The Year’s Unfinished Politics

The last chapters of three big political stories are still unwritten.

politics_2015_recap_WEBThe obligatory roundup of the year’s biggest political stories often suggests a certain finality to each. This year, however, the big three are still fluid, their long-term consequences unusually uncertain.

Senator Harry Reid’s retirement. Setting aside that he made this announcement on my 50th birthday (they always told me the world would start going downhill then), his decision is more important legislatively than politically. Either way, Democrats and Republicans were going to wage a ridiculously expensive fight over this seat. But since so few Americans, much less Nevadans, understand the importance of seniority in the U.S. Senate, we cannot yet know how much Reid’s departure will affect Nevada.

The continuing question is whether the Democratic machine he built up will survive his retirement. It did the job in 2010 when he was on the ballot and in 2012 when the president was, but not in 2014, when several cogs in that machine chose not to function.

Governor Brian Sandoval won a big majority for re-election and a GOP-controlled Legislature. He and lawmakers who can read and think cobbled together the votes to inject more than $1 billion into the state budget for minor issues, such as improving children’s ability to read.

This inspired an attempt at a ballot measure to repeal the increase and exacerbated already deep divisions among state Republicans about whether they wish to be conservative or right-wing. Sandoval was dealing with a GOP Assembly caucus that originally wanted Ira Hansen to be speaker until reading his old newspaper columns revealed his inclinations toward racism, homophobia and the belief that the Clinton administration orchestrated the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. For a leadership role, they wanted Michele Fiore, who normally would be too busy posing with children holding guns.

This issue obviously will continue into 2016 and reflects what’s going on in the national party, where a recent poll showed nearly two-thirds of Republicans support Donald Trump, Ben Carson or Ted Cruz. Enough said. But consider that Joe Heck, the congressman who prefers to be called brigadier general or doctor, tries to depict himself as moderate but just voted against a bill to keep the federal government open and give $750 billion in tax breaks. For Democrats to be better organized than Republicans stands history on its head.

Sheldon Adelson bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal.When the buyer remained anonymous and the finger of rumor pointed at Adelson, Reid observed, “I don’t know who bought the newspaper for sure, but I can say the editorial policy can’t be any worse than it has been for 10 years.” Given that the R-J called him a left-wing liberal—and take it from one of that number that he ain’t one—just before his first Senate election in 1986, he was being generous.

R-J reporters and editors deserve praise for working hard to find out the identity of the new owner and making clear that they are a group of independent cusses. They—and the R-J’s readers, and those affected by what the paper says—also can be forgiven for wondering just what this means. Adelson has a history of suing news people—including R-J columnist John L. Smith, whom it is no exaggeration to call the most popular journalist there—and their outlets, and of spending large amounts of money on (mostly) hopeless Republican candidates such as my fellow Ph.D., Newt Gingrich. Clearly, that will be worth watching.

A couple of other things are worth pondering. One, Adelson may be part of a heartening and hair-raising business model: fabulously wealthy people buying money-losing daily newspapers (Amazon’s Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, and rumblings continue about Los Angeles philanthropists buying the Los Angeles Times). It’s heartening because they can afford the losses, hair-raising because we have no idea what the outcome will be.

Two, lest we forget, in 2010, even national media noticed that the R-J, under a previous regime, skewed its news coverage in Reid’s re-election campaign against Sharron Angle, and some of what appeared during the 2014 election suggested not much had changed. Maybe that’s the template for 2016 politically: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.