The Year of Voting Dangerously

Maureen Dowd, a political columnist for the New York Times, told a lunch meeting of the Los Angeles World Affairs Council on Friday September 23rd that while she used to call up political analysts to help her with her columns in the past, "now I call up shrinks." The current campaign, which she says has "gone beyond parody", is now so bizarre that one couldn't make it up. "To me, it's very reminiscent of "Who killed Jessica Rabbit?", where you have the toons interacting with the humans. So for a long time in New York, Trump was like this Batman toon and now he's running this toon and the reporters keep trying to treat them both as humans..." Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton "has this idealistic public service side but then she sometimes makes decisions from a darker place of fear and paranoia," which came out in the email server controversy and her reluctance to admit that she had recently been sick. "I mean, people know when you're on the road you get sick, but she couldn't level even about pneumonia. David Axelrod said the problem was "not the health, it's the stealth." That she just has this allergy to transparency and it's sad because that darker side trips up the lighter side and it's a very self-destructive pattern."

Dowd, who has been covering the Clintons and Trump since the 1990s, says that she thinks nobody is more surprised to find himself where he is than Donald Trump. "He did not expect it - it just reminds me of a bank robber who comes in and he thinks that all the doors are going to be locked and he just kind of sails right up to the safe and the door is open..."

Meanwhile, Clinton has squandered some of her lead in the polls by failing to get voters excited about her as a candidate. "Hillary - this is a problem for her - she should have come forward with very futuristic, forward-thinking proposals right out of the gate, but her campaign, unfortunately, reflects her attitude that's kind of like 'it's my turn, dammit.' You know, that's not attractive."

Turning to the current administration, Dowd says the surprising discovery about President Obama was that he doesn't actually like politics. He has a "Camus-like sort of existential estrangement... he accomplished this amazing political feat and then when he got into office, it became clear that he likes to stay above the fray, and politics is the fray." He once told a group of columnists that he doesn't want to come out and comfort jittery Americans when there's a terrorist attack because you're more likely to slip in the bathtub or get hit by lightning than be in a terrorist attack. "But, you know, people want their president to articulate their fears and emotions at big moments and he's a little withholding on that."

Dowd has some sympathy for Vice President Joe Biden, who was effectively passed over for the Democratic nomination when Obama put his weight behind Hillary Clinton. "Here is the real irony. Obama and Biden's friends in the Senate thought that he shot off his mouth too much and that would never play and Hillary was so steady, and then we entered the era of Trump and compared to Trump, Biden would look like the consummate diplomat!"

On the voters who support Trump, Dowd says that "the Tea Party were so nihilistic" that they turned many of the voters on the right into nihilists too. She mentioned the new recreational fad across the US for rage rooms where you can rent a baseball bat and smash a TV set: "In a way Donald Trump is the baseball bat in the rage room. They just really want to take a baseball bat to Washington."

Dowd acknowledged the unseemly side of some of Trump's supporters - "There's this primal death scream from angry white men" but cautioned against painting his entire base with the same brush. "I think also, some of the people in the Trump camp are not racist or sexist, they're just really angry." She mentioned popular disillusionment with the Iraq war, the role of Wall Street in the last recession, the job losses in some communities as manufacturing businesses moved overseas. "I defend them because I think they have a right to be angry."

Asked about Clinton and the ongoing email scandal, Dowd said that Clinton brought it on herself - "she has built this wall of secrecy and defensiveness, and she just can't seem to dismantle it." Dowd quoted George Stephanopoulos who says in his memoir that he should have persuaded Clinton to give the Whitewater papers to the Washington Post right at the beginning: "because he says the story would have been gone in a week, and instead it led to like nine independent counsels and 80 million in taxpayer money, so all of these things snowball because of the initial resistance to transparency."

Dowd has just come out with a book on the election campaign - the title is self-explanatory: The Year of Voting Dangerously.