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Saturday, March 23, 2019

Back in the eighth grade, when the world was young, I used to keep an annotated list ranking my feelings about girls I fancied. Imitative of Top 40 radio, the list got updated regularly. Favorites rose or fell depending upon who’d smiled at me in the hallway or let me walk them home from school. My list remained the deepest of secrets, an index of hopeless infatuation.

Has there ever been a bigger dork?

Thankfully, nobody but me knew the fool thing existed.

Indeed, I hadn’t thought of my foolishness for decades until The Washington Post recently unveiled its own version: a “Post Pundit 2020 Power Ranking” — a Top 15 list of Democratic presidential candidates in descending order of probability by the newspaper’s political mavens. It’s supposedly based upon the hopefuls’ “holistic viability to trounce Trump,” a jokey bit of alliterative jargon seemingly intended to make light of the whole enterprise.

“Holistic viability” signifies that nothing’s too trivial to be off-limits. As for “trounce Trump,” if we’re going all junior high school here, why not “dump Trump”? “Hump Trump” works for me too.

But then, I grew up in New Jersey.

The clowning continues with the Post’s thumbnail descriptions of participating staffers: “progressive brawler Greg Sargent, voice of the millennials Christine Emba … Republican stalwart Hugh Hewitt, ex-Republican stalwart Jennifer Rubin,” etc. It’s almost as if the 2020 power pundits — more alliteration — had no wish to be taken seriously.

For all of that, I intend no blanket disrespect. If there’s a single columnist (and frequent TV performer) who is today’s progressive MVP, it’s Jennifer Rubin. And “ahead-of-the-curve expat Anne Applebaum” is a serious historian. Her book Gulag: A History, won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction. I have enormous respect for her work. Applebaum understands Russia like few others.

Even so, the whole thing strikes me as redolent of journalistic bad faith: a Heathers slam-book for print pundits wearied by substantive campaign coverage and possibly jealous that American presidential elections have become something akin to the fraudulent spectacles we call reality TV shows.

In this regard, it may be significant that senior Washington Post (and NPR) columnist E.J. Dionne is not among the power pundit voters. He has pointedly lamented the “Triviality Feedback Loop that is the Trump presidency,” adding that Trump’s “I’m-The-Only-One-Who-Matters approach to politics fits well with the needs of modern media, both social and traditional. Clicks, page views and ratings encourage everyone to dwell on individuals more than issues.”

Exactly what the power pundits are all about.

Spoiler alert: Of 15 potential candidates, the Post‘s panel judges Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-CA) the likeliest to secure the nomination, although nobody outside her home state of California has ever cast a vote for her. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) is ranked second, followed by old-timer Joe Biden, no-hoper Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and so on. Bernie’s in there somewhere. Bringing up the rear are some even longer shots: Sen. Michael Bennett (D-CO), Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. Who?

Meanwhile, the kinds of insulting trivialities the nation’s self-infatuated pundits have long used to ridicule previous Democratic candidates are already in evidence. Remember Al Gore’s bald spot and three-button suits? John Kerry windsurfing and his choice of the wrong — indeed, downright “inauthentic” — cheese on his Philly cheesesteak sandwiches?

Meanwhile, everybody supposedly wanted to have a beer with George W. Bush, a down-to-earth regular guy (and recovering alcoholic). And, quite coincidentally, the worst American president since the mid-19th century.

Until now.

Because an American presidential election is above all a TV show, print pundits must go to considerable lengths to get noticed (and, if possible, appear on TV). Hence the Post‘s made-for-TV power ratings. Readers are treated like so many children watching Saturday morning cartoons, candidates like animated characters.

So anyway, here we go. Right down the slippery slide to mass-market inanity: clothing, hairstyles, food choices, sexual peccadilloes. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand eats fried chicken with a fork (inauthentic). Sen. Corey Booker is a self-righteous vegan (snob). Amy Klobuchar yells at the help (bitch). Elizabeth Warren listed “American Indian” as her race on a Texas bar application (phony).

Actually, hold the phone. Warren’s blunder almost certainly dooms her candidacy, because it’s frankly laughable. (I once reported my race as “1500-meter freestyle,” but the registrar made me correct it.)

As for Trump, assuming that he’s still president in 2020, his idiosyncrasies are well known and heavily discounted. Because his 2016 campaign and his entire administration have been an extended professional wrestling extravaganza, his supporters revel in his matchless vulgarity.

Democrats are more vulnerable. Is that a fake smile or a real one?

Which candidates would you like to see naked?

I promise you, we will get there before it’s all over.

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