How The Times Failed You

A look back at the Paper of Record’s election commentary…

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When 2016 dawned, it seemed like anything could happen. Now long-forgotten figures like Martin O’Malley and Carly Fiorina still roamed debate stages, Donald Trump was still a joke, Bernie Sanders had just stopped being one, and every voter could still dream of success for her favored candidate.

Still, even then, there were those warning voters against attempting to monkey with fate, against progressives delusional enough to believe they could create the future in whatever image they wanted. Hillary Clinton’s politics were the only feasible destiny, Paul Krugman warned Bernie Sanders admirers in his January editorial “How Change Happens.” If people failed to accept that, they would bring on disaster:

“Sorry, but there’s nothing noble about seeing your values defeated because you preferred happy dreams to hard thinking about means and ends. Don’t let idealism veer into destructive self-indulgence.”

Krugman’s attitude would prove emblematic of the Paper of Record’s election coverage. As the months passed, the New York Times’ Hillary-boosting scribes would converge on a set of rhetorical strategies to defend hard thinking by squashing ideas that fell outside the bounds of pundit orthodoxy. The paper decided early on that 2016 was to be a coronation, and that all attempts to derail Hillary’s ascent to the presidency (or even to point out that it wasn’t going according to plan) would be mocked, ignored, or treated as failures to acknowledge Empirical Reality. The Times’ The Upshot” election predictor consistently held that Hillary was comfortably on her way to the presidency, regardless of what anyone else (e.g. voters) had to say about it. To read the Times in 2016 was to be told, in a tone of utmost certitude, that Hillary Clinton was inevitable and inescapable.

As the year opened, the big story was the success of the unconventional-seeming candidates whom David Brooks lumped together as “Trump, Sanders and Cruz….Cruz, Trump and Sanders.” Never mind that there is almost no political gap larger than that between Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders. All of these candidates were deemed to be of dubious electability, and unified by their departure from acceptable Times-ian political orthodoxy.

The Times’ liberal columnists were particularly prone to fretting about Sanders. Nicholas Kristof would point to a Gallup poll showing that “Fifty percent of Americans said they would be unwilling to consider voting for a socialist,” failing to consider that it might actually be a step up for the Democrats to have only half of Americans totally unwilling to vote for the party.

One might have expected different from the nominally mildly-progressive Paul Krugman, who has previously rocked the world of economics by pondering aloud whether vast inequality is truly necessary (and received large sums of money to study the question professionally), as well as airing heterodox opinions on such questions as whether or not shrinking the budget deficit is the most important thing in the world. But he, too, would spend the election season amplifying the conventional wisdom and bashing everyone to his left. In “How Change Happens,” he portrayed Sanders as a sort of political will-o’-the-wisp luring in the unwary: 

“On the left there is always a contingent of idealistic voters” nursing “the persistent delusion that a hidden majority of American voters…can be persuaded to support radical policies…The question Sanders supporters should ask is, When has their theory of change ever worked? Even F.D.R., who rode the depths of the Great Depression to a huge majority, had to be politically pragmatic.”

Every election, idealistic leftists say we need a more radical candidate, and every year centrists make sure we don’t run one, but for Krugman this shows that “the theory of change has never worked,” rather than showing that the theory has never been seriously tried. And evidently, the example of FDR passing a bunch of idealistic new social programs disproves the theory that a president can pass a bunch of idealistic social programs.

So supporting a candidate who’s proposing things you want done is unrealistic. It’s more practical to support a candidate who doesn’t support the policies you want, and then hope they change their mind after getting elected, a strategy Krugman would model in October:

“Democratic control of the House would also open the door for large-scale infrastructure investment. If that seems feasible, I know that many progressive economists — myself included — will urge Mrs. Clinton to go significantly bigger than she is currently proposing.”

