll be able to realize a government where public servants are willing to cross party lines in the name of good and sustainable policy, so that we’re not in this situation every two years of crisis voting and majority party flip-flopping?
I grant that what I’ve just said about the deepening of polarization and the vindication of particularly tribal and partisan tactics would suggest that the possibility of compromising and crossing the aisle becomes much less likely. I don’t know that that is actually true. Certainly a lot of the new members that the Democrats elected are not as beholden to party leadership. A number of them came out during the campaign saying, for instance, that they would not support Nancy Pelosi for speaker. They were in many cases—and she, incidentally, gave them permission to do that if they were running in districts where a less progressive message was going to be more successful. She cared more about them winning their races, and so what that means is that you don’t only have the much-commented-on and historic ethnic and racial and gender diversity on the Democratic side. You do have a range of backgrounds and experience and ideological priorities, and so I don’t think that you’re necessarily going to see them marching in lockstep.
Similarly, on the Republican side, even though a number of the new Republican senators that were beneficiaries, like Josh Hawley in Missouri who defeated Clare McCaskill, who had aligned himself with the president, campaigned in Missouri at the end. I’m not sure you characterize Josh Hawley as a hardcore partisan ideologue. He was somewhat reluctant to recruit to that race and there are a number, Martha McSally if she prevails in Arizona, and some others whose willingness to compromise and inclination in that direction is an open question. I think it would be unfortunate, especially for journalists, to go into the next session of Congress just assuming it’s going to be all-out trench warfare and that nothing’s going to be accomplished cause both sides are going to be dug in.
I actually, to the extent that I think there is real appetite in the country to see something get done and including to see something get done that includes both parties working together, as they did on the opioid crisis. It’s unfortunate in this environment that a bill that passes the Senate 98-1 and addresses a major issue in this country, that affects red states and blue states, gets as little coverage as it does. Because it is so much more interesting to cover the theater, but having said that, I think that there are a number of issues where voters recognize that nothing is going to happen, and especially on immense issues like immigration or healthcare, nothing is going to happen without there being some bipartisan cooperation, and so if we are prepared to listen to the message of this election and all of it there, I’m really hoping that we will see a willingness to do that.
Q: My question/comment is to reinforce the element of proactive leadership, because I suspect Trump or Trumpism was a result of something lacking within the system, that it wasn’t working for many people and there was a sense of ennui, there was a sense of disengagement, and two years ago they made a massive leap of faith and elected this outlier who was proving, and I’ll be very polite since I’m not an American citizen, who was proven to make politics somewhat more interesting based on the media. So as we lead into, and you’re absolutely correct because 2020 starts this morning, is I believe it’s important that the congressional leadership on both the House and Senate side understand and take and accept an element of responsibility in acting as legislators who have a sense of ethic, who have a sense of value, and actually try to do least harm and make the system work. What are your comments on this? And I thank you.
I think you’re exactly right, and it’s perhaps the most important reality of how we got where we are in our politics right now. On election day 2016, if the exit polls are right, a substantial majority of voters, like north of 60 percent, said that they felt that Donald Trump was not honest and trustworthy and did not have the experience necessary to be president. That included a significant number of people who went ahead and voted for him, and the reason for that is because for those who were asked answering which candidate will bring about necessary change in Washington, that was a top issue for more than 40 percent of voters and of that group, for whom that’s what they cared most about, 82 percent of them voted for Donald Trump. They really were looking for someone who would bring complete disruption to how politics was working and how the legislative process was working and how Washington operated. Whether or not the kind of change, and there’s no question he has been a very disruptive figure, whether the kind of change that he has brought is the kind that they were looking for is a question that we have a little more of an answer to this morning, that in particularly rural red states that supported him, they love what they are seeing and spoke loudly and clearly that they love what they are seeing. In suburban districts they don’t, and that came through loud and clear as well.
But I think the most interesting point that you’re making about leadership and the responsibility of leadership, is if you ask the question, “Who are the leaders on both sides as we wake up this morning?” The obvious answer is to say Donald Trump is the leader of the Republicans, and Nancy Pelosi is the leader of the Democrats, except for the fact that in terms of policy and what it means to be a Republican, this president has so disrupted that, whether on trade, on alliances, on foreign policy, on deficit spending, on any number of issues, that unless the Republican Party is prepared to completely rewrite its book of principles, then I’m not sure going forward 2020 and beyond that Donald Trump is necessarily the embodiment of what Republicanism means, and I’m not sure that Nancy Pelosi, as powerful as she is going to be right now, is the embodiment of what the Democratic Party means.
