Laughing Into the Abyss

I spent the balance of October 2016 burning through all five seasons of Breaking Bad, so when the election returns rolled in on the night of November 8—with Donald Trump unexpectedly winning one critical swing state after another—the image that kept flashing across my mind was of Walter White in the Season 4 episode “Crawl Space”:  Huddled beneath the floorboards of his house, with the feds closing in on his drug empire and his wife having burned through all their cash, Walter screams out in agony, his body writhing and twitching with helpless abandon at the realization that his entire life has been a house of cards.  And then, without warning, his cries suddenly turn to laughter—cackling, maniacal laughter—as it dawns on him, with complete and terrifying clarity, that he is solely to blame for every misfortune that has befallen him, and that he is now, at long last, getting exactly what he deserves.

Cognitively-speaking, that’s roughly where I was by 11 o’clock on Election Night 2016:  Disgusted and horrified that my beloved country had chosen a thuggish, hormonal con man to be its chief executive and custodian of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal—but also perversely amused by the whole thing.  As it became plain that the most supposedly-unthinkable event in human history had come to pass—a result so shocking and senseless that no one on TV or online seemed to possess the vocabulary to explain it—I couldn’t help but suspect that, in some dark, elemental way, Trump’s victory was a signal that America’s chickens were finally coming home to roost.

They say sometimes you have to laugh because otherwise you’d cry, but every now and again it becomes necessary to do both simultaneously.  One year ago today, I was doing exactly that.  In some ways, I’ve never really stopped.

Indeed, among the major lessons I learned from the events of last fall was how deeply comedy and tragedy can become intertwined in the course of human events.  We’re all familiar with the axiom, “Comedy is tragedy plus time,” but the truth is that some tragedies are funny right off the bat, and the rise of Trump was most definitely one of them.

Recall, if you will, how the entire world spent the whole of 2016 (and the second half of 2015) in total agreement about exactly one fact:  Donald Trump could never—and would never—be elected president of the United States.  Virtually every pundit, historian and so-called “expert” on planet Earth repeated this same conclusion over and over and over again—as, for good measure, did every opinion poll and, obliquely, Donald Trump himself.  We spent months on end reflecting, with sadness, on the national moral decay that had allowed such an execrable man to be nominated by a major political party in the first place, but—with few exceptions—we remained convinced, to the bitter end, that the American political process—so brilliantly and meticulously conceived by our founders—would ultimately prevent such an unqualified and embarrassing candidate to rise to the highest office in the land.

It was classical hubris on everyone’s part, and when Trump won, it was like a punch line to a joke of which all of us were the butt.  In our stubborn certainty that we lived in a country too intelligent, decent and progressive to be seduced by a confessed sexual predator who had bankrupted four casinos, we never really accepted the possibility that we were wrong—that there was a cancer on the American character that had metastasized from one end of the continent to the other.

Maybe this is just my long-simmering exasperation with the pundit-industrial complex run amok, but there was something acutely pleasurable in seeing every professional prognosticator being made to look like a complete idiot—to find out that, when push came to shove, nobody knew a goddamned thing about the country they were living in and the electorate they had spent the past year-and-a-half profiling.  (In the final hours of the campaign, the Huffington Post gave Clinton a 98 percent chance of victory.  Meanwhile, Nate Silver, having set Clinton’s odds closer to 65 percent, was excoriated by liberals for “putting his thumb on the scale” for Trump.)

Equally troubling—and equally funny—is how after a full year of experiencing President (and, before that, President-elect) Trump on a 24/7 basis, so many on the left are still in denial about the ways in which the laws of political gravity do not apply to America’s 45th commander-in-chief.  How Trump can get away with things that no previous public servant could, and how sooner or later we’ll need to accommodate this fact rather than assuming it will magically go away.

To my mind, the most profound takeaway from last year’s election—and all that has transpired since—is the power of shamelessness as a form of political statecraft.  Beginning with Mitch McConnell’s unprecedented, disgraceful move to block President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee nearly a year before Obama’s term was up, America’s majority party—and Trump in particular—has abandoned any residual semblance of honor and chivalry it might’ve had left and replaced it with an ethos that says, “If it can be done, it shall be done.”

And to quote perhaps the most insightful tweet of the last 12 months—with apologies to Michelle Obama—“When they go low, they win.”

Where previous presidents would be embarrassed (and politically damaged) by suggesting, say, that not all Nazis are bad people or that pregnant war widows are liars, this president has so radically lowered the bar as to how a commander-in-chief ought to behave—and has so wholly owned that behavior as the main selling point of his “brand,” never apologizing, never admitting error—he has effectively neutralized every critique one could possibly level about both his character and his leadership style.  As far as the American public is concerned, he is who he is—take him or leave him.

