I’ve been thinking of my friend Jeffrey Bell. Jeff, who died suddenly two weeks ago at age 74, was a Vietnam veteran who shocked the political class when he won the Republican Senate nomination in New Jersey in 1978 and again in 2014. He lost both races, but those setbacks freed him for other pursuits. He was a longtime conservative who worked on the campaigns of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Jack Kemp, and who co-founded successful economic and political consulting firms as well as the nonprofit American Principles Project.
Republican Vern Buchanan has represented Sarasota, Florida, in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2007. He won reelection in 2016 by 20 points. He’s a wealthy former car dealer who hasn’t lacked campaign funds. Nor did his son James, who ran in Tuesday’s special election to replace a retiring GOP state legislator from the same area. But James’s story turned out differently from his father’s. He lost to Democrat Margaret Good by seven points.
The Democrats are like characters in a Bill Murray movie. They keep reliving the same day, trapped in the rhythms and routines of campaign 2016. They persist in the rhetoric, tropes, gestures, figures, and policies that delivered the presidency, the Congress, and the bulk of statehouses and governor’s mansions to the Republican Party. What they can’t escape is identity politics—the slicing and dicing of the electorate by race, sex, orientation, gender identity, country of origin, dietary preference, what have you. Meanwhile President Trump has run off with the most saleable of the Democrats’ old issues and the foundations of their coalition. You’d think they’d notice.
A good day for a writer is one in which a metaphor falls into his lap. That happened recently when I read a behind-the-scenes report on the government shutdown. During the Democrats’ brief and pointless exercise in immaturity, a bipartisan group of senators met regularly in the office of Susan Collins of Maine. Puzzled by what had brought them to this point, and desperate for a way to live up to their not-entirely-deserved reputations as moderate, clear-thinking, responsible statesmen, the Republicans and Democrats were looking for a way out.
Shows you what I know. In the final days of December I told friends that 2018 might turn out to be a year of normalcy: an economic boom, a president with a win in the form of a tax bill, a Russia investigation stumbling toward its inevitable conclusion. It took less than 72 hours for 2018 to prove me wrong.
Nothing has been more tedious over the last year than the constant reminders that good journalism is “now more important than ever.” The implication, of course, is that solid, groundbreaking reporting was not as essential so long as a liberal Democrat was in power. I’ve long assumed that the factotums mouthing such clichés lack the self-awareness to understand the true import of their words. But maybe I’ve been wrong. Recent days brought evidence that, no, liberals really mean it: the only meaningful investigative work is that which reflects poorly on Republicans.