The evidence of that is that at the moment as we wake up this morning, there are about 135 people who are running for the Democratic nomination, and it will be fascinating to see in both parties how the identity crisis plays out. I think it was Karl Rove last night who tweeted that both parties are broken and the internal divides, not over the who but over the whats, what do we stand for? What do we stand for as Democrats, what do we stand for as Republicans? The important thing to remember in that is that even though we are more polarized now, even though party identification has become a more decisive factor in people’s positions on major issues than their race, gender, education level, any of the things that used to be more shaping of our identity on all of these topics, it is now your tribal identity that is most decisive. It is also true that both parties as institutions are weaker than they’ve ever been, and this to me is a fascinating paradox that at this time of intense polarization, the institutional parties are as weak as they are, and that makes the battle to define what it means to be progressive, what it means to be conservative, what it means to be a leader on the left or the right, and what you stand for and what kind of a coalition you’re going to build to have any hopes of being successful in 2020, that is the battleground that we’re going to be watching as they say starting this morning.
Q: The week very recently when the pipe bombs were sent, and the temple was shot up, sort of broke something in me in terms of optimism about the future. I see a scenario that I’d like you to address and hopefully make me more hopeful. I see one, the fact that impeachment starts in the House and conviction happens in the Senate, and by taking the Senate and bringing in some of those in the Republican Party that are ever more loyal to him, there is the possibility that even if the Mueller report would lead to impeachment, he would be freed by the Senate and that would be the last barrier to restrain him. The second little nuance that has cropped up in my mind is that during Trump’s first marriage divorce hearings, his wife had mentioned that one of her objections to him was that he had a locked night table drawer that was full of books about Hitler and how the early Hitler acquired power. Then the third factor is, I’ve worked in the intelligence community for some time, and within that community Christopher Steele had perhaps one of the best reputations and one of the most insightful networks that he had, and even though his dossier has been discredited by the Republicans because it was so penetrating in its analysis. So these three factors in my mind suggest that the president really is determined to build polarization. It’s not a side effect. It is the goal, and if we take polarization far enough it could lead to potentially a civil war. My sense is one that Speaker Pelosi is a wonderful speaker, she’s enormously skillful, but she is a horrible leader of the Democratic Party and she’s a perfect foil for Trump wanting to polarize the country. I see two years now when things are going to get very dangerously beyond polarization. This is just a scenario that I felt as of two weeks ago, and I’d like you to speak to this dismal prospect.
There certainly is. You’re not alone in your apprehension and certainly not alone in your response to the synagogue shooting and the violence in Kentucky and in Florida, and in the mail bombings before the election, which was a reminder that a poisonous political environment can have very concretely dangerous consequences. Having said that, I think that the challenge to Speaker Pelosi and the House Democrats is whether it will be necessary for them to satisfy the desire on the part of their base, certainly, to initiate impeachment proceedings if the Mueller report contains grounds for that or whether they will conclude particularly given the numbers in the Senate that that would be playing into the hands of their opponents. That it would be a tremendous distraction from accomplishing things that they could then hope to run on, and make the case for this is what our party stands for.
I mean they are really going to face some pretty significant choices. Certainly Republicans in the Senate will face significant choices as well if the Mueller report includes compelling evidence that high crimes and misdemeanors have indeed been committed. We don’t know that yet. We know that Mueller is a very thorough and careful investigator, and the fact that you now have, as I said before, the fact that you have divided government increases the chances that we will know what he finds out at whatever point that report is ready.
Just more broadly, there have been any number of times in our history when the country has been deeply divided and violently divided, and not just in the 1860s, but in the 1960s. It’s easy to forget not only the level of violence in 1968 with the assassinations, the violence in Chicago, but even in the years that followed where bombings by domestic political extremists had become almost routine, and it’s extraordinary to remember that we go through these cycles of deep division, and yet seem to find ways to reunite somehow and move forward.
