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Red and Blue Agony

Protesters heckle Hillary Clinton as she speaks, Riverside, California, May 24, 2016
Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
Protesters heckling Hillary Clinton, Riverside, California, May 24, 2016

The agonies this country’s two major political parties are going through were foreshadowed last fall, but in both cases it’s worse than anyone expected. The rebellions by anti-establishment populists on both sides have produced two divided parties. Be not misled by the apparent rush of Republicans to Donald Trump’s banner; such alliances are mostly opportunistic and paper thin. And in the case of the all-but-official nominees, Trump and Hillary Clinton, we have the unusual situation of two imperiled candidates.

Yet presumably one of them will win, despite fantasies nursed by some that the election will end up in the House of Representatives, which, so it goes, could nominate someone other than the two major party candidates. That could happen if neither major party candidate ends up with the required 270 electoral votes, which could occur if a third party did well enough. A new third party has yet to arise to challenge the nomination of Trump for the same reason the “stop Trump” movement couldn’t prevent Trump from winning the Republican nomination: they couldn’t find a candidate. One group that could possibly force the election into the House is the Libertarian Party, which has the advantage over a new party that it’s on the ballot in all fifty states. With the popular Bill Weld, a moderate Republican and former governor of Massachusetts, signing on as vice presidential candidate to Gary Johnson, a former governor of New Mexico, the Libertarian Party could become a refuge for discontented Republicans. Of late the Libertarians have been scoring 10 percent in the polls, enough to skew the election results in some states.

The Democrats’ anguish is the result not of Bernie Sanders refusing to pull out of the race, but, more seriously for Clinton, of his continuing to tell his large following that Clinton and the Democratic Party are corrupt. (On May 24 Sanders said Clinton had bought the election with her large donors. Sanders has spent more on the race this year, if from small contributions.) Stirring up grievances is an easy political trick, but once set loose, the grievances are hard to tamp down. The tumultuous Nevada state Democratic convention on May 14, in which Sanders forces tried but failed to overturn the results of the state party’s February caucuses that Clinton won, produced a poisonous anger among Sanders’s followers. The roots of the melee lay with the Sanders campaign’s practice of grievance politics. The experienced Nevada political reporter Jon Ralston wrote afterward, “The [local] Sanders folks disregarded rules, then when shown the truth, attacked organizers and party officials as tools of a conspiracy to defraud the senator of what was never rightfully his in the first place.” Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce, a Sanders supporter, wrote, “The Sanders people should know better than to conclude what has been a brilliant and important campaign by turning it into an extended temper tantrum.” (Sanders condemned violence but supported his followers’ complaints against the DNC.)

In mid-May Sanders went from a state of intoxication with his remarkable success to expressions of rage at the idea that he wouldn’t get the nomination. Observers are getting a sense of the righteous Sanders familiar to his Senate colleagues, and of his disagreeable disposition, which has been particularly displayed to Senate staff. On the night of May 17, when he defeated Clinton in the Oregon primary and Clinton won Kentucky by a thin margin that Sanders is contesting, Sanders, addressing a rally of over 11,000 people in Carson, California, erupted in sheer fury. It looked real. Though he hedged a bit Sanders insisted there was still a way he could win the nomination. At that point Clinton led him by three hundred pledged delegates and nearly three million votes, and she has a large lead among the superdelegates.

Sanders’s imagined chain of events would go as follows: first he’d defeat Clinton in California on June 7. At the time of his Carson speech, polls had Clinton well ahead of him in California, but a poll published Wednesday night, May 26, put them only two points apart—a development that’s set off panic among other elected Democrats. Then, according to Sanders theory, his string of victories, combined with polls showing him defeating Trump in the general election, would change the minds of a large number of superdelegates. (Trump and the Republican machine haven’t yet had occasion to attack Sanders.) It’s hard to think that Sanders believes all of this would happen, but he’s worked himself into such a state, that, given the belligerent nature of the advice he’s understood to get from his wife, Jane, and campaign manager Jeff Weaver, he just might.  

I’ve thought for some time that it’s likely to be harder than has been widely assumed to get Sanders backers to vote for Clinton in the general election. Three recent polls show that the number of Sanders supporters who say they’ll back Clinton has declined by as much as ten or fifteen points since March, and in a recent New York Times/CBS survey just 20 percent of Sanders’s supporters say they have a favorable view of Clinton. Unlike some past Democratic rivalries, the two candidates’ differences over issues aren’t simply a matter of degree—objections to the Vietnam War (1968), say, or over the extent of a government-backed health care program (1980). While they still have differences of degree on issues on which Sanders has moved Clinton to the left (minimum wage, health care for all), their most serious division has been over what Sanders calls shortcomings in Clinton’s character.

