You Have No Choice

Two telling moments from the political dog days of summer.

First, from President Donald Trump at his most recent Triumph of the Will-style rally, in Manchester, New Hampshire: “If, for some reason, I were not to have won the [2016] election, these markets would have crashed. That will happen even more so in 2020. You have no choice but to vote for me, because your 401(k), everything is going to be down the tubes. Whether you love me or hate me, you gotta vote for me.”

Second, from former Second Lady Jill Biden, at a bookstore in nearby Nashua, speaking on behalf of her husband, Joe: “Your candidate might be better on, I don’t know, health care, than Joe is, but you’ve got to look at who’s going to win this election. And maybe you have to swallow a little bit and say, ‘OK, I personally like so-and-so better,’ but your bottom line has to be that we have to beat Trump.”

Here we have two very different people speaking in two very different tones to two very different audiences, yet somehow the message is exactly the same—namely, the message conveyed on the famous 1973 cover of National Lampoon: “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog.”

That, in so many words, is where we stand with our two likely presidential nominees in 2020: Vote for me, or else. Nice country you have here; it’d be a shame if something were to happen to it.

Our votes are not being sought. They are being extorted. Democracy at the point of a gun.

To be fair, Jill Biden is not her husband; nor, in any case, could her comment reasonably be taken as a direct threat to those who might take their electoral business elsewhere. (Trump, as ever, is another story.) No doubt she would characterize her “swallow a little bit” plea merely as an appeal to strategic pragmatism, seeing the big picture, etc. Indeed, if anything, her tacit acknowledgment that the former vice president isn’t anybody’s idea of a perfect candidate betrays a level of modesty and class that too few candidates (and/or their spouses) possess—not least in the crucible of a campaign.

All the same, there is something profoundly dispiriting about the wife and leading spokesperson for a major presidential contender resorting to lesser-of-two-evils talk a full 11 months before the party’s nominating convention. How sad—how pathetic—that the woman who knows Joe Biden’s strengths and charms more deeply than anyone alive finds it necessary to pitch her husband for the highest office in the land like he’s a used car with a better-than-decent chance of making it over the state line without losing all four tires.

Is it really too much to ask that our actions in the voting booth be motivated by something other than fear, dread or a sense of grudging, soul-crushing obligation? Must we be told that the primary—if not sole—reason to fill out a ballot a particular way is to head off an extinction-level event (e.g., four more years of Trump)? That if we don’t fall in line behind The One True King, everything we hold dear in this world will be flushed down the toilet?

Not to be overly sentimental, but what ever happened to the happy warrior? The guy who enters the arena with such joy—such clarity of moral and civic purpose—that he earns not only the public’s vote but also its admiration and respect?

Will there be anyone in 2020 who campaigns on the audacity of hope?

At a fundraiser in the closing days of 2016, Hillary Clinton reportedly quipped, “I’m the only thing standing between you and the abyss,” unwittingly channeling the resignation so much of the American left felt about voting for such a nauseatingly flawed candidate. On the right, meanwhile, were the likes of Michael Anton, whose inflammatory but widely-read essay, “The Flight 93 Election,” argued more or less the same thing from the opposite direction—namely, that Trump was the bulwark and Clinton was the abyss.

Across the political spectrum, it became both a joke and an article of faith that no one was truly happy with their options on November 8, and that a vote for Candidate X was meant primarily—if not exclusively—as a vote against Candidate Y.

But did it really need to be so?

Perhaps my memory is marred by unwarranted nostalgia, but I do not recall checking the box for Barack Obama in 2008 on the grounds that John McCain presented an existential threat to democracy or world peace (his running mate notwithstanding). Nor did I feel as such about Mitt Romney four years later, weird and obnoxious though he was.

In fact, I voted for Obama because I liked him a very great deal—his character, his ideas, his unique place in U.S. history—and affirmatively wanted him as both the chief executive and figurehead of the great nation I call home, and I am quite satisfied with what I ultimately got.

There is no compelling reason why every presidential election shouldn’t follow this same rubric, whereby candidates for high office present themselves as the means to a bright future irrespective of the alternative, whose victory would represent something more than the mere dodging of a painful historical bullet.

In 2016, with the slogan “Make America Great Again,” Donald Trump won by campaigning on yesterday.  With any luck at all, the winner in 2020 will be whoever campaigns on tomorrow.