Similarly, after Clinton pledged not to add a penny to the deficit, he optimistically tweeted that she should instead “do years of deficit financed infrastructure spending.” This followed the traditional stance of the wishful liberal towards Bill and Hillary Clinton: insisting that the Clintons are, at heart, populist, anti-racist progressives, even though every empirical indication shows that they are self-infatuated lifelong Wall Street cronies who eliminated welfare and intentionally frightened white people about “superpredators.”

Krugman produced a string of anti-Sanders articles. In April he would take part in a popular media craze by declaring that “Bernie is becoming a Bernie Bro.” What does it mean to become a bro on one’s own behalf? For Krugman, Bernie had been engaged in the typically obnoxious frathouse behavior of “going on about the big banks” while failing to assign enough of the blame for the 2008 financial crash on smaller institutions. Furthermore, he was criticizing Hillary Clinton’s record too harshly:

“This is really bad…. Holding people accountable for their past is O.K., but imposing a standard of purity, in which any compromise or misstep makes you the moral equivalent of the bad guys, isn’t.”

Liberal anti-Bernie thinkpieces frequently relied on treating a desire for “purity” as worthy of ridicule. But replace “purity” with any noun from your resume, such as “excellence” or “objectives” or “strategization,” and it sounds like they’re all telling you to run out and vote for him. Try rereading Krugman’s last sentence with your finger over the phrase “of purity”: Krugman is now saying that holding people accountable is good, but having standards you use to decide what things to hold them accountable for is verboten.

Still, Krugman, like every anti-Sanders pundit, felt compelled to say something nice about the elderly Vermonter. The praise, too, had a common theme. “The Sanders campaign has brought out a lot of idealism and energy that the progressive movement needs,” but those things just shouldn’t come in the form of Sanders himself. The concept of an idealistic person who gets voters energized is great, Krugman insisted, and maybe next time we should find someone like that to run. Unfortunately, there was no one like that around right now except Bernie Sanders, but if such a person arrived on the scene without being Bernie Sanders, we should support them.

Krugman seemed to take Sanders’ success oddly personally—almost as if he resented feeling obligated to argue against economic proposals he had been in favor of throughout his career. But his scoldings only echoed the paper’s official stance. In February, the Times editorial board would endorse Hillary Clinton in the primary, saying that Sanders’ policies were fine “but his plans for achieving them aren’t realistic, while Mrs. Clinton has very good, and achievable, proposals in both areas.” The unified political theory shared by Times writers is that being “realistic” means forming detailed policy schemes as far in advance as possible, before you can be unduly influenced by, say, knowing who’s going to be in charge of the House and Senate or any other specifics about the political climate.  It’s similar to how you always pack for a trip a year and a half before your flight leaves.

An incident revealing of the paper’s attitudes occurred in March, when the paper ran a news analysis piece titled “Bernie Sanders Scored Victories for Years via Legislative Side Doors.” The piece went through Sanders’ record in the Senate, showing him to be a pragmatic legislator, who, contrary to conventional wisdom, was actually very good at achieving specific policy objectives.

The article was surprising, in that it was both in the New York Times and didn’t trash Bernie Sanders. Sure enough, later in the day the article was updated with a series of editorial changes, making it clear that while Bernie Sanders might have a decent record of senatorial accomplishments, he was still a pie-in-the-sky dreamer with no ability to achieve the meaningful changes he promised. The Times assured its readers that “there is little to draw from his small-ball legislative approach to suggest that he could succeed [as president]… Mr. Sanders is suddenly promising not just a few stars here and there, but the moon and a good part of the sun.”

Later, after complaints had been made to the Public Editor, it transpired that the article was revised by “senior editors” who “thought it should say more about his realistic chances” of enacting his agenda (because no one is a more credible expert on realism than someone who apparently thinks the moon is bigger than a star).