On November 8, 2016, we took him, and there is every reason to assume we’ll take him again in 2020.

Why?  Because, as it turns out, Americans have a very twisted sense of humor, and so long as the Dow Jones is above sea level and the world hasn’t descended into nuclear war, we will accept just about anybody in the driver’s seat of Air Force One.

And when things inevitably turn south?  When the next financial bubble bursts or a hot war erupts in the Korean Peninsula?  When Trump’s sexual assault victims come out of the woodwork or Robert Mueller starts knocking on the Oval Office door?

Well, that’s when the real fun will begin.

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A Nation of Deplorables

On Monday, I will be casting the third presidential ballot of my life.  (Hurray for early voting!)  Incidentally—and I don’t mean to brag—this will be the third consecutive time that I will not be voting for an alleged sexual predator for the highest office in the land.

True:  In an enlightened, democratic society, you’d think that not having a possible rapist on the ballot would go more or less without saying.  On our better days, we Americans possess a sufficient level of moral outrage not to let that kind of crap occur.

But 2016 has just been one of those years, so instead we’re stuck with a man—and I use that word loosely—who feels so entitled to the bodies of American women (by his own tape-recorded admission) that his only response to multiple allegations of sexual misconduct is to ridicule the looks of his alleged victims.  Say what you will about Bill Clinton (and I will), but he at least had the courtesy to refer to his most famous accuser by name.

With this year’s standards for electability and decency being what they are, I can take a modicum of pride in having resisted the would-be allure of a vulgar, sexist thug as leader of the free world.  Personally, I intend to continue my trend of voting for non-rapists—and, for that matter, non-misogynists—for the remainder of my life as a citizen.  As John Oliver might say, it is literally the least I can do.

And yet, historically, this has not necessarily been the case for many American voters.

In 1996, for instance, some 47 million of my countrymen opted to keep Bill Clinton in the White House, which is to say that 47 million Americans voted for a man who, apart from being a confessed adulterer, has long been accused of sexual assault—a charge to which he has yet to speak a single word in his defense.  To be fair, the rape allegation didn’t become widely known until Clinton’s second term in office, but I can’t help but notice that—nearly two decades after the fact—the 42nd president remains among the most beloved men in public life, particularly within the political party that claims to be the protector of vulnerable and mistreated women.

Am I really the only person experiencing cognitive dissonance over this rather glaring moral contradiction?

Look:  We all know that Donald Trump’s recent attacks on Bill Clinton’s sexual peccadilloes are merely a half-assed attempt to divert attention from Trump’s own horrifying attitudes (and actions) toward women.  But this does not mean that Clinton’s transgressions didn’t occur and that he should not be held to the same standards as every other alleged abuser.

If you believe—as I do—that women who level rape charges tend to be telling the truth, and if you agree that what we know we know about Clinton would suggest that such charges could be true in his case, then you must conclude that continuing to hold up this man, uncritically, as a Democratic Party icon is problematic at best and despicable at worst.

So why do we do it?  Because—as Orwell famously said—it takes a great struggle to see what is directly in front of our own eyes.  Because human beings are exceptionally good at convincing themselves of what should be true, rather than what is true.  Because we prefer myth to reality, particularly when facing the latter head-on would completely undermine the power of the former.

Just as most historians refused to accept that Thomas Jefferson fathered six children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, until a DNA test proved it once and for all, admirers of Bill Clinton will continue to reassure themselves that he didn’t rape Juanita Broaddrick in 1978, because, well, that’s just not the sort of thing he would do.  Indeed, he couldn’t have done it, because what would that say about all the good people who’ve unconditionally supported and admired him all through the years?

Well, we know what it would say:  That they are either fools or co-conspirators—irretrievably naïve or irredeemably wicked.  And so the solution to this quandary—as unsatisfying as it is inevitable—is to either ignore the problem altogether or to rationalize it to within an inch of its life.  By and large, that is exactly what the Democratic Party has done.

With Trump, of course, it has become so gratingly obvious that sexual harassment (if not assault) is exactly the sort of thing he would do—not least because he’s said so himself—that all excuses or evasions on his behalf can (and largely have) been dismissed as sheer farce.  At this moment—with at least 10 different women having corroborated Trump’s boasts about placing his hands where they definitely don’t belong—to hear that “no one has more respect for women” than Trump has all the believability of Michael Palin insisting to John Cleese that his parrot is still alive.

