Trust me on this one, I know of which I speak. On that sunny June day in 2015, when The Grate Pumpkin clanked and wheezed his way down that schlock gilt elevator in Trump Tower,to the tepid applause of paid minions, and thrilled the racists and bed wetters of the far right, I donned my most wrinkled earnest journalist shirt, grabbed my laptop, hopped into Bennie The Cab, and careened down to Toontown to cover the GOP primaries.Those daily dispatches from the insanity front formed the genesis of my President Evil book trilogy.
On the surface there are several striking similarities between the GOP primary field of 2016, and the current Democratic crop in 2020, especially at this early stage. In 2016, the GOP fielded 17 candidates right out o the chute to challenge for the Presidency, in 2020, the Democrats will at least match, if not surpass that number. In 2016, Barack Obama was finishing up his second term, and was loathed by the GOP base the way a 5 year old hates Brussels sprouts. In 2020, The Democrats are licking their chops over a first term President with historic lows in popularity, and a polarizing figure with terrible policies, but a cult like following. And in both 2014 and 2018, the President’s party had a midterm that spelled trouble for the future. But there the similarities end, and the exact, total, polar opposites begin.
In 2016. GOP strategists gushed over their field with phrases like “The Dream Team (Moronic, since every candidate was a team of one), and “The deepest bench in history (True, if you’re coaching a tee ball team in the first game of the preseason). But lets look t the Opening Day lineup, shall we? Fourteen lily white, tried and true, political male hacks, a novelty wing nut African American, and an obligatory 2016 white woman who ran Hewlett Packard into the ground. Oh yeah, and a baggy pants comic that was a repulsive mix between Groucho Marx and Andrew Dice Clay. I haven’t seen a bench that deep since the softball scene in Ernest Goes To Camp.
Already, at this early stage, the Democrats have 4 women candidates (I don’t count the phantom candidacy of Tulsi Gabbard), two African Americans, including a female, a Hispanic former Obama cabinet head, and an openly gay man. We have two septuagenarian, white haired, male candidates for those who prefer the grandfatherly Presidential figure. In baseball, you can’t stock your bench with sluggers, you need utility infielders, singles hitters, and pinch runners too. The Democratic 2020 bench is stocked like the New York Yankees of the glory days.
In 2016, not only was diversity in the candidates lacking, diversity in messaging was almost non existent. For several years, the base of the Republican party had been growing steadily older, whiter, more evangelical, more racist, and more fearful of change. A modern, diverse message was not only unwelcome, it was shunned. Here I can speak from personal experience. Us creaky old farts don’t much like newfangled ideas shouted out to us over a microphone, it sounds too much like that rap music crap. And so the candidates in 2016 on the GOP side were reduced to earnestly promoting the same tired, old message, desperately trying to find the magic blend of arugula, iceberg, and Romaine in the resultant word salad to make it palatable. This was done by necessity, not choice, the mainstream GOP base was like the audience at a 70’s band reunion concert, they only wanted to hear the greatest hits, none of that new shit.
If 2018 proved nothing else, it was that the Democratic base is not monolithic, and it is not motivated by a single issue. In 2018, voters were indeed motivated by an almost gut wrenching aversion to Donald Trump, but they were also motivated by pay inequality, government corruption, healthcare, pay inequality, and a host of other “kitchen table” issues. In 2020, we have a truly diverse field of candidates, to borrow an old phrase, “jacks of all trades, masters of none.” Bernie Sanders is still hammering on Healthcare, Elizabeth Warren is strong on income inequality and corporate corruption, Pete Buttigieg is personally staked in social equality, Eric Swalwell is running on a gun reform platform, Cory Booker has made criminal justice regorm his second home, and Jay Inslee wants to stop the earth from becoming the set of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. In 2016, the stamped widget GOP candidates struggled to motivate a base that “had seen it all,” in 2018, the upstart Democrats motivated and energized voters, including non traditional voters across a wide range of platforms, and in 2020 the individual candidates are keeping those diverse constituencies energized and motivated.
In 2016, the GOP electorate was like school kids in mid August. They were tired of riding their bikes, they were tired of the pool, they were tired of the beach, they were tired of playing baseball, and they sure as hell were tired of the $1 menu at McDonalds, which is what the GOP primary candidates were offering them. So instead, they bolted out of line, and queued up instead at the taco truck parked at the corner, yeah, the one with the “condemned” sticker from the health department on the side. In 2020, the Democratic party is offering their voters the political equivalent of the grand buffet at Caesars Palace, choices for every taste, and each one almost sinfully prepared and satisfying. We don’t yet know which dish will be the “best of table,” but we do know that it isn’t going to be the cut up Twinkies on the plate by the kitchen door.
Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC has promised to have every 2020 Democratic contender on his show at least once, as the candidates scheduling allows, and he’s doing something I absolutely love. One of his first questions of each candidate is, “Which idea from one of your contenders do you think is the best one you’ve heard so far that isn’t your own?” This is a brilliant question, because the eventual winner-take-all of the Democratic primaries will be the one who has the strongest individual platform, most effectively given, yet will be able to successfully fold in the best ideas and positions of his opponents, to make it easy for them to support him or her, and for his opponents to get their own supporters to back the eventual winner.
I gotta admit, this little stroll down memory lane, and comparing it to the current day has been fun. But there was one more glaring difference between the 2016 GOP primaries, and the situation we face today in the Democratic primaries, and that one is fulsome enough to deserve its own format in the soon forthcoming Part II. Don’t touch that dial.