Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s “Hardball,” has been covering elections full-time since 1988, when he was Washington, D.C., bureau chief for the San Francisco Examiner. As we come to the end of this long, bizarre, and bombastic presidential campaign, he is looking forward to one moment in particular.
“I personally think it’s the best part of politics — the concession speech,” he says. “He or she comes out there, probably having cried, and hopes it doesn’t show. They do it, not because they feel like doing it — they don’t want to do it; it feels horrible. They do it because they feel their campaign workers deserve it: The people who spent months, if not years, working for them want to hear them explain what happened.”
Does Donald Trump, who has claimed the election system is “rigged,” have it in him to concede? “I don’t think he understands the power of ritual,” Matthews says.
He points to the election of 1960, when John F. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon with an advantage of 0.2% of the popular vote. “Just remember, Jack Kennedy had to go down to Key Biscayne, Florida, to find Richard Nixon to sit down with him so Nixon could concede formally,” Matthews says. “It wasn’t a formal concession but it was a recognition by Nixon that he had lost.”
Before working as a journalist, Matthews spent decades in government and public service, including working in Jimmy Carter’s White House as a presidential speechwriter and later as top aide to Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. Matthews traces his interest in presidential elections to when he was just 6, in 1952, and Dwight D. Eisenhower beat Adlai Stevenson.
“I remember the excitement and the huge crowds that presidential candidates used to draw, where Eisenhower would go to downtown New York and draw a million people. Trump has 13,000 at a rally, and I go, ‘Wait a minute: Nixon used to get half a million at lunchtime at a rally in Philadelphia.’ It was mass excitement in campaigns in the ’50s and ’60s.”
That’s a bygone era of politics, and the difference in public participation can be seen on cable television, where, Matthews says, only a boisterous minority of polar extremes participates. “It used to be that maybe you would have 30% to 40% on either side active politically. Now it seems to be, like, Rush Limbaugh or Fox or [MSNBC], where 10% watch every night, but 90% don’t. Politics used to be mass and moderate.”
The people making noise, he points out, rarely fraternize with those on the other side. The result has been an underestimation in Democratic circles of Trump’s popularity. “You know, you can’t have a party in Washington now with Democrats and Republicans at the same party. You really can’t.”
Matthews is a member of a group of former presidential speechwriters who get together every year. It’s a rare group, he says, “where you can actually have Democrats and Republicans sitting down together. And that’s something that has to be carefully timed so everybody is not mad at each other. But I think that’s the problem. People are always talking to each other, and they are always talking to their own mentality.”
He compares this election to that of 1968. It “came down to a choice between Hubert Humphrey, a down-the-line liberal on all the issues, and Nixon, who was scarred and had been through it all and was the change candidate — the one complaining about the way things are.” On that election night, Matthews was in the Peace Corps, training at Leland College in Baker, La. He voted for Humphrey, who he thought was “sort of old hat,” but who really impressed him was his running mate, Edmund Muskie. “I really thought he was great,” Matthews says. “I thought he was Lincoln-esque. I always did.” He ended up working for Muskie for three years.
No matter who wins on Tuesday, Democrats are likely to see further drift from white, working-class voters —once the foundation of the party, but many of whom have migrated to Trump, according to polls.
Matthews recalls the assassination of Robert Kennedy. “When Bobby was killed, and the train went through Jersey, you could see those dirty-faced white guys and their dirty-faced kids, saluting them. Where is that today? That salute to a fellow patriot who is a Democrat? That is what is lost, that salute, that sense that Democratic liberals are as patriotic as the working guy.”
That working-class voter, Matthews says, “feels the country is being betrayed by trade deals that cost us jobs overseas; a failure to recognize American citizenship and protect it; a failure to protect our soldiers from wars they shouldn’t be fighting. I think they feel it all, and Trump tapped into that.”
He points to a recent skit from “Saturday Night Live” in which Tom Hanks, playing a voter with a “Make America Great Again” cap, gets all the answers right on “Black Jeopardy.” “The interests of the African-American guy, the African-American woman, are very similar to [those of] the white working class: economics, trade, immigration. Very similar — nationalistic as hell. But for some reason the Democrats seem to be playing to minorities, and for some reason they are not delivering that same message, with the same effectiveness, to the white working-class guy.”
Republicans will continue to face fissures in their own party, and if they win a majority of seats in Congress will have to continue to grapple with not just members of the Freedom Caucus, made up of members of the Tea Party, but a faction of Trump supporters, Matthews notes. If Clinton becomes president, that will make passing an issue like immigration reform particularly challenging. He thinks a compromise is possible — but it has to be done quickly.
“Everybody knows they have to pay a political cost for any deal,” Matthews says. “Get it over with. Don’t sit around and argue about the thing.”
Matthews envisions how he thinks the results will be reported in first paragraph of The New York Times.
“I always say, that is how you know how to run a campaign: You know what the headline will be if you win. If Trump were to pull an upset, it would say, ‘Riding a wave of resentment against the loss of manufacturing jobs, trade, illegal immigration, and unpopular war decisions, Donald Trump was able to pull off a major upset in American history yesterday.”
For Clinton, Matthews surmises that a victory article would note that voters went for a “sense of safety” and that she was elected “riding a wave of minority support, women’s support, and the prospect of our first woman president.”