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A Stubborn Endorsement: The Hazy Direction of the Tribune Editorial Page

The Tribune made a surprising — and stubborn — endorsement for the highest office of the line.

By News

Illustration by Yen-Kai Huang

Illustration by Yen-Kai Huang

In an election of perpetual retching over the universal lack of qualified candidates, six major national newspapers have endorsed a third party candidate. It’s worth noting that that’s unprecedented.

With all due respect to the Winston-Salem Journal, say, or the The Caledonian-Record, these small-town endorsements hardly caused a ripple in the pundisphere (outside of a, “Really?!” And then on to the next Trump scandal). Even the endorsements of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Detroit News — solidly conservative through their histories — didn’t cause nearly the uproar that the Chicago Tribune did on September 30, when they threw their hat in with the Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson and his running-mate, Bill Weld.

Founded in 1847, and self-described as the “World’s Greatest Newspaper,” the Trib has historically endorsed Republicans. For all of Chicago’s progressive bona fides (Jane Addams, John Dewey, Saul Alinski), its paper of record has always served as a stodgy foil for more thoroughly progressive editorial boards throughout the Midwest — apparently interpreting their geographical designation as a license to be reactionary.

In 1998, for example, the Tribune endorsed George Ryan over Glenn Poshard for governor due to “policy differences.” A few years later, they issued a tepid half-apology for this lapse in judgment after six children died in a car accident in which a truck driver had illegally obtained his license. Charges of bribery, racketeering, and extortion soon followed, and went all the way up to the governor’s office, back from when Ryan was Illinois’ secretary of state.

Compare that to the editorial board’s coverage of his Democratic successor Rod Blagojevich, and you’ll find a much harsher judgment on a 2009 scandal, which, for all its nefariousness, was essentially benign outside of the clout it would’ve afforded him. Trying to sell a Senate seat is sleazy, but at least it didn’t get anybody killed.

Illinois has its own, unique brand of corruption (call it the Nobody Nobody Sent Sentiment), and the thread that ties the Ryan and Blagojevich scandals together is arguably the most profound conservative principle of all — that taxpayer funds should be properly allocated by the state. That the Tribune’s editorial page (and its columnists) have spent the vast majority of their time railing against the misallocation of citizen’s money seems not only reasonable, but noble.

Conversely, on social issues the paper has been much milder — living up to the the part of their editorial statement that prizes “a minimum restriction on personal liberty.” Considering that the GOP continues to field candidates nationally that revere financial freedom while aspiring to restrict personal behaviors, to side with Barack Obama — a socially liberal, fiscally moderate candidate — seemed like an appropriate break in their 161-year history of endorsing Republicans.

Naturally, McCain-Palin and Romney-Ryan look like Roosevelt-Truman compared to the fiasco that is Drumpf-Pence.

To assume a hat trick of support for moderate Democrats in a resigned-yet-dutiful endorsement of Hillary Clinton would’ve been a good bet. But alas: Rather than actively embrace another four years of Obama (as opposed to using the assignation as a scourge), the Tribune wants to cherry-pick the best of both worlds. It wants to be the adult in the room who has miraculously kept up with the times.

Back in 2013, Michael Ames postulated that, whatever the GOP would look like, it’d be far away from Reagan’s triple threat of tax cutters, anticommunists, and religious fanatics. Rather, it’d begin to resemble Ron Paul’s double-headed monster of virtually no government intervention in financial markets and the personal behaviors of citizens. The hand that would drastically cut taxes would also loosen restrictions on Planned Parenthood. It would deregulate gun laws and a religious organization’s ability to deny access to birth control for faith-based reasons. The party’s increasing popularity doubtlessly rests on this semantics-based approach to liberty.

This is the line of reasoning that the Detroit News touches upon and the Times-Dispatch articulates succinctly. “Johnson’s clear and consistent support for limited government, free enterprise, social tolerance, and individual freedom appeals to our own philosophical leanings,” they write. That’s fair enough. But when it came time for the Tribune to explain their defection — only the fifth non-GOP presidential endorsement in the history of the paper — it wasn’t for reasons of political philosophy, but of protest.

“We would rather recommend a principled candidate for president — regardless of his or her prospects for victory — than suggest that voters cast ballots for such disappointing major-party candidates,” they write. Never mind that being principled isn’t necessarily synonymous with good. (George Wallace was a “principled” segregationist.) That the mere adherence to a certain set of political rules qualifies a person for the presidency is an outrageous suspension of disbelief. Suffice it to say that an already-broke Chicago would have a hard time dealing with the wards of the state that a massive deregulation of drugs would create, or the escalated gun violence piled onto an already-chaotic crime situation that a massive firearms deregulation could create.

When considered with a head-scratching editorial on September 21 comparing the Chicago Teacher’s Union to the government of North Korea, and another one on October 14 that endorses Tammy Duckworth over Mark Kirk based on the editorial board’s perception that Kirk hasn’t recovered well enough from his stroke, you get the sense that either the zaniness of the Republican National Committee has finally trickled down to the Windy City, or the Tribune is desperate for relevance. The latter may have been successful: We’re all talking about them. Just not for the right reasons.

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