Apropos of the striking comparisons between the 2000 and 2016 election campaigns, I had a brief Twitter thread today inspired by the discussion of David Foster Wallace’s fawning, overpraised essay about John McCain in Adrienne Miller’s excellent newish memoir:
DFW was on a brilliant run as an essayist at the time, and I still remember going to Bulldog News to get Rolling Stone and read the McCain essay that was already generating a great deal of praise.— Scott Lemieux (@LemieuxLGM) April 5, 2020
The key point here is Miller’s explanation for *why* it was bad, an obsession with Masculine Authenticity that was shared by most of the political press.— Scott Lemieux (@LemieuxLGM) April 5, 2020
This bizarre stuff about Bush being a Real Man Comfortable In His Own Skin and Gore Practically Being A Woman structured campaign coverage to an extent it’s almost impossible to convey to anyone who wasn’t there. MoDo the Sunday before the election that blew up the world: pic.twitter.com/YaO895qBbm— Scott Lemieux (@LemieuxLGM) April 5, 2020
To end on an optimistic note, when the GOP actually DID run McCain he *didn’t* get very favorable media coverage because Bush fucked things up so badly it was hard to pretend that the presidential election was a no-stakes event you could use to work through your Mommy issues.— Scott Lemieux (@LemieuxLGM) April 5, 2020
Not only did McCain not get the kind of extremely positive press coverage he received for most of his career when he was actually the presidential nominee, but Obama in 2008 received the most favorable press coverage of any Democratic presidential candidate since JFK. That’s partly a credit to Obama, but the dramatic shift in tone on McCain — his stunt of suspending his campaign during the financial campaign is the kind of grandstanding that would have led to extensive plaudits at almost any other stage of his political career but was met with indifference or derision — suggests that the broader political context was critical. A major economic crisis on the heels of a disastrous war and completely botched response to the drowning of a major American city is not a circumstance in which it’s easy not to take a presidential election seriously.
2016 was not the same as 2000 — the problem was egregious false equivalence, not the press fawning over the Republican candidate — but Trump did benefit enormously from the widespread perception that he did not actually have any chance of becoming president. It’s pretty hard to maintain that perception when he actually is president and tens of thousands of people are dead because of his ineptitude and failed ideology and the economy is in even worse shape than 2008 (which will almost certainly be the case in November.) Combined with the fact that Biden is generally much better-liked than Clinton among the press, I don’t think it will be nearly as easy to make the campaign about some inane bullshit about the Democratic candidate this time. I’ll return to this in another post, but my biggest concern in November is vote suppression ramped up by a second wave of the pandemic, not Hunter Biden becoming a campaign-defining issue.