It’s that time of the campaign season when some Democrats are starting to feel — as President Jimmy Carter might have put it — malaise. They’re staring at their 2020 lineup and wondering whether it’s a guaranteed recipe for buyer’s remorse. Joe Biden is too old, Pete Buttigieg is too young, Kamala Harris is too uncertain, Bernie Sanders too unpalatable, Elizabeth Warren too unelectable.
All of which may be right. But I have an additional theory for why some Democrats are the vexed and depleted souls they seem to be these days, waking up with lead in their veins and worms in their stomachs. It boils down to this: They can’t escape the sense that they’re living by different rules.
Let me rephrase that: Democrats are acting as though there still are rules, when in fact they’re living in a political multiverse — with at least one parallel reality containing no rules at all.
What do you do when one party stakes its faith — and ultimately government itself — on observable, measurable realities while the other has made the cynical decision to cast away those principles away? How do you strategize? How do you cope?
It’s not just that President Trump serially lies in plain sight. (What’s The Washington Post’s latest tally? 13,435? Whatever: Just imagine a whirring odometer on a shuttle to Mars.) It’s that he’s surrounded by occluders and toadies, nihilist tricksters spun directly from the looms of the Marx Brothers’ imagination. (“Who you gonna believe? Me or your own eyes?”)
A raft of congressional Republicans — including (say it with me) Senator Lindsey Graham — learned that our top diplomat in Ukraine had confirmed the Trump administration’s aid-for-dirt caper, yet still insists the impeachment proceedings are a sham. The acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, acknowledged this same quid pro quo in a news conference, only to proclaim later that none of us understands English. Any public servant who dares say that two plus two just might equal four is immediately accused by Trump of radicalism, treason, witch hunting.
Compare that with President Barack Obama’s relationship with those who inconvenienced him. When James Comey, then the head of the F.B.I., made the fateful decision to announce that he’d reopened his inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s emails just days before the 2016 election, Obama could not have been especially pleased. By imperiling Clinton’s chances, Comey was imperiling Obama’s own legacy too. Yet Obama still behaved warmly toward him, according to James Stewart in his new book, “Deep State.” Why? Because “Democrats,” as Jonathan Chait explained in his review of that book, “still believed in institutions and norms.”
This idea — that Democrats still believe in norms, customs, the rather crucial notion of checks and balances, in government itself — may be the crux of the multiverse problem. Look at someone like Joe Biden, whose essential pitch (in addition to experience, incremental change, working-class-guyness) is that he can work with the men and women on the other side of the aisle.
But this suggests that compromise is an option. It doesn’t appear that the other side is much interested. You have Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, holding a Supreme Court appointment hostage for nearly a year, blocking almost all legislative debate and passing a bill to protect the 2020 elections from foreign interference only under extreme duress; the world’s “greatest deliberative body” is now a speedway for the Trump agenda. When they were in charge, you had House Republicans informally observing the Hastert rule— named for the former speaker Dennis Hastert, who was carted off to prison for paying hush money to a former student he’d sexually abused — which says bills can come to the floor only if a majority of the Republicans support them. It virtually ensures minoritarian rule.
And you have partisan news outlets with zero interest in reporting the basic facts of Trump’s corruption or the catastrophic consequences of his impulses. We’ve gone from Pax Americana to Fox Americana in the blink of an eye.
Whereas the more traditional news media, whatever their unconscious biases, do try to hold Democrats to account. Sure, let’s stipulate that there are more liberals than conservatives at these organizations. Maybe even a lot more. But it was mainstream newspapers that broke the Whitewater story, which led to an independent investigation of Bill Clinton. It was mainstream newspapers that kept Hillary Clinton’s emails on the front page in the run-up to the 2016 election. This newspaper covered Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine too — in May. These pages also ran an editorial about it. That was in 2015.
Of course Democratic politicians — all politicians — distort, gerrymander evidence, even lie and apply their greasy thumbs to the scales. (What was Bill Clinton doing on that plane with Loretta Lynch in 2016?) The question is whether their sins are occasional or habitual, whether their worldviews are Capra or Chandler. The Trumpkins are firmly in noir territory.
Now you have Trump strafing Facebook with campaign ads popping with falsehoods. Elizabeth Warren, meanwhile, ran a Facebook ad with falsehoods that acknowledged they were false midway through.
Which says it all, really.
So, to repeat: What to do about this? Do you capitulate, sell your soul and resort to the same lawless tactics as your opponents? Or do you take the high road and run the risk of losing?
The only guide we have is 2018. But it’s not a bad one. What it showed was that sometimes it pays to go high. The Democrats just have to aggressively sell an honorable message.
Specifically, what the Democrats should say is: Anyone who’s not in the business of peddling the truth shouldn’t be in the business of government. Or publishing, for that matter. Trump once said that he could probably get away with murder. (And his lawyers recently, surreally, made this same case in a federal appeals court.) That’s what Mark Zuckerberg is doing on Facebook, figuratively speaking, by allowing political ads with demonstrably false content to run on his platform, no matter what other features the company rolls out.
Right now, the Democrats are badly losing the Facebook war. But it’s not too late for them to wage this fight, and in the right way. They could still campaign on the idea of a government that believes in itself — and self-evident truths, like something as basic as the size of an inaugural crowd.
It would be a declaration of values. In the Trump era, that’s not a bad place to start.