In portraying her as corrupt, Sanders has revived memories of a series of controversies involving Clinton ever since she and her husband came to Washington. It’s not at all clear what she can do to undo that impression. It’s Clinton’s fate that in the course of the campaign the FBI is investigating her use of a private email server while serving as secretary of state, producing news stories about her aides testifying in secret (as usual, some important documents have been “lost”), with Republicans not unhappily if perhaps unrealistically asserting that she’ll be indicted.

The report by the State Department Inspector General released on Wednesday didn’t help Clinton politically. While Clinton has said she followed State Department rules in using a private server, the IG report said she didn’t seek approval for it and if she had it wouldn’t have been given. The report also charged that she violated Department rules by not turning over all her official emails at the end of her service, and revealed that there had been attempts to hack Clinton’s private server. There being nothing else she can say, Clinton insists that she’ll be only too happy to submit to questioning by the FBI.

Bernie Sanders isn’t the first candidate to lose touch with reality, but by arguing that somehow he’s been cheated out of the nomination he raises the question of the legitimacy of the Clinton campaign. It’s clear that the DNC figured that Clinton would be the nominee, and she’s their kind of candidate (unlike Sanders) and tilted some things toward her—starting out with only seven debates, some of them on weekends, which discouraged viewers (the number later expanded to ten). It’s also fair to say that committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz has displayed a certain bias toward Clinton. But that isn’t the same as the rigged rules for the Republican nomination and the Democrats’ superdelegates are available to any Democratic contestant, though as largely elected officials they overwhelmingly favor the establishment candidate in this race. This Democratic nominating contest isn’t as close as the one between Clinton and Obama in 2008.

A troubling aspect of the Sanders campaign is that he’s leading on millions of mostly young voters. While proposals such as free public college education and government-backed health care for all are worthy of discussion, they aren’t going to happen in the near future. In this sense his behavior has as its analog the Republican leaders who lured new supporters into their ranks, mainly via the Tea Party movement, by assuring them that Obamacare could be repealed and the budget would be balanced. The country doesn’t need more embittered citizens.

In his anger or perhaps his illusions Sanders is preparing to cause problems for Clinton and the Democratic Party at the convention in Philadelphia in late July. Weaver, his campaign manager, has said the Sanders camp’s behavior at the convention hinges on whether the party and the Clinton forces treat them “with respect.” Sanders himself said earlier this week that the convention could be “messy.” In an unprecedented move, the DNC, clearly with Clinton’s backing,  has offered Sanders five seats on the committee that drafts the party platform, nearly as many as Clinton’s six; usually the chairman of the Democratic Party makes all the appointments to the committee. (The DNC will fill four seats.) The hope was that this new arrangement would mollify Sanders, an assumption that may prove to have been naïve: the Sanders camp will now have a stronger than usual opportunity to fight for their proposals; and if they aren’t satisfied with the work of the committee they can take their issues to the convention floor, creating the spectacle of a divided party—the last thing Clinton wants.

Almost guaranteeing problems for Clinton, Sanders has named strong ideologues to his committee seats, people not given to compromise. To take one example, the Sanders appointments include at least two strong supporters of the Palestinians, and his backers are planning to propose that US Middle East policy be less favorable to Israel; it’s hard to think of a more inflammatory issue. Another curious Sanders appointment is Cornel West, who has called President Obama a war criminal. The platform itself may not matter in the realpolitik of the election, but a turbulent convention can. How Sanders and his forces act if his platform proposals lose in the committee or on the convention floor will reflect on Clinton’s control over the party going into the general election. Clinton and the DNC members fear a televised spectacle of chaos, or angry vibes from Nevada filtering into the convention—but absent strong efforts on Sanders’s part to try to calm his followers that may be difficult to prevent.

Bernie Sanders, Las Vegas, Nevada, February 14, 2016
Evan Vucci/AP Images
Bernie Sanders, Las Vegas, Nevada, February 14, 2016

Then there’s the question of Bill. The Clintons have long confused roles when it comes to the two of them in the White House. Hillary Clinton said while campaigning in Kentucky that if elected she’d put her husband in charge of economic policy, particularly in very downtrodden regions such as coal mining areas, which exist not only in Kentucky and West Virginia but also in such critical general election states as Pennsylvania and Ohio. This unsubtle move was in part an attempt to solve the conundrum of what to do with Bill if she reaches the White House (though there was no rush to decide this), but it underlines the question of whether she could win without his help. Hillary Clinton has a problem in coal country because of a somewhat ambiguous statement she made in a debate in Ohio in March: “We’re gonna put a lot of coal miners and coal companies outta business”—as much a statement of reality as of intent, though Clinton shares Obama’s policy of moving away from energy sources that pollute the air and water.