Which brings us to what has—among liberals, at least—been a defining question of this whole ordeal:  What the hell is Natwrong with Donald Trump’s supporters?

By Nate Silver’s most recent estimate, Trump will end up garnering 43 percent of the vote, which translates to roughly 55 million people.  From what I can gather, this most bewitching chunk of Americans can be subdivided into three groups:

  1. So-called “traditional” conservatives who are disgusted by Trump’s antics and don’t really want him to win, but have nonetheless accepted him as an ideological bulwark against a President Hillary Clinton.
  2. Lifelong Republicans who have somehow managed to look past Trump’s defects and, being totally fed up with “the system,” are hopeful he can serve as a human Molotov cocktail who will magically—and single-handedly—change the way Washington works.
  3. The basket of deplorables.

Obviously that final group is wholly beyond repair, but can we really say the same about groups one and two?

Almost without exception, liberals have condemned all Trump voters as equally irrational and repulsive for daring to stand behind such an irrational and repulsive candidate.  While it may be easy and cathartic to dismiss half the country as a bunch of racist loony toons, it’s also a way of avoiding the uncomfortable fact that, had your life circumstances been just a little different—and your political opinions rotated just a few degrees to the right—you, too, may have spent the majority of 2016 engulfed in a painful existential dilemma as to what is the right thing to do—about how much nonsense you’re willing to endure to keep your favored political party in charge of the executive branch.

In light of recent history, we might want to think twice about being so sweepingly judgmental.

Again:  Some 20 years ago, 47 million liberals voted for commander-in-chief a man—Bill Clinton—whom they knew full well was a liar and a womanizer, and it was because they told themselves that, on balance, he nonetheless represented the majority of their interests and values.  And yet now, in 2016, most of those same liberals are berating conservatives for engaging in the exact same moral compromise for the exact same reasons.

Pot, meet kettle.

The truth—the whole truth—is that each and every one of us is susceptible, sooner or later, to vote for a morally repugnant presidential candidate, provided his or her election suits our own political purposes.  Whether they realize it or not, a majority of Americans have done—or soon will do—exactly that, and they (read: we) would be well-advised to check their righteous indignation at the door, or at least to temper it enough so as not to appear like such oblivious, whining hypocrites.

Losers Never Win

Is this it, folks?  Is this how the 2016 election will end?  Not with a bang, but with a blowout?

Crunching the numbers from the most recent batch of opinion polls, we find that Hillary Clinton leads Donald Trump in the race for president by eight percentage points nationwide.  Breaking it down state-by-state—as Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight continues to do better than any other human—it appears that, if the election were held today, Clinton would defeat Trump in the Electoral College by a score of 364-174—the largest victory since Bill Clinton beat Bob Dole in 1996.  Specifically, Hillary would win every state Barack Obama won in 2012, plus North Carolina, Arizona and Georgia—the last of which no Democratic candidate has won since 1992.

Again, that’s all based on the numbers today.  If we based it on the numbers yesterday, Clinton would win North Carolina but not Arizona or Georgia.  If we backed up a few days more, she would still prevail, but only by a hair.

From this, we can draw one of two completely different conclusions:  Either a) today’s polls are too hyperactive to be taken seriously three months before the fact, or b) Clinton’s numbers will continue to rise—and Trump’s will continue to fall—resulting in the most lopsided presidential election result since Ronald Reagan won 49 states in 1984.

Deep down, everyone knows the correct answer is “a.”  Even if the polls themselves can be taken at face value—a dubious proposition, at best—an awful lot of nonsense can occur over the next 91 days—particularly when at least one candidate has a vested interest in chaos and a proven knack for generating it himself.

Which is all to say that this week’s stats mean very close to nothing, since they will soon be superseded by next week’s stats—themselves the result of various unforeseen events—and not even Nate Silver can anticipate the unexpected.  By the second Tuesday of November—some 13 weeks hence—no one will remember a thing about what happened in the first week of August.

That is, unless they do.  Unless we look back—say, on November 9th—and conclude that the week-and-a-half following the Democratic National Convention marked the moment when all the pieces of this wild election finally fell into place.  When—after a year of dithering—a convincing majority of Americans finally took a long, hard look at Donald Trump and said, “This man is a terrible human being.  For the love of God, let’s vote for literally anybody else.”

