What Sleepy Summer?

September 13th, 2015

Summer is normally a drowsy, dull time in the news business. Papers struggle on a diet of shark sightings and weather stories, waiting for things to pick up after Labor Day.
But this summer was different: desperate migrants streaming across Europe, the Iran nuclear deal and the Greek debt crisis filled the front pages. There were wildfires in the west and wild market gyrations on Wall Street. There were shootings around the country and riots in Baltimore. The Supreme Court upheld same-sex marriage and subsidies for Obamacare, while Congress fulminated and mercifully left town. Pope Francis remade the face of the Catholic Church by everything he said and did.
On the normally somnolent political front, we had Bernie rising, Hillary sinking and Joe Biden pondering; we had17 — count ’em, 17 — Republicans volunteering to be president, with Jeb! slowly subsiding, The Donald and Dr. Ben ascending in the polls and all the others struggling to get a headline.
The biggest cable audience of the summer — 24 million — watched the Aug. 6 GOP debate on Fox and then followed along as The Donald trashed Megyn Kelly and insulted most of the others on and off the stage.
For news organizations, the Donald Trump spectacle was summertime catnip. Talk shows like “Morning Joe” and “The O’Reilly Factor” couldn’t get enough of him. Stephen Colbert had a running joke on his inaugural “Late Show” in which he could no more stop talking about Trump than stop eating Oreos. Even when The Donald phoned it in, as he often did, ratings jumped as he ranted and raved about immigration, China or his “low-energy” competitor, Jeb!
It all seemed like innocent summer fun. Pundits and hacks like me confidently predicted that the audience would tire of The Donald’s act and that he would fade like Herman Cain four years ago. Except he didn’t. He climbed in the polls as the other candidates sank and serious commentators seriously suggested that he could win the GOP nomination. Seriously.
The other summer phenom was Dr. Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon who became famous for being part of the large surgical team that separated a set of Siamese twins. “Gifted Hands” was the title of his bestseller. The media treated him gently, never mentioning the sad fact that the twins died shortly after the operation.
A soft-spoken African-American movement conservative, Carson climbed steadily in the polls, eclipsing Jeb! and the other establishment wannabes in Iowa and other early states.
Another of the Gang of 17, Carly Fiorina, also moved up in the polls. As the only woman on the Republican side, the former Hewlett-Packard executive stood out in the junior varsity debate when she prodded Trump and his pomposity. The Donald responded last week in an article on the website of Rolling Stone mocking her appearance. “Look at that face,” he was quoted as saying, “would anyone vote for that?”
These three overnight sensations have one thing in common: None has been elected to public office. All three consider the presidency a starter office. Beyond their egos, they share something else: They personify a massive protest vote, in which voters are expressing their exasperation with government in general, politics as usual and the current crop of candidates in particular. These voters evidently admire Trump as too rich to be bought, Carson as genuine and Fiorina as smart.
The question, of course, is whether these voters and more will still support these nonpoliticians when casting an actual ballot, not just answering a pollster’s question. Once they have “made a statement” in the polls, will they reconsider and choose one of the more experienced candidates?
I have no idea. But this unusual, news-filled summer has set us up for a fascinating fall and winter and spring.


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