Only One of Them Is Evil

Over the last few days, amidst the near-universal condemnation of all things Donald Trump, two provocative and interrelated questions have stealthily crossed my desk.

First:  Is there anything Hillary Clinton could say or do that would prevent us from voting for her for president?

And second:  How would we react if the presidential election were a contest between Donald Trump and David Duke?

The latter was posed by Dr. Cornel West during last Friday’s episode of Real Time with Bill Maher.  I don’t recall where I came upon the former, although I’m guessing its author has a Bernie Sanders bumper sticker featured prominently on his or her vehicle.

While both queries were largely rhetorical—a means of confronting Hillary Clinton supporters for their perceived capitulation to the lesser-evil principle in American politics—I think it’s worth taking them seriously, if only to demonstrate how insufferably smug and vacuous they truly are.

What could Hillary do to lose my vote, you ask?  I don’t know, maybe if she proposed banning all Muslims from the United States.  Or suggested women should be jailed for having abortions.  Or belittled a former prisoner of war.  Or mocked a disabled journalist.  Or casually implied that she desires sexual relations with her daughter and then touched said daughter in a particularly creepy fashion during the Democratic National Convention.

Yup, I imagine if the Democratic Party nominee for president did any of the above during the next three months, I would have serious reservations about supporting her for the highest office in the land, since they would cast grave doubts about her qualifications, her judgment and her very sanity for a job that requires copious amounts of all three.

However, I don’t anticipate that any of the above will occur, since the market for grotesquely unprofessional behavior has already been cornered by the very man that Clinton is running against.

Indeed, it’s hard to conceive a moment in which Hillary’s personal shortcomings have been less relevant to the national conversation—and less problematic in the broader scheme of things—than in her present cage match with Donald Trump.  Like it or not, all elections are a choice between two howling imperfections, forcing you to temper your expectations and tweak your ideals to conform to the options immediately before you.  If the outsized absurdity of Trump’s character and behavior has produced any lasting value, it has been to underline how mundane Clinton’s own faults are by comparison.

This is not to say that those faults are not troubling, or that we should simply ignore them and hope they magically go away.  They are, we shouldn’t and they won’t.

But we also need to recognize the difference between patrolling a candidate’s failings and condemning her entire candidacy on the basis of those failings.  We need to admit, say, that Hillary has a disturbingly long record of fudging the truth of a situation—often against her own interests—while also acknowledging that this tendency—so common among all politicians—does not pose an existential threat to the republic.

Arguably the key insight of the whole 2016 election is that Trump’s collected flaws do rise to the level of disqualifying him from high office, while Clinton’s manifestly do not.  To quote Andrew Sullivan—a man who has detested Clinton as vehemently as any blogger has detested anyone:  “[Clinton] is a mediocre politician in our liberal democratic system.  Trump is a direct, grave and imminent threat to the very system itself.  That’s the essential choice this year.  It is the easiest choice in my lifetime.”

That brings us to Cornel West—a Bernie Sanders partisan now leaning toward Jill Stein—who tried to knock some sense into Clintonistas by theorizing a race between Trump and David Duke, the notorious former Klansman who announced a U.S. Senate run at the same time that he endorsed Trump for president.

By presenting this hypothetical match-up of one repugnant, race-baiting troll against another, West was perhaps trying to justify the reluctance of certain Sanders loyalists to get behind Clinton—a woman who, in their view, is simply too unappealing to support under any circumstances.  In other words, West was suggesting that the imperative to back the “lesser of two evils” need not apply if you consider both options to be genuinely, wholly evil.

It’s a noble argument—a defense of retaining one’s humanity in the face of political inhumanity—but it’s also completely irrelevant to the election actually occurring in the real world—or, for that matter, any election that has occurred ever.

Hillary Clinton is not David Duke, nor has anyone—including Cornel West—suggested she is.  She is paranoid, equivocating, disingenuous and compromised, but none of those traits rises (or falls) to the level of abject evil.  They are irritating but not beyond the pale, and we need to accept the giant gulf that separates one from the other.

As for this absurd hypothetical—what if the Democrats managed to nominate a candidate as irredeemably awful as Trump?—the question for voters would remain the same:  Which nominee is more likely to leave the country better off than when he or she found it?