On the Republican side, the rebel seems assured of the nomination, though his evident lack of qualifications for the presidency has caused the party’s elected officials considerable pangs. If they endorse Trump they’re validating him as a president in the knowledge that he’s impulsive and ill-informed and, to the despair of some of his advisers, he hasn’t displayed any particular interest in learning about the issues. (Though he recently spent an hour with Henry Kissinger.) Still, perfervid dislike of Hillary Clinton has been enough to drive numerous Republicans into backing Trump. And the more it looks as if Trump could possibly win the election the more inclined some Republicans are to go along. They don’t relish his being in their face during the election and they’d have to deal with him if he were to win.

Some leading Republicans are participating in the charade of the normalization of Donald Trump by treating him as a  regular candidate and hoping that he’ll behave like one, but so far it’s been an uphill struggle. Some big Republican donors have come around—there’s that matter of access in case Trump wins—while others, such as the Koch brothers, are abstaining from the presidential race. (The Kochs are focusing on trying to maintain Republican control of the Senate, not at all a sure thing, especially if Trump does badly in November.)

Paul Ryan’s holding out, according to people close to him, has had to do less with their opposite views on some fundamental issues—trade, entitlement programs and, depending on the day where Trump is concerned, taxes—than with political matters. The irony is that Ryan’s positions (favoring trade agreements and cutting entitlements) are far less appealing to most Republicans than Trump’s, as Trump has demonstrated. And with elected Republicans, including Ryan’s four House deputies, coming around to Trump, Ryan has risked being irrelevant to Trump’s campaign. Were he to endorse Trump, Ryan could explain his backing him as a way of influencing his behavior. Ryan is far from the first person to think he can change Trump, who hasn’t taken well to attempts to tame him. Still, Ryan is said to have been anxious to enable congressional Republicans to escape being painted with Trump’s streaks of nativism and misogyny—especially if Trump goes down in a thumping defeat. Trump’s attacks this week on Susana Martinez, governor of New Mexico and chair of the Republican Governors Association, and other leading Republicans, haven’t endeared him further to Ryan or other party members. 

Many people say that Trump will lose badly in November because that’s what they want to happen. On their side is the fact that the Washington Post/ABC poll released on Sunday, May 22, found that 58 percent of all adults say Trump isn’t qualified to be president. Though it’s much too early to put a great deal of trust in head-to-head polls, the fact that almost all of recent ones showed Clinton and Trump nearly tied suggests that at this point the voters are actually about evenly split between the candidates. Perhaps even more significant are the multiple recent national polls showing support for Trump gaining and for Clinton declining, with a net improvement for Trump of 8 to 11 points from April to late May. In a particularly worrisome development for the Clinton camp, her public approval rating has plunged from, in the Gallup poll ratings, 63 percent positive in October/November 2015 to 36 percent in April of 2016. (Clinton’s and Trump’s unfavorable ratings are now about even.)

Paul Manafort—the old hand brought into the Trump campaign in March who was elevated last week to the position of campaign chairman and chief strategist—has made it clear that the Trump campaign will try to lure Sanders backers. “They’re the very demographic that Trump is appealing to: independents and crossover Democrats,” he said recently. As of now, Trump is winning among independents (but Mitt Romney did, too). Trump has retained a climate-change denier and pro-digging advocate as his adviser on energy. This was to be reflected in his speech on energy in North Dakota. Manafort said that the Trump slogan could well be “jobs, integrity, coal.”

Manafort’s elevation did nothing to resolve a deep fissure in the Trump campaign: between Manafort, the seasoned political pro who wants to make Trump acceptable to mainstream Republicans, and Corey Lewandowski, who, though he’s been demoted to being Trump’s “body man” and scheduler, is still called the campaign manager and wants to “let Trump be Trump.” The rivalry between the two camps has already taken one victim among Trump’s campaign team. Trump has made it clear that his predilection is to campaign as the figure he was in the primaries. After all, it worked. But Trump may not have yet taken aboard that the general election is quite a different thing than the nomination contest.

Trump’s recent forays into the muck of Bill Clinton’s sexual adventures—and Hillary’s reported efforts to quell what her husband’s advisers called “bimbo eruptions,” in regard to which Trump charges her with being Bill’s “enabler”—not to mention Trump’s resurrecting the fevered speculation about Vince Foster’s suicide, make it awkward for Ryan and other endorsers. There’s of course a great deal of discussion among politicians and pundits about the wisdom or lack thereof of Trump’s going down that road, but the main point is that Trump already has the support of Clinton-haters and his mudslinging doesn’t encourage Republicans who are on the fence about him.