So I have a fair bit of faith in the bazillions of both individuals and institutions. The wild card there is that we are dealing with a different media environment than we have in past periods of deeply partisan, deeply polarized politics, and it isn’t that hateful messages, extremist messages, whether from the far left or the far right are brand new, but the ability to spread those messages to new audiences in new ways has never been greater than it is now. That is the wild card, to me, and that is where I think as a journalist we have real responsibility to work very hard. It’s one of the projects I’m most invested in here at the Kennedy School, is really understanding how this information works, how the news ecosystem gets disrupted, and what the best responses to that are. How platforms are going to be regulated, because I think even the leaders of technology companies vastly underestimated the influence that they were going to have over our political systems, and not just in the U.S. but worldwide, and not just politics, but in the case of countries like Myanmar over life-and-death struggles in those countries.
So, the technological question and the impact of technologies on our politics and on our discourse, I think it’s an immense challenge. It’s a political challenge. It’s an economic challenge. It’s a technical challenge. It’s one that is really front and center. I admire Doug Elmendorf for focusing on this and for sort of deploying HKS resources to these questions because they’re the new challenges. Some of the challenges we’re looking at have been with us forever. These are new, and that is where I think how our political environment unfolds and how our discourse unfolds is going to be profoundly shaped by how we answer the questions, about how we talk to each other and where we talk to each other.
Q:I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the role of Independents both in the electorate and among the candidates and how they fared, and also looking forward to 2020 whether you think we’ll see a challenger in the Independent category.
So, in this race, Independents were about a third. Just less than a third of voters identified themselves as Independents. And they went 54 percent for Democrats, 42 for Republicans. Independent men went 51 percent for Democrats, 44 for Republicans. Independent women 56 percent for the Democrats, 39 percent for Republicans. For the gender gap that you saw, an almost 20-point gender gap, which was significantly higher than we’ve seen in the past was partly driven by Independent women. That 19-point gender gap in favor of the Democrats compares to only 4 points in 2014, so that was the single most significant swing that we saw. Independents are in a sense the healthiest party, because they have no party. And, you’ve seen people in both, former Democrats and former Republicans, decide that they can no longer call themselves Democrats or Republicans and classify themselves as Independents. So, we are reminded once again of the anomalies that our system makes it incredibly difficult for an Independent candidate to win even as more and more voters identify themselves as Independents.
I think it is, obviously, healthy for democracy for candidates to have to compete for an Independent vote, but the number of places where they need to is also not by any means the majority of districts in this country, and the number of landslide districts, I haven’t seen from yesterday’s results, but the number of landslide districts in 2016 was extraordinarily high. Districts that are won by 10, 20, 30 points.
One of the takeaways that I have from what we saw yesterday is actually about the health of democratic machinery. You had, Florida voted to pass Amendment 4, which restored voting rights to felons, which required a 60 percent vote, and it carried. Michigan passed automatic and election day registrations. Nevada passed an automatic voter registration, so if you interact with the government, if you get a driver’s license or sign up for public assistance, in your interactions with the government you’re automatically registered to vote.
And, a number of states including Michigan voted for independent redistricting commissions. Where people are recognizing that gerrymandered districts have powerful disenfranchising effects, and so want to take the drawing of district lines after the 2020 census out of the hands of legislatures and put them in the hands of independent districts. And, you saw that pass in a number of states. Those things, in a sense, speak to the needs of Independent voters who want for their vote to matter and their votes to be courted as well which you’re not going to have happen as often in districts that are either entirely blue or entirely red.
Q: I am wondering if there is any chance that any of the Democrats elected including all the women would possibly make more attempts at reaching across the aisle and not got caught up in all this impeaching and pointing fingers and keeping the division and even making it deeper.
So, the pattern that we have seen so far, and the evidence suggests that yes, the women are more inclined to operate in a collegial and collaborative style. The 20 women who were in the Senate met together regularly, looked for areas where they could move legislation forward together. The interesting question is, I’m always a little bit allergic to assigning clear behavioral differences based on gender and whether that behavior was more a reflection of their minority status. Which is to say if women are only 20 percent of the Senate does that make you more inclined to operate that way than if it would if you were 50 percent of the Senate? And, would we actually see less aisle crossing and collegiality if women were actually a larger percentage in either House. We don’t know. We’re still a long way from gender parity in either House of Congress. As long as they still are significantly underrepresented the pattern has been that they look to do deals together, and they look for areas where they can work together.
