The 1946 Academy Award for best picture went to “The Lost Weekend,” a harrowing account of an alcoholic bender starring Ray Milland. Seventy years later, a presidential campaign has turned into a harrowing political bender starring Donald Trump.
Even Trump himself recognizes some of the costs of “The Lost Year.” Campaigning in Nevada early this month, Trump said with rare honesty, “If I don’t win, this will be the greatest waste of time, money and energy in my lifetime by a factor of one hundred.” He made the same point in North Carolina last Friday saying, “What a waste if we don’t pull this off.”
Of course, the wasteful excess that haunts the altruistic Trump is $56 million that he put into his campaign, mostly for the primaries. And, presumably, when a ray of realism penetrates Trump Tower, the bilious billionaire recognizes how seriously his low-rent campaign has damaged his high-rent empire of gold-plated glitz.
The undeniable truth is that Trump has already lost an election that a rational Republican might well have won. Even if a meteor were to hit the earth before Election Day, Trump would still be toast. Amid such a global calamity, Hillary Clinton would gain support as the candidate offering calm leadership. And if America took a direct hit from this mythical meteor, Clinton would still have the edge from early voting.
In a presidential race in which Utah is a swing state and Texas is contested, the only mystery left is the extent of Clinton’s margin. In a just world, Hillary would even win Indiana, which would leave Trump fuming about how Gov. Mike Pence was part of the diabolical conspiracy to “rig” the election.
Taking their sweet time
While it may be unseemly to celebrate two weeks before Election Day, the good sense of the American voter appears to have again prevailed. But that fabled good sense certainly took its time getting here. What is unfortunate is that it required Trump’s vile conduct and his ungovernable temper to bring him down.
Far better if Trump had self-destructed the first time he had talked of banning Muslims or if the voters had rebelled as soon as the former reality-show host displayed his ignorance of nuclear weapons and gushed over Vladimir Putin. From the beginning Trump was obviously unsuited to take on the burdens of the presidency. But the election would still be competitive if Trump had not boasted about assaulting women in 2005 while wearing a TV microphone.
Never in modern history have issues played so scant a role in a presidential campaign. Most of the vitriolic opposition to Hillary Clinton stems from her home brew email server and the blurred ethical lines between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department during her tenure. Trump himself acknowledges this content-free campaign every time he suggests that his sexual misdeeds are less reprehensible than Bill Clinton’s.
As a result, Hillary Clinton’s electoral mandate will be on par with Barack Obama’s Nobel Prize. Obama won the Peace prize in the first year of his presidency primarily for not being George W. Bush. Hillary is poised to win the most sweeping presidential victory in two decades mostly because she isn’t Donald J. Trump.
The Democratic nominee was certainly prepared to campaign on the issues. A bit more hawkish on military policy than Democratic orthodoxy, Clinton had positioned herself to run as a domestic liberal concerned with the price tag of her programs. As she put it in last week’s final debate, “I pay for everything I’m proposing. I do not add a penny to the national debt. I take that very seriously, because I do think it’s one of the issues we’ve got to come to grips with.”
Who do you trust?
Such centrist sentiments are unlikely to gladden the hearts of Bernie Sanders’ supporters. Kate McKinnon, playing Hillary on the most recent “Saturday Night Live,” came close to capturing this truth when she asked in a mock debate, “Who do you trust to be president? The Republican or Donald Trump?”
Since Trump is running for president unmoored to any party or coherent ideology, it is nearly impossible for any discussion of policy issues to get traction with the voters or in the news media. Remember that Clinton was discussing the Social Security Trust Fund when Trump interrupted with his high-minded policy dissent: “Such a nasty woman.”
Guttersnipe politics drives all political debate to the bottom. The tragedy is that the 2016 election should have been a time for the nation to make hard choices since America is operating on autopilot in so many areas.
Fifteen years after 9/11, the voters deserve to hear a robust debate on the merits of America’s drone wars from Yemen to Pakistan. Three years after Edward Snowden revealed the extent of NSA’s monitoring of citizens’ telephone calls and emails, the nation has yet to hold an honest political discussion of the tradeoffs between privacy and security in an age of terrorism.
On the domestic front, what is the formula for breaking the congressional logjam on funding infrastructure projects? What are the most effective ways to battle addiction to heroin and painkillers? And is there any relief possible for those workers who have already lost their jobs from NAFTA and other trade treaties?
Everyone lost when Donald Trump hijacked the GOP nomination. Trump’s rank-and-file supporters lost a serious candidate to articulate their concerns. Principled conservatives lost their party. And Hillary Clinton and the Democrats lost the give-and-take of a policy debate that could have produced a governing mandate.
Such are the costs to American democracy from a lost year battling the authoritarian temptation.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. His book on his con-man great-uncle was just published: “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer.” Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.