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The senior pundit class would soon have even bigger things to worry about than Bernie Sanders’ inconvenient political acumen. In June, Trump was officially declared the nominee, ushering in a preliminary round of humiliation for pundits who had insisted, as Ross Douthat did, that “Donald Trump isn’t going to be the Republican nominee.” Still, Krugman wasn’t worried. “Mr. Trump is flailing…. There’s a concerted effort by Democrats…to make the great ridiculer look ridiculous (which he is). And it seems to be working.” Brooks, Douthat, and Krugman each issued embarrassing declarations of Trump’s impending demise, reminding one of Thomas Friedman’s notorious repeated insistence that “the next six months” would see a turning point in Iraq. (And just as for Friedman, no number of failed prophecies would cause the paper to reconsider giving Brooks, Douthat, or Krugman a weekly platform.)

The hopes of the pundits were further buoyed when the Democrats nominated Clinton and held a flag-draped convention designed to undo their reputation as pessimistic draft-dodgers. Krugman gave the convention a rave review. “Usually [Republicans are] the ones chanting ‘U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!’,” he said, pleased that the Democrats had adopted the favorite mindless rah-rah of the Bush-era right. Apparently, bellowing the name of the country in which we live becomes a smart and progressive thing to do when it comes from the mouths of blue staters. Krugman also decided to issue what seemed like a belated submission to his third-grade “Win A Trip To Washington, D.C.” essay contest, with a column on the question “What does it mean to love America?” After concluding that the best thing about America is its “diversity” (i.e. the fact that it no longer practices genocide on its minority residents), Krugman would return to the patriotism theme in October, asking: “why does the modern right hate America?” (During the Bush years, Krugman would have been the first to point out the juvenility and repulsiveness of the “X hates America” formulation.)

By fall, the swelling success of Trump was a thorn in the side of columnists who wanted to claim that America was basically good. They couldn’t stop thinking about him. The paper published a glut of alarmist Trump pieces, with one run of Charles Blow columns titled “Trump’s Debate Flameout,” “Donald Trump: Terroristic Man-Toddler,” “Donald Trump: Barbarian at the Debate,” “Donald Trump, Unshackled and Unhinged,” “Donald Trump, the Worst of America” and “Donald Trump vs. American Democracy.” As much as any outlet, the Times contributed to the success of the Trump Show, whereby Trump prevails by successfully orienting every news cycle around himself, thereby ensuring that nobody discusses any issue of serious political consequence. (Nobody is more willing than a Times columnist to refrain from discussing issues of serious political consequence.)

Besides, even as Trump rose and rose, pundits could always spend their column space consoling themselves by insisting that Hillary was strong enough to prevail. Krugman didn’t just take for granted the inevitable win of his chosen candidate, he sang the praises of the plumage of his prehatched chickens: “Here’s a contrarian thought: Maybe Mrs. Clinton is winning because she possesses some fundamental political strengths.” She is “wonky” and “in command of policy issues,” traits that reliably arouse the pundit libido. Hillary may fail to fit political “archetypes” like “the heroic leader,” but she excels in other ways. “Maybe obvious competence and poise in stressful situations can add up to a kind of star quality.” This, it should be said, is the fantasy of the nerd and nobody else. (If you combine Krugman’s idea of star quality with my own theory that being soft-spoken and not getting in anyone’s way can be described as having “competence and poise,” my junior high school self was basically Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop.)

However, in an attempt to appear balanced, every pro-Hillary Times article contained a paragraph or two of damning-sounding concessions. In “Why Hillary Wins,” Krugman admitted that “Clinton is “a fairly mediocre speechifier; her prepared zingers tend to fall flat.” And “on some issues…she does sound a bit bloodless.” According to pro-Hillary Republican David Brooks, “Wherever Clinton walks, the whiff of scandal is always by her side. The Clintons…surround themselves with…some human hand grenades.” And in “I’m With Her: The Strengths of Hillary Clinton,” Nicholas Kristof wrote that:

“Clinton has made thousands of compromises and innumerable mistakes, her pursuit of wealth has been unseemly and politically foolish, and it’s fair to question her judgment on everything from emails to Iraq… Sure, she compromises, she sometimes dissembles and at times her judgment has been flawed.”