And, I think in many cases they ran very practical, pragmatic campaigns of, this is what I’m going to help get done. And, a lot of the women particularly are women who are new to politics and who don’t come to this as partisan warriors who come to this, I think, with a genuine desire to make progress on issues that matter to their voters, and so to the extent that they can maintain that this position, it does suggest that we will see more collaboration and willingness to put policy priorities ahead of partisan ones.
Q: Looking forward, I was disappointed in the Senate outcome yesterday. Democrats were defending 26 seats, pretty high hill to climb. In 2020 Republicans will be defending 21 seats and the Democrats defending 11, and so my question really is, what is the chance that the Democrats can pull even or do better in 2020? I know that’s a way’s off. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Well, there’s no question that the geography was really tough for the Democrats in the Senate, and I recognize that Missouri maybe shouldn’t be surprising because the fact that Claire McCaskill had managed to be elected in the first place and then reelected where she very shrewdly helped make sure that Todd Aikin was her opponent six years ago because she had calculated that he would, as he turned out to be, be the easiest she could defeat. Pulling that off a third time was always going to be a high bar for her to get over.
And, likewise, Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota in a way not surprising. Joe Donnelly maybe more surprising. We don’t know for certain what happens in Montana or in Florida where Senator Nelson is contesting a very close race. So, the map this year was incredibly difficult for Democrats. It’s much friendlier for them next time than for Republicans. Having said that, midterm years are different than presidential years. This year, less different than in the past, but the 2020 landscape obviously is going to be significantly shaped and defined by who’s the top of the ticket on both sides. I do not take it for granted that President Trump will be running again. That he wants to run again. That he’ll be in position to run again. A million things can happen, and we have no idea of the Democratic side. And, one thing that yesterday was a reminder of is that the candidates matter, that the quality of candidate and how compelling they are, how compelling their story is makes a difference. And, so I think while yes the map bodes well for Democrats in 2020, it also really matters are they going to be successful in recruiting strong candidates who match their states, match their districts?
The thing to bear in mind between now and then is if another Supreme Court seat opens up, because by virtue of the Republican gains in the Senate, they could now afford to lose Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, some of the wavering Republican votes, and still confirm a very conservative justice to the Court, and so in a way the real variable is the branch of government that we haven’t talked about yet, and that is what happens on the Court. Obviously, it’s going to be fascinating to see how the Court as currently configured rules, especially on issues like redistricting, like voting rights. But, were another seat to open up with this Senate you could see an even more conservative justice be able to get through the Senate. So, it’s a long way until 2020, and a lot could happen between now and then.
Q: Interested to hear a little more, obviously with your experience, about how the media responds to what’s happening in Washington especially the president, who just continues his assault the same way he did in New York for years and years and years. I spent this past weekend in New York talking to people who live there, and everybody hates him in New York City because they know from long experience what kind of person he is and what kinds of things he does, but it seems to me that he plays the media so well that they just react and don’t really focus on what they need to do in terms of doing their role in terms of telling us what’s really happening.
There is no question that he has presented very new challenges to reporters covering him and editors who are trying to shape coverage at news organizations. Some of the most superb and high-impact journalism that I’ve ever seen in my career has happened in the last two years in investigating this administration and trying to understand what’s really going on at different agencies. Certainly in trying to understand the many implications of the whole Russia investigation. There has been extraordinary reporting.
The New York Times investigation on the tax returns, really unbelievable journalism that has gone on in a very difficult environment. But I also hear all the time from people who feel as though the coverage of the president plays into his hands in a degree that is damaging to our public discourse, and that’s a significant challenge. During the campaign, I remember hearing from people saying that we should not cover the president’s tweets, and I’m thinking we have never, and I say this both as someone who’s written about the presidency for many years and someone running a newsroom at the time, that you can’t not cover a president’s tweets. They are news, like it or not, and the fact that in this case we have a visibility that’s like a direct line into what he is thinking at any given time, particularly very early in the morning and very late at night, is an extraordinary reality for people who are trying to explain what’s happening in politics. To be able to point to this is what the president is thinking right now. We’ve never had that. Anything like this kind of transparency into his thought process. And the question about covering his rallies is also a challenging one because just at the definition of news, and as long as throughout the campaign and since then he has continued to say and do things that no president before has ever said or done, I think it would be a problem for editors to decide, “Well, we’re just not going to cover that.”