If Clinton wins this election—particularly if she wins big—that’s exactly what we will say, and we will be absolutely right.  If her suddenly-commanding lead holds for the duration and Trump goes down in ignominious defeat, we will mark this period as the tipping point, noting—among other things—the veritable avalanche of Republican lawmakers and dignitaries who have publicly—and seemingly in unison—declared their opposition to letting Donald Trump anywhere near the Oval Office, voicing their disgust with their party’s nominee in no uncertain terms.

If all goes according to plan, these past several days will have been when America finally ended its flirtation with a bizarro fantasy world and snapped back into reality once and for all.

Now, I’m not holding my breath on this, and neither should anybody else (particularly Hillary Clinton).  But let’s run with this Trump-is-toast theory for a moment, if only to take a crack at a question Salman Rushdie recently posed on Real Time with Bill Maher:  “What is Trump’s kryptonite?  What is the thing that is finally going to get him?”

Up until now, we have never quite figured that one out, since every absurd, embarrassing incident that was supposed to sink Trump’s candidacy has only made him more popular with his peeps—hence the funhouse mirror feel of this whole ridiculous experience.

So—now that it appears Candidate Trump may well be mortally wounded—what exactly happened?  What was different about the last few weeks—compared to the 13 months that preceded them—to finally get it into people’s heads that this man is fundamentally unfit for the highest office in the land?

As we ponder this great mystery, let us step back and realize that we are talking about an extremely small, select group of our fellow citizens.  Whatever people may tell pollsters, it seems safe to say that the number of voting Americans who have yet to form an opinion of Donald Trump—be it positive or negative—could probably fit comfortably inside a single conference room of a local Marriott.  (Perhaps we should keep them there until they make up their minds.)

The truth is that, when it comes to Trump—and, by turns, the election—90-something percent of us are totally unreachable, convinced either that he is the greatest thing since gluten-free bread or is, as Andrew Sullivan put it, “an extinction-level event.”

Puzzling over why Trump has proved so impervious to his own faults is a bit like asking why trans fats haven’t stopped most of us from eating red meat:  We Americans do whatever we damn well please, and we won’t let trivial considerations like heart disease or nuclear war induce us into altering our behavior.

That is, except for a few us every now and again.

So sure, maybe Trump’s insane confrontation with a Gold Star family pushed some voters over the edge—even though he has slandered other military heroes in the past.  Maybe the relentless parade of anti-Trump speeches at the Democratic National Convention convinced fence-sitters of things that a year’s worth of Trump’s own behavior had not.  Maybe this unprecedented coming-out of #NeverTrump Republicans has underlined this man’s unhinged, unprincipled narcissism more persuasively than when it came from the mouths of liberal Democrats.  Or maybe it has simply been the cumulative effect of all the above and more occurring at roughly the exact same moment.

Whatever.  Call me a snob, but I’ve found myself rapidly losing interest in the psychology of someone who looks upon the face of an authoritarian and finds something—anything—to like.  If you are repelled by Trump keeping a crying baby from entering a rally but are attracted to him keeping 1.6 billion Muslims from entering the United States, I welcome your defection to #TeamHillary but I don’t anticipate that we would ever have much to talk about.  Indeed, in a normal election, there’s no way we would ever wind up on the same team, but then—as Ezra Klein so eloquently explained on Vox—this has not been a great year for normal.

By rights, the 2016 election was supposed to be a referendum on Barack Obama, a two-term incumbent whose legacy Hillary Clinton has promised to carry on without interruption.  And yet, instead, the race has become a referendum on Donald Trump.  Why?  Because Trump’s character has made it impossible for us to concentrate on anything else.  His abject rottenness had subsumed every other variable in this race.

And why on Earth shouldn’t it?  In government, as in medicine, first you must do no harm, and Trump is a seven-alarm cataclysm within striking distance of the West Wing.

He doesn’t just need to lose:  He needs to lose spectacularly.  He needs to go down in the general election like he should’ve gone down in the Republican primaries:  With the metaphorical force of a 16-ton anvil.  He needs to be humiliated and made an example of for all future demagogues who think they can rise to the top by sinking to the bottom.

Or—if you’d prefer a more positive spin—Hillary Clinton needs to win by a lot more than eight points.  She needs to crush it like she’s never crushed anything before.  She needs to be elected in such a ridiculous landslide that, 20 or 30 years from now, we will have totally forgotten the name of the poor schmuck she ran against.

As we know, history is written by the winners.  Never in our lifetimes have we encountered someone who deserved to lose bigger and more urgently than Trump.

Out of Iowa

In his inaugural State of the Commonwealth address last week, Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker said he could sum up his first year in office in one phrase:  “Don’t be surprised when you get surprised.”

