To say 2017 wasn’t a good year for American politics is like saying the Cleveland Browns (0-15) are struggling a bit on the ol’ gridiron. Virtually every political institution—indeed our politics itself—took a hit in 2017, often from self-inflicted wounds.
Is it possible to have a year in politics where everybody loses and nobody wins? Almost.
First, the biggest losers:
What do you call it when the Republican Party controls the House, the Senate and the White House? In theory, it’s a wave of conservative governance. In reality, it’s chaos. Donald Trump is, by definition, a political amateur, but it was the GOP pros in the House and Senate who couldn’t get their acts together: failing to pass an Obamacare repeal, driving the budget process to the political brink, and all while waging an in-party civil war that often sounded more like a drunken brawl than political debate. Yes, a tax bill eventually passed, but even that looked more like desperation than leadership.
Start with a party as internally divided as the GOP, take away political power and cash on hand, and you’ve got the Democratic Party of 2017. The party’s prospects in 2018 look good thanks to forces both historic (the party out of power tends to do well in mid-term elections) and ahistoric (the unique hatred of Trump). But 2017 was a downer for Democrats.
First, their fundraising was awful. The party out of power tends to do well as the frustrated faithful protest with their wallets. But Democrats raised less money in November than any non-election year since 2007 and closed the month with $2.6 million in debt. Meanwhile, Republicans are on track to raise around $130 million in 2017 and had about $40 million cash on hand in November.
Then there are the DNC scandals, including former chair Donna Brazile’s book alleging unfair treatment of Bernie Sanders in 2016, and the indictment of two Democratic staffers who handled IT for then-DNC chair Debbie Wassermann Schultz—one of whom was arrested while attempting to flee to Pakistan.
Yes, Democrat Doug Jones won a U.S. Senate race in deep-red Alabama, but like the failure of Obamacare repeal, that was a Republican “accomplishment,” not a Democratic one.
The two-party system
If you’re a Democrat who thinks everybody hates the GOP, or you’re a Republican who thinks the Democrats’ brand is in the dumps—you’re both right! In what would seem a mathematical improbability, more Americans reject the GOP and don’t like the Democrats than any time in a generation.
Democrats can cheer themselves with the knowledge that they lead in the generic-ballot test by double-digits (“would you rather be represented by a Democrat or a Republican?”). But Republicans can take comfort from the Democrats’ popularity hitting a 25-year low: 37 percent favorable, 54 percent unfavorable, according to a CNN poll.
The real loser, however, is the political party process itself. A strong Republican party never would have nominated a problematic candidate like Judge Roy Moore. Meanwhile the Democratic Party is struggling to control a far-left base that’s more interested in pushing impeachment—an unrealistic proposition at the moment—than finding more moderate candidates for the mid-terms.
In 2016, trust in the media hit its lowest level in Gallup polling history, with just 32 percent saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the press. So when trust in the media jumped to 41 percent in the Gallup poll this year, many media outlets cheered. Has the problem of alleged media bias been fixed?
Not exactly. The increase was entirely driven by Democrats, 71 percent of whom now trust the media. As Gallup.com reports: “Democrats’ renewed trust in the media may be driven by the perception that it acts as a watchdog over Republican President Donald Trump.” Meanwhile, just 17 percent of Republicans trust the media not to report #FakeNews.
In other words, the media are almost entirely viewed through a partisan prism. Last year’s number was lower, but it was also more uniform across party lines. A bipartisan view that the press is broken leaves the possibility of reforms to restore trust.
But if the right’s notion that the press’s problem is a partisan one, and Democrats enforce that view by supporting partisan reporting, it will be very difficult for the media to bridge that divide.
Roy Moore. Al Franken. John Conyers. Blake Farenthold. One could argue that every year is a bad year for politicians—members of Congress consistently rank below car sellers and ad men on the list of trustworthy occupations—but 2017 has been brutal. Sexual harassment is only one part of the story. The Congressional chaos has raised questions about basic competence, while the coarsening discourse from both sides of the aisle casts doubt on their overall character.
If Steve Bannon and Sheila Jackson Lee become the poster children for the condition of American politics, 2018 will be a very bad year, indeed.
And the winner is…?
So did everyone lose in 2017? Was this truly a dark cloud without a silver lining? Well, ask yourself this: If politicians, parties and the press are all losing—who wins? The man who ran for office leading a populist charge against them all: Donald Trump.
Did Donald Trump “win” 2017? That’s certainly a counter-intuitive thought given his lowest-ever-for-a-first-year-president poll numbers, the constant missteps, the #RussiaGate investigation, etc. But given the number of people who predicted he’d be out of office by now—and possibly in handcuffs—his mere survival could be counted as a win. It’s a low bar, but such are the expectations of the Trump presidency.
But there’s another case for 2017 being a win for Trump: He’s the guy who wins when everyone else is losing.
The premise of Trump’s politics is that the political establishment is too corrupt or stupid to govern. It’s time for the anti-politician, someone who will break the rules, drain the swamp, throw the bums out. And the more the elites look like “bums,” the more it bolsters Trump’s case.
As long as judges denounce Trump in political terms from behind the bench; as long as FBI agents are caught attacking Trump’s politics; as long as members of Congress discuss extreme measures like impeachment; as long as much of the media appears to be more vested in fighting against Trump rather than simply reporting on him—as long as the climate of 2017 continues, Trump “wins.”
Will the political establishment learn that lesson for 2018?
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