Every hero needs a villain. A compelling story requires conflict, friction, an obstacle to be overcome.
Political campaigns are no different. Candidates, of course, often claim that they want to run "a purely positive campaign," but this rarely materializes. There are political advertisements that surprise and delight without a shred of the toxicity to which we have become accustomed. And even some ads that are labeled "negative" are useful and informative in their own way; candidates have different points of view, and those viewpoints are germane to an election. But for the most part, candidates have political consultants in their ears whispering pleas to come to the Dark Side. "Go negative. It works."
And negative has worked. Our current president is in the White House in large part because enough voters simply could not stomach the idea of Hillary Clinton as president that they were willing to roll the dice in a dangerous gamble. (According to the exit polls, among those voters with an unfavorable view of both candidates, Trump won handily.) Republicans took back the house in 2010 and held it in 2014 in part by running against a list of things: Obama, Obamacare, Nancy Pelosi (always Pelosi). In 2016, down-ballot Republicans also had the ability to run as a check-and-balance on the expected Clinton White House 2.0. We will repeal this, we will stop that, we will send a message to Washington, we will hold Hillary Clinton accountable.
Well Republicans are Washington now. Obama is golfing or windsurfing and working on a book. Nancy Pelosi is still in Congress, but hasn't been Speaker for almost seven years. Hillary Clinton pops up in the news every so often, giving interviews about her loss that most recently include trashing her own DNC.
But not a single one of these things is preventing Republicans from doing what they promised they'd do.
With a host of opponents defeated up and down the ballot, and now having assumed control of the levers of power, Republicans could be producing policy wins and delivering on promises. One year ago, House Speaker Paul Ryan rolled out his "Better Way" agenda, pledging to promote a positive vision of how conservatives could help the middle class and promote economic mobility. And though many of us in the "reform conservative" realm have always looked at the Trump presidency with a mix of horror and disappointment, there were moments when it seemed possible that Trumpland could have some "reform conservative" sympathies given the occasional rhetorical focus on jobs, economic mobility, and the working class.
And yet…here we are, with months having gone by, and so little to show for it.
The health care "repeal and replace" effort sits in the Senate. Tax reform exists, sort of, as an outline – miles away from being actual passed legislation.
This week was supposed to be Infrastructure Week – a week when Republicans pushed for upgrades to American roads, bridges, and waterways - and yet President Trump kicked off Monday morning with a series of tweets going after his own Justice Department and further undermining his own legal case for his "travel ban". Members of Congress are being tied up constantly on Trump, Trump, Trump – his tweets, the investigations, the chaos swirling around the whole administration.
We'll always have Gorsuch, I guess.
In practice, the Republicans' real enemy is themselves. There is no one else to blame. But how can one campaign for office in today's America without someone to blame? And so without a Hillary Clinton or a Barack Obama to set up as The Villain We Can Only Overcome With Your Vote, Republicans have apparently found a new target: the media. Each June, Gallup asks Americans how much trust they have in institutions, and as of last check, trust in television and print news was appallingly low. (Not as low as Congress, however.)
Of course, while asking for A Vote Against Nancy Pelosi is, arguably, an actual policy position deep down on the inside, A Vote Against The Media is…what exactly? Voting as venting? But Republicans feel like they've never gone wrong bashing the media and don't feel like this time will be any different. They very well might be right.
The idea that someone, somewhere will campaign in a positive, uplifting way, on an agenda that can inspire Americans? I'm sadly done holding my breath. But if elections are supposed to be about sending people to Washington to govern in a certain way, how tragic that a moment of unprecedented Republican power, with so many foes vanquished, we find so little to say about governing at all. That Republican voters would be so disappointed with their own party's achievements as to need a new Villain of the Week to motivate them – a villain with no control over any levers of government at all - is just tragic.
Or rather, today's politics not a story of heroes and villains at all, but like so many of the modern prestige television dramas, we simply have an anti-hero, whose worst enemy is only himself.
Kristen Soltis Anderson is a columnist for The Washington Examiner and author of "The Selfie Vote."