September-October 2016 | Featured Article

A Conversation with The Washington Post's Dan Balz

The seasoned political reporter on working at the Post for three decades and 2016's unconventional race for the White House

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Does this help to explain how Trump has repeatedly gotten away with making controversial statements that, in the past, would have been politically lethal to a candidate?

During the last year, I have talked to any number of Trump supporters who say, ‘Well, I wish he wouldn’t say some of the things he says.’ They’re bothered by it. As we know, there are a lot of people who are not just bothered, but highly offended by it—which is why he is such a controversial candidate. But [his supporters] saw in him something they couldn’t see in any other conventional politician. So they were like, ‘OK.’ Part of it is that, as he has said, there are a lot of people who think there’s too much political correctness in the world.

In a recent column, you suggested that Trump was “borrowing” the Republican brand. Win or lose for Trump, what’s the future of the Republican Party?

I thought this was the cycle in which the Republicans would have out the argument of, ‘Can we nominate somebody who’s a movement conservative and win?’—Ted Cruz kind of represented that argument—versus, ‘We have to expand the coalition,’ with Marco Rubio representing that. And Trump came in and just kind of squashed that, because he’s neither of those.

If Trump were to lose, the party has got to regroup and have out that other argument they didn’t get to this time, and then figure out what to do with the Trump constituency. Does that fold back into the Republican Party easily? Not necessarily. And if Trump wins, you’re going to have a President Trump who’s at odds with a significant part of the leadership of his party. So either way, they’re going to go through a very difficult period.

In another recent column, you contend Trump is at a major political disadvantage due to recent patterns in the Electoral College. This suggests Clinton starts the fall campaign as the nominal front-runner. What does she need to do to close the deal?

I think that she’s got to find a way to make sure that the Obama coalition holds together and is enthusiastic about her candidacy. If she can do that, she’s in pretty good shape. But Bernie Sanders had young voters that she did not. And while she had African-Americans and Latinos, particularly African-Americans [in the race] against Sanders, I don’t know at this point whether the enthusiasm in the African-American community for her is going to be close to what it was with Obama. I think those are big factors.

Women, and particularly single women, are a core part of the Democratic base. She should be able to get them out, but younger women—in a way surprising to the Clinton team—were resistant to her during the primaries. So she’s going to have to work on that. She’s got the issue of trust or likability or however you want to describe it, but there’s a built-in resistance to her on the part of many people in the electorate.  

Recent polls show a very wide gender gap. Notwithstanding that we have crossed the threshold of electing an African-American as president, does that gender gap suggest lingering resistance to the idea of a woman as president?

I don’t think that’s an issue for most people. I think this has more to do with the specifics of how people view Hillary Clinton. I’ve heard younger people say, ‘Well, of course there’s going to be a woman president in my lifetime.’ In other words, I think for some young people, they don’t see this as, ‘If it doesn’t happen now, it will never happen.’ I think the gender gap that we see is a function of Trump’s very strong appeal to men, and particularly to white men—and the fact that Clinton does have strong appeal to women, particularly middle-aged and older women, and better educated women. But it’s a gender gap for the ages.

Looking back, are there one or more presidential campaigns that stand out as the most fun to cover?

The ’08 campaign—the competition between President Obama and Secretary Clinton. You had two really huge figures within the party just going at it for months and months and months. It was an exciting race to cover, it was a challenging race to cover, and, therefore, for any journalist, it was an enjoyable race to cover. And the history of the first African-American elected as president of the United States added to the significance. The 2000 campaign, as a campaign, was not one that lives in great memory, but the recount was. The recount was as intense a story politically as any of us ever covered.

As a veteran of the print era, do you find yourself using social media a lot?

I do, although other people tweet more than I do. I use Facebook some, but that tends to be more family-related and personal. I think social media is indispensable. Democracy requires a conversation among people, and social media enables that in a way that almost nothing else has. That wasn’t possible when we were in the print era. You couldn’t have that kind of conversation.

The danger, particularly with Twitter, is that the people who are Twitter aficionados are not particularly representative of the public at large. And so you can get lost a little bit in your thinking if you simply pay attention to the conversation on Twitter. But there’s no better news ticker right now than Twitter.

When you are home in Bethesda, what kinds of things do you like to do to relax?

I like cooking, when there’s time, which means not much during a campaign year. But it’s something I enjoy a lot. I read mostly nonfiction, but am a big fan of thrillers and spy novels—[my] favorites include Daniel Silva and Alan Furst. I like photography, and wish I had more time to devote to it. As for TV, we were big Downton Abbey fans.

You and your wife have a grown son who earned a doctorate in political science and is now working in behavioral economics. Did he consider following you into journalism?

My son’s in Madison, Wisconsin. He works for what is somewhere between a think tank and a consulting firm, [and] has worked in the advertising field and marketing. He worked for three years for the St. Petersburg Times, right out of Northwestern University—and then saw the future, I guess, and went back and got his Ph.D. [Journalism] is a tough business. We’ve got some remarkable young people, but boy, they’re working their tails off.

You indicated that 2015 required more time on the road than previous run-ups to presidential election years. How many more campaigns do you think you have in you?

I always have thought that 2016 would be probably the last one that I do in the way I’ve been doing it for the last 30 years. At some point I’ve got to do grown-up work [laughs]. My wife would love it if I retired, and I just turned 70. So at some point I’ve got to think about it. I’m confident I won’t do 2020 the way I’ve done this one. So the question is: What’s the next way to do it? I am still enjoying it a lot.

Looking back on more than three decades of campaign coverage, how optimistic—or pessimistic—are you about the state of the political process, particularly given what you’ve seen this year?

I guess I would say I’m a Midwesterner, and therefore I think I’m optimistic by nature. But I think the state of politics and the state of the country—it’s difficult right now to feel there’s going to be kind of a coming together at the end of this campaign. We’re a divided country, and the campaign is, I think, making those divisions greater. Whether we had Trump or not, I think that would still be the case—because if you look at most of the people who competed for the nomination, this would be a very divisive campaign. When you go through that, and when each side believes that if the other side wins it’s sort of the apocalypse, it’s hard after that to say, ‘Let’s put all of that aside and come together.’ The country [is] going through a big transition, a big transformation, and politics is not separate from that. Those changes have created the politics we have, and so, in a sense, until you kind of get through all that, it’s going to be hard to be a united country.

When I started out, you had a campaign, there were arguments, there were debates, and then there was kind of a resolution when the country accepted what happened and said, ‘OK, that’s the direction.’ Elections don’t seem to resolve things today. Somebody wins, but the argument continues. That’s why, while I want to be optimistic, I’m not sure we’re going to get there very soon.

Louis Peck (lou.peck@bethesdamagazine.com) has covered politics extensively at the local, state and national level for four decades.