An example of Trump being Trump was his absolute and vociferous embrace of the theory that EgyptAir 804, which crashed into the Mediterranean Sea on May 19, had been brought down by terrorists even though there was no official word of what had downed the plane. (Clinton, hedging her bets, also speculated that the plane was felled by terrorists, but unlike Trump she didn’t make a big thing of it.) Trump said, “If anyone thinks it wasn’t blown out of the sky, you’re 100 percent wrong.” Ordinarily, one would assume that the candidate had got himself in a corner and if official reports later said that the plane had been doomed by mechanical failure, he would have a big problem. But not Trump: the likelihood in that event is that Trump would simply insist that the official finding was a cover-up. Trump never apologizes, never explains. His loose association with the truth is such that it’s hard to keep up with his various prevarications; he moves on so quickly that opponents and journalists have difficulty holding him to account. He simply repeats the lie, again and again, and others give up.

The public got a glimpse of the Trump charm that people who socialize with him attest to in his ultra-touted interview with Megyn Kelly on Fox on May 17, a spectacle of two people who’d made their relationship a running feature of the campaign. (When Kelly said “Let’s talk about us” one wanted to dive under the sofa.) Trump also spoke throughout in the normal yet unfamiliar voice he used the night he won the Indiana primary and in effect the nomination. It’s oddly surprising when this would-be president speaks in a normal voice. While little of interest that was said during the interview came in Trump’s answer to a question toward the end, in response to Kelly’s asking him what his presidential venture would mean to him if he didn’t win. Most pols would say they didn’t at all regret making the race, they’d got their ideas out, they’d enjoyed meeting so many wonderful people, and so on. For Trump his campaign was another business venture: if he didn’t win, Trump said, “I will consider it to be a total and complete waste of time, energy, and money.” Whether Trump really wants to govern is one of the mysteries of this election.

Trump can’t win the presidency with just the white male voters who backed him in the primaries. Because his campaign is non-ideological he can reach out in various directions. In an attempt to mollify the right Trump offered a list of conservative judges he’d consider for the Supreme Court, thus injecting politics even further into the Court. Pleased to win the support of the NRA on May 17 at its convention, Trump pandered (“I love the Second Amendment”) and told the assembled group, “Hillary Clinton wants to abolish the Second Amendment—just remember that.” In urging a non-interventionist foreign policy, Trump is eschewing the Republican neocons (and driving them crazy) and running to the left of Clinton, which might attract both isolationists and independents.

The press likes to pounce when it finds contradictions in Trump’s policy positions and recently there’s been enough of that to undermine a normal candidacy. He’s changed his mind about whether he wants to revise his tax plan, which he once described as “just a concept.” He’s described his highly controversial proposal to ban entry of any Muslims into the US as “just a suggestion.” But to think of Trump in terms of his substantive proposals is to once more miss the point about him. In total contrast to Hillary Clinton, Trump’s candidacy isn’t about positions he’s taking; it’s about what he embodies and presents to his audiences: a tough, decisive guy (the Trump of The Apprentice) who won’t let America get pushed around, will make better trade deals, and won’t let this country be overrun by new immigrants. Trump is offering not a set of position papers but an essence.

In the longer arc of history, this is the election the Founders worried about; they feared “an excess of democracy.” According to David O. Stewart’s book Madison’s Gift, James Madison argued for “succession filtrations” of popular will through institutions that were insulated from the people. Alexander Hamilton urged that power shouldn’t be given to the people because “they seldom judge or determine right.” A current political euphemism is that a certain portion of the people are “low-information voters.” Trump wins quite a large slice of them, and on one primary evening he said, “I love the less educated voters.” The next question is, What of it? What’s to be concluded from a situation in which the voters go for an unqualified candidate for president? One approach is to accept that sometimes the public will get it wrong, but the problem with that is that a Trump presidency summons up dangers to the country of entrusting an impatient, undisciplined, and uncurious person with the weapons of war, or the means to stir domestic upheaval.

The nomination of Donald Trump to be the Republican Party’s candidate for president will in the future be explained in various ways, from being caused by the anger of the white working and middle class, or his own cleverness, or the weakness of his opponents. Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Center on Ethics and Public Policy and a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, recently wrote in Commentary a cri de coeur against the pressure on Republicans to back Trump for the sake of unity. He wrote, “The question one always has to ask is: Unity toward what end?” Wehner said, “If you believe, as others do [and as Wehner does], that [Trump’s] vices—intellectual, temperamental, characterological—disqualify him from being president, then invoking unity or the will of the people is entirely unpersuasive.” The current indications are that both Clinton and Trump will run races for the presidency aimed not so much at winning as at causing their opponent to lose. And a great many citizens are left to choose which candidate they dislike less.


Part of Elizabeth Drew’s continuing series on the 2016 election.