This had to be last weekend's chatter-producing headline in the tense territory defined by the DC Beltway. If you missed it, the New York Times proclaimed: "Republican Shadow Campaign for 2020 Takes Shape as Trump Doubts Grow."
Let me stress that this story was produced by the political desk, with zero visible contributions from a religion-beat professional. I would argue that this shaped the contents of the story in a negative way, creating a big faith-shaped hole. Thus, this is a classic example of a news story that's haunted by a religion ghost. We say "boo" to that, as always.
The key to the story is the chaos and political dirt that follows President Donald Trump around like the cloud that hovers over the Peanuts character named Pig-Pen. During the campaign, this led some Republicans to openly discuss running a third-party candidate against Trump. Others stressed that they were not voting for Trump, but against Hillary Rodham Clinton. Thus, the story opens like this:
WASHINGTON -- Senators Tom Cotton and Ben Sasse have already been to Iowa this year, Gov. John Kasich is eyeing a return visit to New Hampshire, and Mike Pence’s schedule is so full of political events that Republicans joke that he is acting more like a second-term vice president hoping to clear the field than a No. 2 sworn in a little over six months ago.
President Trump’s first term is ostensibly just warming up, but luminaries in his own party have begun what amounts to a shadow campaign for 2020 -- as if the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue weren’t involved.
The would-be candidates are cultivating some of the party’s most prominent donors, courting conservative interest groups and carefully enhancing their profiles.
Now, there are multiple parallel universes lurking in phrases like the "party's most prominent donors" and "conservative interest groups." Some of the powers hidden in those words are secular. Some of them are linked to groups defined, primarily, by moral, cultural and religious interests.
But let's start with one simple question: If you were looking for the most vocal supporters of Sasse and Cotton, where would you start? On the Republican left? #NOWAY
OK, what about the people who keep noting that, after the stunner on Election Day 2016, the choice facing American in the next four years is not Trump vs. Hillary, but Trump vs. Pence? Are most of the people who get a moist glisten in their eyes when discussing that topic found on the GOP left?
Come to think of it, will you find pro-Pence voices anywhere on the cultural and political left? While pondering that question, check out this chunk of a reaction to the Times blast ("Who’s worse for the nation -- Trump or Pence?"), from Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen:
[Pence] is predictable, steadfast and experienced, but not conventional. His views, especially regarding social and cultural issues, are to the right of the right. He is famously antiabortion, recommends abstinence as the entire key to sex education and has taken the unique viewthat condoms are useless in AIDS prevention. As for global warming, back in 2000 he said it “is a myth.” ...
To anyone other than an adamant social conservative, Pence is shockingly unreasonable.
You get the idea. I predict that Cohen could, and eventually will, aim similar language at Cotton and Sasse and anyone else acceptable to the moral, cultural and religious right.
So if Pence is talking about 2020, with whom would he be talking?
Like I said, some of these GOP powers would be defined by secular issues and many would be best defined in terms that are (to say the obvious again) moral, cultural and religious. Might some of these people be religious leaders who, to say the least, have never bought stock in Trump's bonafides as a moral, cultural and religious conservative?
Yes, I hear you. There are old-guard religious conservatives who remain just as gung ho for Citizen Trump as ever. But there are others on the moral, cultural and religious right who are not like that, or they are starting to worry and think about the long-term effects of Twitter Trump's slide into chaos.
The bottom line: How can journalists write about a post-Trump GOP future without including voices in both these camps, especially if the goal is to examine what Pence is or is not up to at the moment? When it comes to political-news coverage, why are religious leaders either all-powerful in the GOP (Theocracy! Theocracy!) or they are non-existent? Isn't accurate journalism somewhere in the middle?
So search that bombshell Times political-desk story for religious themes and information and here is what you get:
When he arrived in Des Moines on Air Force Two, Mr. Pence was greeted by an Iowan who had complained about his experience with the Affordable Care Act -- and who happened to be a member of the state Republican central committee.
The vice president has also turned his residence at the Naval Observatory into a hub for relationship building. In June, he opened the mansion to social conservative activists like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and representatives of the billionaire kingmakers Charles G. and David H. Koch.
That's it. One reference to Perkins, with a nod that there have been other "social conservatives" gathered under Pence's roof.
Now, if could be that they are there for Pence to reassure them that Trump is going to turn out OK. That is a role that, from Day 1, has been a large part of Pence's job description as vice president (and as Trump's running mate). Repeat after me: Supreme Court!
But, yes, Pence may also be saying, "Hang on. Hang on." Might that angle of the story -- when thinking about the realities of modern GOP life -- be worth more than a tiny piece of one sentence in a long political feature?
By the way: If GOP candidates are already visiting Iowa, what role have moral, religious and cultural conservatives played in grassroots politics in that oh-so-symbolic state? Think about it.
In conclusion, there is one other thing that readers must consider, since we are talking about the new advocacy-journalism era at The New York Times. This is a possibility that keeps popping up these days.
Maybe Times-people tried to talk to major religious leaders on the #NEVERTRUMP side of the conservative world, or people who are getting worried, and they refused to talk to the Times? After all, the Times team has consistently demonstrated that it considers them unworthy of accurate, fair and balanced coverage.
In other words, have we reached the point that the newsroom realities at the Times -- on issues (Hello Bill Keller) linked to religion -- have begun to negatively affect the newspaper's ability to cover news in about 50 percent of America?
Just asking. Didn't someone else, who was recently let go by the Times, ask that same question right after the 2016 election shocker?