Dave Broder, the late, great Washington Post reporter and columnist, was quite possibly the last nearly uniformly respected political journalist in America. Born in Illinois, Broder brought a middle western non-ideological sensibility to his reporting and commentary. Before his death in 2011, Broder was regularly named as the “most trusted,” the “fairest,” the hardest working scribbler in Washington, D.C.
Late in his long career, Broder was insightful — he was insightful about many things — as to the problems facing our politics and those who cover our politics. Trust was the problem he concluded.
“But this is now just sort of endemic,” Broder said in an interview in 1996. “I mean, if you are in politics, you are, by virtue of that fact, a subject of distrust. And if you are part of the press, they also figure that you’re playing some angle of your own. Or that you’re in bed with that sort of closed group — the insiders. And this is a country that is very suspicious of insiders.”
In his own low-key way, Broder tried every December to address the trust gap. He published a column on the things he got wrong during the previous year. I’m no Dave Broder, but his example is a good one for anyone who pops off about politics and tries to make sense of politicians.
So here goes: some of what I got wrong in 2020.
Most mistakes I make, and I certainly make my share, are in the category of hope triumphing over experience. A lifetime of participating in politics and therefore thinking that experience makes you infallible is the ultimate hubris. My hubris was on full display when I suggested — more than once in 2020 — that American voters would broadly reject the politics of division and discord exemplified over the last four years by the man about to leave the White House.
Donald Trump was broadly rejected — a decisive loss in the Electoral College and crushing margin of the popular vote — but Republicans generally did very well in the November election. Far from repudiation, the GOP came darn close to winning control of the House of Representatives, an outcome I could not bring myself to envision before Nov. 3.
The GOP may still hang on to Senate control pending two runoff elections in Georgia. The “blue wave” that might have swept Democrats into a Senate majority seemed plausible to me until it wasn’t. I didn’t see Montana voters rejecting a popular governor running for the Senate against a Republican non-entity. I genuinely thought strong Democratic women in places like Iowa and Maine had a good chance. They didn’t. I was simply wrong about the breadth and depth of any rejection of Trump’s GOP.
I badly miscalculated the impact of the Republican campaign against “socialism” and “defunding the police.” Americans, I should have known, always reject socialism, even as they embrace Medicare, Social Security, government-built-and-operated hydroelectric dams and every sort of agricultural and tax subsidy. Socialism, as the arm waving Bernie Sanders has helped prove all over again, is the third rail of American politics. Most Americans couldn’t define the term, but they know socialism is bad.
And the left wing sloganeering about defunding police was simply political malpractice by too many so-called progressives who handed conservatives a huge and winning issue. The issue of redirecting law enforcement funding to substance abuse interventions and better community policing got hijacked by stupid, arrogant use of inflammatory language. I thought Democrats would be smart enough to reject the stupidity of a national message that dissed cops. I flat out underestimated the impact. I’m now convinced the issue nearly cost Democrats the House of Representatives.
I genuinely thought more Republicans beyond Mitt Romney, particularly after the election, would come to speak truth about what has happened to their party under Trump, how he has debased the very idea of truth and now continues a charade about a stolen election. I thought Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson, for example, who in his pre-Trump life was often a model of civility and bipartisanship, would do what he did in 2016 and pledge to carry out his constitutional responsibilities and work cooperatively with a new president-elect. I was wrong.
Simpson not only hasn’t done that, but he joined a ridiculous lawsuit seeking to overturn the presidential election. I was wrong in thinking politicians like Simpson would actually welcome a breaking of the Trump fever.
History will judge the administration of the last four years harshly for its incompetence, corruption and efforts to undermine democracy. But I genuinely thought even the most bungling administration in modern American history would figure out how to roll out a coronavirus immunization plan. I mean, it’s complicated. But you have at your disposal the world’s best military, many of the best scientists and the logistics and shipping capabilities of Amazon and FedEx. The administration promised that 20 million Americans would be vaccinated by now. They were wrong and I was wrong in thinking even this crowd couldn’t screw this up.
Back in October I wrote: “A fundamental principle of democracy is that people in power act in ways that preserve and protect the integrity of the institutions entrusted to their care. Having the power to act sometimes demands not acting. In our lifetimes there has never been a better moment to pause, consider and practice restrain.”
The moment was a Supreme Court vacancy being filled days before a presidential election. I thought, wrongly as it turned out, that the precedent Republicans established in 2016 when they refused for months to consider Barack Obama’s nominee would hold. I thought that GOP senators who had vowed to never fill a court seat in an election year would honor that commitment, or at least be shamed into doing so. I was wrong.
In order to understand the level of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s cynicism, you have to recalibrate your own cynicism. I thought it possible, before proven wrong, that he might have a moment of pause. I was wrong.
I’ll leave 2020 with another thought about Dave Broder and the long sweep of American politics. In 1971 — wow, nearly 50 years ago — Broder wrote a little book titled “The Party’s Over,” in which he worried about the state of the country.
“It is going to cost us time and energy and thought, diverted from our private concerns,” Broder wrote, “to make government workable and politics responsible again in America.”
He was appealing for precisely the cure our diseased system needed then — and needs now. I hope I don’t have to admit next year that he — and we — were wrong.
Johnson served as press secretary and chief of staff to the late former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. He lives in Manzanita, Ore.