Some months back we were invited to one of those Washington, DC annual awards dinners where people who were once in power—former senators, diplomats, and journalists—gather to toast the afterglow of their own relevance. This is not an unusual scene in Washington. Among the three urban magnets for American ambition, DC lives upon the edge and echoes of power.
L.A. is the fame factory, where young Americans go to lose themselves in the limelight and pursue that great big invisible hug from the masses. New York attracts the upwardly mobile kids who want to strike it fast and rich. But DC is a runners-up town; it is a destination for people who were picked second in kickball—or who were picked on, period—and who are looking to even the score by obtaining power. This makes Washington, DC one of the strangest towns in America. The fame and wealth of L.A. and New York hold some promise of longevity. In a world where Google is a verb, everyone can have their 15 minutes at a keystroke—forever. And the sort of wealth one can accumulate during their prime earning years in New York can be preserved almost indefinitely anywhere else. Power, however, is the most ephemeral of life’s possessions. It has a distinct lifecycle—obtaining it, having it, losing it, and trying to reclaim it. Most of the people in and around Washington, DC are engaged in the latter, especially as fewer and fewer of its former magistrates leave the Beltway upon leaving office. People used to have their big moment and go home. Today, former officials turn in their keys and then hang around. They live like airplanes in a constant holding pattern, circling the Beltway while waiting for that call to come in, instructing them to land right back in the center of things. The call rarely comes. Most run out of fuel and descend into a life of day drinking and embellished tales of yesteryear, when, as they’ll bemoan, voters were wise and politicians were incorruptible. Others are forced to leave the holding pattern and reroute back to their home towns.
We have little sympathy for these characters. Power is illusory, life is short, and waiting for a moment to come is the only time-tested way of making sure it never does. Yet if nothing else this reality endows DC with a strangely literary character. The Beltway—the District, Virginia, and Maryland (which without the slightest bit of irony is seeking to rebrand itself: The DMV)—is today home to several thousand Jay Gatsby’s all maintaining a laser like focus on repeating the glories of yesterday.
That is only to say that while Americans view DC in terms of the next two to four years, the real DC is locked in a consciousness of the past two decades. And for every nightly vote on Capitol Hill there are scores of parties and official dinners taking place across Washington that are hosted by organizations pining for a restoration to power. Normally we avoid these events like the plague, finding it less painful and certainly more interesting to visit the real DMV with a fully charged Smartphone. Only these months back we found ourselves staring down one of those idle weeknights and in the mood to say “Yes” to anything. The promise of a full cocktail hour at one of the District’s finer hotels did the trick.
The cocktail hour came as promised. And during dinner we learned that the guest of honor was none other than the former governor and current sitting US Senator from Virginia, Tim Kaine. As a sitting Senator, Kaine offered relevance to the scene. In exchange, the hosts of the party presented him with an award for lifetime achievement (or some such thing), thus completing the transaction—exchanging the illusion of relevance for the illusion of accomplishment. Lots of illusions—all of which, as Axl Rose once noted, should be used to maximum personal benefit.
Yet when Senator Kaine stood up from his table to accept his award, we heard a woman at our table ask, “Who is Tim Kaine?”
Today, these months later, he is Hillary Clinton’s running mate. Yet at the time her question was the most telling of the political season, and offered greater insight into the thinking of the Clinton Machine than all the polling data on hand. Tim Kaine is basically a bureaucratic workhorse who is virtually unknown outside of Washington, DC and Virginia.
In any other race involving seasoned politicians, at any other time, selecting so humdrum a running mate for the presidency would be insane. Selecting Kaine—a white male without the electric aura of youth and charisma—was sure to offend the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, many of whom are still “Feeling the Bern.” Yet we acknowledged that there had to be some strategy in the choice, for Bill Clinton is involved. Some part of the former president’s constantly calculating brain told him that Tim Kaine brought unseen advantages. Only we couldn’t help but wonder if it finally happened: if years of acrimony and outrunning scandal had caught up with the Clintons. If that famous Clintonian mind was finally and irreversibly reprogrammed to avoid scandal and catastrophe rather than create opportunity. That happens, and conservatism of action ends political careers.
At first blush, selecting Kaine did far less for the Clinton ticket than Donald Trump’s selection for Vice President: Michael Pence.
By selecting Mike Pence, former Congressman, Governor of Indiana, and Republican stalwart, Trump sent a signal to the Republican base and Paul Ryan’s team on Capitol Hill that he was thinking strategically. It was an acknowledgment by Trump that he may be a wildcard, but going forward he would move about the country with supervision. It was an unspoken compact with the Republican Establishment: the craziness is over and we’ll normalize for the General Election. Inviting Pence to the ticket, for the Trump campaign, was the teenage equivalent of informing your parents that, “Yes, the party may get wild, but fear not for there will be a chaperon present.” This was necessary, and for a time it was seemingly brilliant, as with the arrival of Pence, Republicans softened their resistance to Trump.
For about five minutes, Donald Trump had won the Veepstakes. This was his election to lose.
Beware of the sixth minute, for Donald Trump has proven that he simply can’t contain himself. That sixth minute is also when Bill Clinton’s strategic machinations emerge for the big reveal. And in this, he did it again, proving his innate understanding of the American electorate.
For all the talk of demographic shifts in America, white males still represent a sizeable, election-turning voting bloc. They are routinely averse to the culture wars, having so often been their prime target. And in response, across the past six elections they have proven that they just want one thing: “normalcy.” They had it in the 1990s, and afterward they kept reaching for that moment. Republicans voted for George W. Bush over John McCain in 2000, selecting the more “establishment” option. They then voted for McCain over Huckabee’s country fried populism in 2008. And in 2012, they pushed Mitt Romney ahead of the hyper-conservative and blue collar Rick Santorum…you get the picture. Notwithstanding the fringe, and primaries like we just saw when their support was split among 16 candidates, white males don’t actually vote along the bombastic lines of the culture wars, they vote to avoid them.
Donald Trump—like the world of television from whence he came—doesn’t get this. He’s using all the sordid narratives of the culture wars and assuming white males are interested in wading in. Most are not. As their electoral habits have demonstrated, they would prefer to elect politicians who will screw things up the least, because (let’s face it) being a white male in America is still pretty amazing.
Bill Clinton—having experienced this fact first hand—understands this. And it is why Tim Kaine is shaping up to be the optimum selection. Moderate voters take note that with the selection of Kaine, the Clintons “cooled the Bern,” while simultaneously putting the only white male on either ticket who comes from a swing state.
In result, Hillary has gained 5 points among white males in less than a week, and she now has a double digit lead in the polls. Those are gaudy numbers, especially for August. They will grow as Donald Trump continues being “The Donald.” For we are now in the General Election. The springtime primaries may be the political season for youth and wild ideas—but by fall, with the approach of November, the electorate starts to look for the adults in the room. This is not Donald Trump’s specialty. And without a new routine, the more he talks the further he will fall in the polls. For the real problem with bombast and acrimony—in politics—is that inevitably, come November, people start to wonder where they see themselves in your rhetoric. They begin to wonder, seriously, about where they fit into your vision for the future of the country. The challenge for Donald Trump is that, with his affection for pugilism and the myths of yesterday, forget the country, fewer and fewer voters know what planet he’s describing.