Contrary to apparent popular belief, there is no such thing as two equally bad options.  As Bill Maher has frequently quipped, one choice is always worse than the other, and it’s the duty of all responsible Americans to identify which is which.  Hitler was worse than Stalin in 1941, and no amount of moral indignation could’ve negated the imperative of picking the least-worst side when there was no viable alternative.  In that moment, the facts on the ground were more important than how we might’ve felt about them under ideal circumstances.

As such, there is something profoundly annoying—and ultimately cowardly—about this desire to find a trap door beneath any ethically difficult decision.  To say, for instance, “This election is too unpleasant, so I’m just going to skip it.”  Or—in the case of sudden converts to Jill Stein or Gary Johnson—to say, “I cannot handle the consequences of choosing between the two people who could actually win, so instead I’m going to hide behind someone who obviously can’t, then congratulate myself for not being part of the problem.”

Sorry, but in doing that, you are part of the problem.  In our two-party electoral system—an arrangement that persists regardless of your opinion of it—opting for a third-party candidate is not a choice; it’s a way of avoiding a choice.  If you truly subscribe to Green or Libertarian principles—as Dan Savage and others have argued—the time for coalition-building is the four-year period in between presidential elections, not the three-month window from now to November when you’ve suddenly realized that neither the Democrats nor Republicans are quite to your liking.

There’s more to life than getting everything you want and throwing a tantrum when you don’t.  All of my demands are certainly not being met this election season, and neither are anyone else’s.

So what do you do?  You get over it.  You go to war with the candidates you have—not the candidates you wanted at the beginning of the primaries, nor the candidates you’d put forward if you were made master of the universe.

Democracy is always and forever a clash between bad and worse.  In this election, in this year, it’s not a matter of one nominee being less evil than the other.  It’s a matter of one being horrible and the other being good enough.

Night and Day

If there is one thing I have learned for sure about Hillary Clinton, it’s that she is both better and worse than everyone seems to think.

Worse because of her ongoing paranoia, deceit and iron-fistedness vis-à-vis her quest for the Oval Office.

Better because of her wit, intelligence, compassion and jaw-dropping stamina as they relate to the exact same goal.

In the spring of 2008, I wrote an op-ed for my college newspaper in which I petulantly griped about how Hillary Clinton has a way of getting under your skin even as you find yourself agreeing with most of what she stands for.  How her single-mindedness and love-hate relationship with rules and facts tend to overshadow her finer qualities, even for those who are otherwise prepared to accept her as the standard-bearer for the Democratic Party.

Re-reading that article seven-and-a-half years later, I am somewhat alarmed by how well it holds up.  While my writing has matured (arguably), my hang-ups about a potential President Clinton Part II were pretty much exactly the same then as they are now.  They include:  Her penchant for making up stories when the truth is readily available for all to see; her brazen disregard for the rules whenever they are inconvenient; and her tendency, in any case, to exacerbate the little scandals that pop up whenever she is in power, invariably by blaming the whole thing on her would-be enemies, be they Republicans, foreign governments or a White House intern.

All of those quirks still apply, and must forever be held in consideration when one endorses Clinton for president or any other office.  As ever, a vote for Hillary is a vote for all the baggage that comes with her.  And that’s before we get into the issues that involve actual substance.  As the enduring success of Bernie Sanders demonstrates, there remains a great minority of Democratic primary voters who consider Clinton the wrong candidate at the wrong time and who, should she become the party’s nominee, might even stay home on Election Day rather than pull the lever for her.

Against all of that, however, I come bearing news:  Politics has changed a lot over the last two election cycles and we no longer have the luxury to vote only for candidates we like.  When and if we make it to November 8, 2016, most of us will be faced with two people whom we don’t particularly want to be president, but we’ll need to choose one of them all the same, because that’s how elections work.

I know:  This sounds like a “lesser of two evils” lecture.  It’s not, because presidential campaigns are not a choice between two evils.  Deciding to ally with Stalin against Hitler—that was a choice between two evils.  When we vote for a commander-in-chief, the decision is between not just individuals, but two opposing philosophies of how to run the government of the most important republic in the world.  There’s nothing evil about it, but the choice is stark nonetheless—now more than ever before.

If you think there is no meaningful difference between Republicans and Democrats, you’re not paying close enough attention.  If you’re unwilling to vote for either because their candidates just aren’t perfect enough, you’re a child and a fool.

Last Saturday’s Democratic debate drew only a fraction of the audience of any GOP contest this year.  That’s a real shame, because, if nothing else, it affirmed Bill Maher’s observation in 2008 that to see both parties talk, it’s as if they’re running for president of two completely different countries.

