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June 17th, 2019

Insight

The five big lessons from a weirdly watchable year of politics

Chris Cillizza

By Chris Cillizza

Published Dec. 30, 2015

This year has been the weirdest, most watchable and most difficult to predict in my two decades of covering politics. Because this is my last column of 2015, I thought I would list the five biggest lessons this year in politics has taught me.

1. Donald Trump is here to stay: Back in June, I wrote a piece on The Fix arguing that Trump couldn't be a serious presidential candidate because every Republican knew him and two thirds didn't like him. Somehow - and I am still not totally sure how - Trump changed lots and lots of Republican minds over the past five months. So much so that he is nearly certain to enter 2016 as the national front-runner to become the GOP nominee.

Trump remains a deeply flawed messenger but one carrying a deeply powerful message: He's mad as hell and he's not going to take it anymore. His ability to channel the anger, anxiety and, yes, intolerance of a chunk of the Republican base is nothing short of remarkable.

It's possible that if Trump doesn't win Iowa - and he clearly trails Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) in the Hawkeye State - then his support could collapse. But Trump, as of today, is the front-runner in New Hampshire and South Carolina, the two states that follow Iowa on the nomination calendar. And if Trump's support hasn't collapsed yet - amid all of his impolitic statements, falsehoods and boasting - why would it suddenly happen on Feb. 2?

2. Hillary Clinton's best trait as a candidate is resilience. The Democratic presidential candidate spent the first 10 (or so) months of the year unwittingly reminding voters of the things they didn't like about her, thanks to her mishandling of her private email account while she was secretary of state. She came across as paranoid, combative, overly legalistic and out of touch.

Then October happened. The defining moment of that turnaround month for Clinton was her eleven-hour testimony before a House committee investigating the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012. Clinton was poised and entirely in control the entire time, a performance that reminded me, again, how her entire political career - whether in office or as first lady - has been defined by her unwillingness to fold under difficult circumstances. She just keeps pushing forward and, as a result, ends 2015 as the clear Democratic front-runner.

3. Super PACs are way overrated. Remember how 2016 was going to be the super PAC election? Not so much. Exhibit A in the overrating of just how much super PACs can do is Right to Rise, the organization affiliated with former Florida governor Jeb Bush's presidential campaign. Right to Rise - with an assist from Bush - raised more than $100 million in the first six months of the year, which is amazing. Even more amazing is that the group has spent nearly half of that total on ads touting Bush in places such as Iowa and New Hampshire, only to see his numbers dip.

And it's not just Bush. Well-funded super PACs couldn't save the flagging candidacies of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker or former Texas governor Rick Perry, either. The simple fact is that some nameless, faceless organization - no matter how well funded - isn't going to make voters like a candidate who can't go out and sell him or herself.

4. The GOP establishment has no clothes. There were two things the Republican Party establishment seemed totally sure of when this year started. One was that Bush would be the presidential nominee. The other was that whenever John Boehner, R-Ohio, called it quits as the speaker of the House, Rep. Kevin McCarthy R-Calif., would step in without much fanfare to fill his shoes. Neither came close to happening.

Bush's entire candidacy seemed premised on the idea that establishment support - in the form of endorsements from elected officials and cash from the professional donor class - would be more than enough. The critical piece of that puzzle that Bush left out was actual voters who, when they saw what Bush was selling, had very little interest in buying. Bush is now left to attack Trump and hope - a political Hail Mary.

McCarthy put that same faith in the idea that the "establishment" would deliver him the votes he needed to succeed Boehner as the leader of House Republicans. But the same conservative forces that drove Boehner into retirement doomed McCarthy before he even got a full vote for speaker on the House floor.

5. Voters want change. Badly. Trump's rise has drawn most (okay, all) of the attention, but the surprising ascents of two other presidential candidates - Sen. Bernie Sanders and Ben Carson - are telling indicators of how fed up voters are with politics as usual.

Sanders's surge has been beaten back of late by Clinton, but if I told you at the start of the year that the Vermont socialist would very nearly match the former secretary of state in fundraising in the third quarter of 2015 and that most New Hampshire polls would show him ahead of her, you wouldn't have believed it.

Ditto Carson, a retired brain surgeon who went from nothing to the Republican race's front-runner this fall. Carson, even more than Trump, was the opposite of a traditional politician - from his just-above-a-whisper voice to his decision to take several weeks off the campaign trail to sell his latest book. His lack of foreign policy knowledge - like, total lack - eventually caught up with him, but that Carson rose as high as he did speaks to the mind-set of the average voter.

It has become a cliché to say that voters are sick of politics as usual and want change. Usually, voters say that and then vote in the same old politicians - election after election. The successes of Trump, Carson and Sanders suggest that voters may really be angry and fearful enough to genuinely shake things up in a meaningful way.

Previously:


12/21/15: Winners and losers in the third Democratic presidential debate
12/16/15: Winners and losers from the 5th Republican presidential debate
12/16/15: Cruz, not Trump, looking like GOP favorite for 2016
12/04/15: Ted Cruz is the sleeping giant in the Republican race
11/24/15:Trump is leading an increasingly fact-free 2016 campaign
11/23/15: A ranking of GOP presidential candidates who can still make a case --- and the nominee
11/16/15: The remarkably unappealing anger of Donald Trump
11/11/15: Winners and losers from the fourth Republican debate
11/02/15: Jeb Bush says he still doesn't get why his terrible debate performance matters so much
10/29/15: Winners and losers from the third Republican presidential debate
10/22/15: Paul Ryan might be saving his party. But at what cost?
10/20/15: Six things we know Joe Biden is thinking
10/19/15: Who had the worst week in Washington? Lincoln Chafee
10/14/15: Winners and losers from the first Dem presidential debate

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