While Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were winning the West Virginia primary on Tuesday night, the trio of political veterans at the helm of Showtime’s “The Circus” dissected the state of the presidential race in a gabfest at New York’s 92Y moderated by Charlie Rose.
The gravity-defying, landscape-realigning superpowers that Donald Trump has demonstrated in his bid to become the next president of the United States was the dominant topic of the Emmy FYC conversation with journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann and former George W. Bush advisor Mark McKinnon. The trio host the weekly Showtime series “The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth,” a documentary chronicle of the presidential race that aims to show the human side of the candidates and the people behind their campaigns.
Here are 10 things we learned from the Q&A session, which produced laughs, applause and a few gasps from a packed house.
- The press hates Hillary Clinton. Halperin, who along with Heilemann is managing editor of Bloomberg Politics and host of Bloomberg TV’s “With All Due Respect,” said the level of dislike among the fourth estate toward Bill and Hillary Clinton is undeniable. “I have never seen the unfairness with which the Clintons are systematically treated by the press,” Halperin said. “There’s a syndrome where if if you’re issued a press pass, you’re supposed to hate the Clintons.” He predicted that Hillary Clinton will face an uphill climb in gaining favorable media attention against the insurgent Trump campaign. “She’s in danger of losing this election because day in and day out (Trump) will get better coverage than she does. She’s got to find a way to diffuse that.”
- Trump, on the other hand, is nothing if not good copy. “The general attitude toward Trump is that he’s fun to cover,” Heilemann said. “There is no doubt that the press is as caught up in the new-ness and the magnetism (of Trump) in the same way they were with Barack Obama.”
- Trump despite his momentum has to find a way to mend fences with women, Hispanics and the Republican elite. “There’s no math or map that accommodates being disapproved of by more than half of the electorate,” Heilemann said. At the same time he argued that rank-and-file Republican voters are starting to coalesce around Trump. “Republican voters are coming home to Donald Trump has he’s been named the presumptive nominee,” he said. “The elite Republicans are still arguing.”
- The GOP should have seen Trump coming in the 2016 race. Given the national mood, “the opening for somebody to run as a businessman outsider not beholden to special interests, not from a political background, was enormous,” McKinnon said.
- The Democrats should have seen Bernie Sanders coming. Clinton was destined to face a challenge from the left. “No one has told a story that’s more coherent, whether you agree with him or not, about the need for fundamental change,” Heilemann said of Sanders. “We totally underestimated the extent to which a 74-year-old, stoop-shouldered Jewish guy from Burlington, Vermont (would appeal to voters). He’s a cranky dyspeptic, dandruff-on-his-shoulder guy from Vermont — all of that added up in this age because he was real. People looked at him and said, ‘This guy’s been saying the same s— for 40 years.’ He’s not a blow-dried, poll-tested politician. That’s why they like him.”
- The fact that Trump has come as far as he has should be sobering to the establishment of both parties. “It’s a testament to just how fed up people are to even entertain the notion” of Trump as president, McKinnon said. “We are entering a post-partisan, post-ideological age. That’s part of the attraction with Trump.”
- The level of friction between Clinton and Sanders at this stage of the campaign is still mild compared to the enmity between Clinton and Obama in 2008, Halperin and Heilemann agreed.
- McKinnon suggested that Colin Powell would be a game-changing vice presidential pick for Clinton. To which Heilemann responded: “I occasionally find myself wondering what Mark is smoking and wanting some of it.”
- President Obama will be much more visible on the stump for Clinton than incumbent presidents have been in the recent past. “I think he’s going to be everywhere they will let him be in the fall,” McKinnon said. Obama assembled a powerful coalition of women, young voters and minorities in 2008 and 2012 but the question remains: “Do those people go out and vote for, at Barack Obama’s urging, for a candidate that is not Barack Obama,” Heilemann said.
- If Hunter S. Thompson, the late gonzo journalist who chronicled the 1972 election in a book that is required reading for the crew members on “The Circus,” were writing a book on the 2016 race, it might be titled “Fear and Loathing on Fifth Avenue,” Halperin quipped.
(Pictured: Mark Halperin, Mark McKinnon, Charlie Rose, John Heilemann)