Case in point:  At the most recent Republican forum, you would be forgiven for thinking that 9/11 happened yesterday and that terrorism is the only thing worth caring about when it comes to the welfare of the United States and its citizens.  It was practically the only subject that came up, while such things as the economy, health care, infrastructure and even immigration received little more than a passing shout-out from any of the nine candidates.

The Dems spent plenty of time on terrorism, too—the San Bernardino massacre made it unavoidable—but they allocated equal, if not greater, emphasis on subjects that are—let’s be honest—considerably more urgent and germane to all of us at this moment in time.  Along with the issues I just mentioned, these included gun control, race relations, income inequality, college affordability and the fact that America’s prisons are overstuffed with people whose only “crime” was getting high and having a good time.

This isn’t your ordinary, run-of-the-mill disagreement over national priorities.  This is a dramatic, monumental clash over whether the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.  The whole GOP platform has been reduced to, “Be afraid all the time, because you could die at any moment,” while the Democrats act as if tomorrow might actually come and we might as well live and govern accordingly.

Is this the lowest bar we’ve ever set in the history of presidential elections?  Possibly.  Indeed, it’s downright depressing that the very act of governing is no longer seen as a given for anyone in public office.

What is far more depressing, however, is that so many citizens seem to think it doesn’t matter which party is in charge, or that both parties are equally at fault for all of the preventable problems that have occurred throughout the Obama era.  Neither of those assumptions is true, and there are tangible consequences to thinking otherwise.

Care for some examples?  Listen to the GOP’s own rhetoric:  If a Republican is elected president next year, it means the Affordable Care Act is in danger of actual repeal, as is the nuclear agreement with Iran.  It means reversing climate change is no longer a priority, along with the rights of black people, gay people, poor people, women, immigrants, Muslims and refugees.  It means the Supreme Court will net at least one conservative justice, which could easily lead to decisions adversely affecting all of the above and more.  It means our “war” against ISIS will almost certainly escalate to include actual boots in the sand, and God knows what impact that’ll have on our national debt (to the degree that anyone cares).

I realize, of course, that America’s conservatives would be thrilled by such results, but that’s not really who I’m talking to right now.

No, I would mostly just like to remind my fellow leftists that there is a limit to what your disgust with “establishment” Democrats like Hillary Clinton can accomplish.  Clinton is most certainly a flawed candidate, and a flawed messenger for the liberal view of good governance.  She is plainly compromised by her close relationship with the financial industry and remains insufficiently skeptical of large-scale military interventions in the Middle East.  She hasn’t yet mastered the art of damage control and offers little assurance that she won’t create more damage in the future.  A second Clinton presidency would guarantee a fair share of political nonsense from the day she arrives to the day she leaves.

Know what else it would guarantee?  Health insurance for tens of millions of people.  Funding for Planned Parenthood.  Increased protections for the LGBT contingent.  A more liberal Supreme Court.

And it would guarantee our first female commander-in-chief.  Sure, I know we’re supposed to be a meritocratic society that doesn’t care about race, sex, etc., but let’s not pretend that following our First Black President with our First Woman President wouldn’t be unimpeachably gratifying.  We already know beyond doubt that a woman can manage a country at least as well as a man—perhaps you noticed that, for the last 10 years, one such woman has been more or less running all of Europe—but wouldn’t it be great to have it actually happen here?

Of course, none of this matters during the primary phase of the campaign, where we are now.  So long as Democratic voters still have a legitimate choice between Clinton and Bernie Sanders (and, I suppose, Martin O’Malley), they have every obligation to argue about which option makes the most sense for where the party ought to be, and that choice is always a balance between ideological purity and perceived electability.  If you want Sanders as your nominee, you’d best make your case now, before it’s too late.  (I’ve already made mine.)

But should time run out and your preferred candidate lose, realize that our whole electoral system operates on the principle that the party is ultimately more important than any individual within it, which means a great number of people will be forced to compromise some of their deepest-held beliefs in the interest of party unity—because it’s better to support someone with whom you agree 60, 70 or 80 percent of the time rather than ensuring victory for someone with whom you agree not at all.

If total ideological alignment leads to total electoral defeat, then what good did those principles do you in the first place?  Republicans have been learning this lesson continuously since the moment President Obama was elected.  Are Democrats on the verge of making the same stupid mistake?