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  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.