As Democrats look toward a presidential primary that will begin in earnest approximately 11 seconds after the midterms, candidates should be ready for a new reality, and the media for a new challenge.
The reality is that the most important pundit, commentator, and great mentioner of the 2020 primary will be President Donald Trump.
And the challenge for the media will be whether or not to let him dominate the Democratic primary.
Democratic voters got an early sense of this when they woke up Monday morning to a slickly produced video from Elizabeth Warren about her DNA. The first 19 words in the video are spoken, sneeringly, by Donald Trump. The rest of the video answers a question Trump raised, takes a piece of bait he’d laid out and Warren furiously, seeing no other option, took as a symbol of her willingness to “fight.” The video is, most of all, the strongest Democratic candidate, thinking first of how to win the Democratic nomination, engaging entirely in absurd, racist terms laid out by the president of the United States. Might as well deal with it now, the logic goes; Obama eventually submitted to the grotesque ritual of releasing his birth certificate in person to the White House press.
Warren’s decision to launch her campaign on Donald Trump’s terms is not going to discourage him.
And it’s easy to see how Trump will keep weighing in. The most obvious path is simply tweeting — he can live-tweet speeches and debates, comment in the early morning hours on a candidate’s looks or conduct, the usual. The other, which he’s begun to try out, is to try to revive the flagging media interest in court gossip by talking about the Democrats to his sieve-like staff and watching it leak into the press as a catalog of his “views” on the candidates. There even seems to be a race to figure out the nicknames he’ll attach to each, something to which commentators — in this moment of a bipartisan suspicion that the president has magical political abilities — attach totemic power.
Candidates, meanwhile, will not exactly have their feelings hurt by a mean tweet. Anyone who has the misfortune of having her email full of quarterly fundraising requests from Democrats knows there’s no better subject line than “The President Is Attacking Me” to harvest credit card numbers. And in a crowded field, Trump will have the power to elevate his targets.
What’s more, Trump and the reporters covering him will be bound by an eternal truth of presidential campaign coverage: Re-election campaigns are grindingly boring. The presidency, not the campaign, is the story; the kind of narrative, conflict, and struggle for the direction of a party and country that make primaries so riveting. Trump, if he isn’t careful, could find that he’s not the most interesting political story in the country, and he will surely want to get in on that one.
There are already some signs of that. The big three cable networks — even Fox News — have become suddenly choosy about whether to abandon their programming to cut to a live Trump rally, the kind of red-meat fare that helped juice their ratings throughout the 2016 campaign.
“It’s hard to call something breaking news if happens with metronomic regularity,” a Fox source told BuzzFeed News’ Steven Perlberg.
That may leave the question to the media, to us, about whether there are lessons from 2016 to apply here. How much do I and — far more important in the 1980s media time warp we now inhabit — how much do television producers care about Trump’s jibes? Does a mean tweet about Kamala Harris interrupt Harris’s speech, or appear as a chyron, or dominate the conversation? Or are programmers — and their viewers — more interested in Harris’s latest dispute with Beto O’Rourke?
Those aren’t easy editorial questions with simple answers, and Trump retains quite a bit of real estate in all of our minds. But that doesn’t mean he should be the editor-in-chief of every publication, the president of every network.
Or it may leave the question to candidates like Warren: How much advantage is to be had in the Democratic primary by fighting with Trump, and talking to Trump, and how much do Democratic voters want in on that conversation?