This, bear in mind, was meant to be an enthusiastic endorsement. It’s probably a bad sign when your reluctant admissions sound like incredibly persuasive reasons not to vote for somebody. If you put all the Hillary Clinton concession paragraphs together with all the reluctant statements about how the Democratic Party needs Bernie Sanders’ populist energy, you could assemble an entire Jacobin magazine article on the failures of liberalism.

Thus, as the floundering Titanic of Clinton’s campaign broke into two pieces and fell to the bottom of the sea, the Times dedicated itself to frantically repositioning deck chairs and striking up the band in joyful ditties. It was obvious to anyone with the most rudimentary political instinct that Clinton was widely disliked and failing to connect with voters. But columnists like Krugman conceived of a world in which “wonky” types with mediocre speechmaking capacity were of superior electability to “heroic leaders.”

By November everyone’s psyche was weary and scarred from covering the election. Lucidity suffered, along with David Brooks’ writing. On the 4th he said, “If I had to sum up the election of 2016 in one clause, I would say it has been a sociological revolution, a moral warning, and a political summons.”

Post-election, no one emerged without having made some bad predictions, but Brooks fared the most poorly, having engaged in a battle of prognostication with a grubby proletarian:

“A few weeks ago I met a guy in Idaho who was absolutely certain that Donald Trump would win this election. He was wearing tattered, soiled overalls, missing a bunch of teeth and was unnaturally skinny….He was getting by aimlessly as a handyman. I pointed to the polls and tried to persuade him that Hillary Clinton might win, but it was like telling him a sea gull could play billiards.”

It wasn’t worth Trump winning just so a toothless Idahoan could mock David Brooks, but as long as it had to happen, it is a small consolation.

Pre-election, the pundits had been largely in accord, repeatedly offering similar versions of the same column. Post-election, their views would fracture, the white light of their love for pragmatic compromise refracting into a rainbow of different wrong takes. David Brooks would pretend to have thought all along that the Democrats needed to get rid of “retired establishment types”; Krugman would rail against Trump’s corruption while ascribing his win to the wicked scheming of Jill Stein and Vladimir Putin; Ross Douthat would call for “conversation about the ways in which the Democratic Party might consider responding to its current straits by moving to the right.” (Douthat apparently being a time traveler sent from the recent past to warn Democrats to keep doing exactly what they’re already doing.)

Kristof, who had criticized Trump as a groper and a bully, voiced a sentiment suddenly common among mainstream pundits when he wrote that everyone should refrain from judging him too quickly: “Like it or not, we Americans have a new president-elect…. Let’s give him a chance — for those are our democratic values.” On the news side, the paper seemed strangely eager to do just that, running a series of softball articles in which it referred to Trump EPA transition team leader Myron Ebell as a “climate contrarian” and described Trump as “offering an olive branch” for offering to perhaps not repeal all of Obamacare (even as he stuffed his cabinet with a ghoulish array of conservative idealogues). And after Trump added two women and Ben Carson to his otherwise entirely white male cabinet, the Times went with the headline “Trump Diversifies Cabinet” (rather than, say “Trump’s Cabinet Has Barely Any Women” or “Trump’s Appointment of Women and Reactionaries-of-Color Shows The Limited Usefulness of Mere ‘Diversity.’”

The Times’ election coverage will live in infamy. Our paper of record had no idea how to interpret the moment as it unfolded, flailing wildly and trying to build an imaginary world in which Hillary Clinton’s campaign went the way liberals wished it would go, rather than the way it actually did go. (Much as, during the Bush years, Democrats relaxed by taking in the reassuring alternate reality of The West Wing’s Bartlet presidency, rather than seriously coming to grips with the actual political world in which they lived.) But as a certain Paul Krugman once told us, there’s nothing noble about seeing your values defeated because you preferred the illusion of happy dreams to hard thinking about means and ends.

This is Part II of our “How The Press Failed You” series. Part 1 was on Nate Silver.