So, the option of covering him less is not a real one. The question is how you cover him, and one thing that has really, I think, been evolving in newsrooms is the need to have from the headline on, if the president says something that is not true, in the course of saying what he said you have to include the fact that it’s not true. And, for a long time the mere fact of a president asserting something which is itself a piece of news would be reported flatly without that headline necessarily including the fact there is no evidence for this thing that the president has just said. I think it took us a while to realize that one a lot of people only see headlines and don’t read the story if the second or third paragraph includes the statement, “There is no evidence to support the president’s claim,” and two, I think it took a while just to register the fact that anyone in a position as powerful as his would say the number of things that his own previous statements contradicted or that any kind of objective, fact-checking, and reality-testing would contradict.
So, now you’re seeing much more aggressive inclusion of the fact that this statement is not true—the president falsely claims, the president asserted with no evidence—that is now built into the initial statement of what a president says. But I go back to saying that it is his determination to be the center of attention. His determination to make it impossible for eyes to move off him. It’s unlike anything we have really seen in public life before. And it’s a challenge for journalists and it’s a challenge for voters, and it’s a challenge for his own administration. It’s a challenge for members of his party, who were desperate for him to be taking a different line of arguments. Certainly, if you were a Republican in a tight House race, the things he was saying in the last 10 days of the campaign were making you crazy. And yet he himself testified to the fact that he was determined that his crowds remain excited and that the coverage of him be unrelenting and that this all be taken as a referendum on him, himself, and his presidency. And I think that the conversation within newsrooms about how to cover him is going to continue, and there were things about the coverage last night I think that was troubling and feeds the perception of media being biased.
Having said that, I am most profoundly worried that any president who casts the media in general as an enemy of the people and takes the adversarial position that he has, which has had a corrosive effect on public trust in media, which was declining long before President Trump took office, but obviously has accelerated since then. It’s had the effect of undermining people’s confidence in the Mueller investigation, in other institutions of government, in other democratic institutions. That is very concerning to me.
The extent of the press, love it or hate it, I think it’s a critical democratic institution. I am profoundly challenged about how we restore public trust in what we do at a time when that trust has been declining, and the decline in trust is being fueled by the president.
Q: So, to your Twitter comment, I’m curious, how indicative do you really believe his tweets are, and how do you factor them in? How do you sort of measure them in relation to other news coming out of the White House?
That’s a great question. Certainly he has tweeted any number of things that are not true. Factual statements he makes in his Twitter feed that are not facts. And those are usually disproven. I think what’s more interesting is not when he lies, well not more interesting, but as interesting as when he lies is when he tells the truth. And it’s fascinating to me how often he actually seems to be saying what he’s thinking.
Like when he tweets rather astonishingly after the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, that how upsetting it was that Republican momentum had been slowed by that. That’s an extraordinary thing for anyone to think, and if they think it to say. And it’s hard for me to imagine why he would say it other than that’s really what he was thinking at the time. That he woke up on a day when millions of people were feeling sorrow and heartsickness at this immense tragedy and what he was actually feeling was that Republican momentum was going to be slowed by this event.
And that was not a unique case. We have often seen him tweeting things that speak to what he’s actually thinking that are kind of astonishing, and so I think that his tweets are a remarkable window into what he’s angry about, what he’s happy about, what he’s focused on at any given time. Even that he was tweeting about the World Series game that night is sort of an extraordinary fact. The fact that he went back to tweeting about Tom Steyer after Steyer is one of the mail bomb targets. Rather extraordinary.
Again, I think this is why you can’t not cover this because the very fact that we do have this window, and obviously everyone should bring their own judgments there, but the times that he tells the truth including that a racially charged message about immigration is more exciting to his crowds than talking about the economy. I think he says that because he believes that, and he acts on that belief. And, so it’s in a sense the least political thing about this politician who says so many impolitic things, who says what he’s really thinking and how he’s really seeing the state of play rather than what a more respectable rendering of our political discourse would lead him to say.
Well, thank you very much, Nancy, and I’d like to thank all of our participants in today’s Wiener Conference Call.