It’s the sort of laconic, practical wisdom for which Baker has become known and liked around these parts.  (He is currently the most popular governor in the country, despite being a Republican in a sea of liberalism.)  Specifically, Baker was referring to such surprises as a massive budget deficit and the most ridiculous winter in the history of Boston.

In fact, at this moment, “Don’t be surprised when you get surprised” is possibly the most valuable advice any of us could ask for.

Why?  Because Monday is the Iowa Caucus, that’s why.

Yup.  After years of anticipation (or so it feels), we have finally made it to the official opening bell of the 2016 presidential campaign.  For all the pontificating that has occurred throughout the past year, Monday’s gathering in the Hawkeye State will be the first time actual humans cast actual votes for actual candidates.

Notwithstanding all the imperfections inherent in the caucus system—really, the whole process is nothing but imperfections—on Tuesday morning, we will have a much clearer sense of where the race stands than we do now.  And if there is one thing I can impart by way of context, it is not to be surprised when you get surprised.  Something weird is going to happen, and you might as well be prepared for it.

I don’t mean to suggest that I know what that surprise will be.  I haven’t the slightest idea who’s going to win the Iowa Caucus—or place second or third—nor do I know how those results will affect the 49 primaries and caucuses to come.

That’s not the point.  The point is:  Nobody else knows, either.

Hundreds—if not thousands—of polls have been conducted by dozens of organizations in the past year regarding the 2016 election, but the truth is that not a single person (with the possible exception of Nate Silver) can make a head or tail of what they mean.  Some pundits are dignified enough to admit it.  Most are not.

To be honest, I was all set to go into depth about the futility of presidential opinion polls, but New York Times columnist Frank Bruni beat me to the punch.  “We’re leaning harder than ever on polling precisely when that makes the least sense,” Bruni wrote last Sunday.  “We’re wallowing in polls even as they come to wildly different conclusions that should give us serious pause.”

Bruni’s best example of this (mine, too) is the fact that last week—on the exact same day—two separate surveys were released in New Hampshire showing a 3-point margin between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in the first case, and a 27-point margin in the second.

Yup:  Same state, same week, same candidates, 24-point difference.

In an ideal world, that would be all we need to know about the uselessness of opinion-mongering as a predictor of who’s going to be the next president.  For Pete’s sake, if two reputable organizations can disagree that much about something that’s supposed to be so scientific, on what basis can we trust any statistic purporting to represent the views of the voting public?

The bottom line—as statisticians will tell you—is that the results of any single poll don’t mean a damn thing.  When it comes to elections, all that really matters is when a whole bunch of polls manage to agree with each other.  If one result says Sanders leads by 3 while another says he leads by 27, all we know for sure is that we don’t know anything for sure.  But if two—or three or four—organizations say Sanders leads by 3, well, now we’re getting somewhere.

In fact, quite often we have gotten relative consistency among the many outfits measuring the presidential race.  Indeed, the reason we all think Donald Trump truly is the GOP frontrunner is that he has placed first in just about every survey that has been taken in the past six months.  (All except four, to be precise.)  That—for better or worse—is what you call a pattern.

But patterns can be deceiving.  Just because you win the first 18 games of the season doesn’t mean you’ll win the Super Bowl, and a presidential candidate who spends an eternity as the “favorite” doesn’t necessarily win the first primary.

Surely, the 2008 election proved this once and for all.  Hillary Clinton—the Trump in that contest, as it were—spent the entirety of 2007 as the “inevitable” Democratic nominee, then suddenly placed third in the Iowa Caucus, behind both Barack Obama and John Edwards.  With that, the narrative changed overnight from “Hillary has it all wrapped up” to “Obama is going all the way.”

Over the next few days, polls and pundits predicted Obama would not only prevail in the New Hampshire primary, but that it would be a rout—possibly a double-digit victory for the newbie from the South Side.

And what actually happened?  You guessed it:  Clinton won the Granite State by 2.6 points.

As a consequence of the Iowa-New Hampshire split, the nomination fight continued, state by state, until the bitter end.  Clinton did not formally concede until June 7—four days after the final votes had been cast.  By then, the entire electorate had been put through the proverbial wringer, fostering many years of bitterness between operatives of the two campaigns.

Could something like that happen in 2016?  You bet your sweet bippy it could—possibly in both parties, and definitely in the 12-person GOP.  Ask yourself:  Do Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie strike you as the sort of men who would go gently into that good night?  Does Bernie Sanders?  We know Clinton’s not going anywhere until the last dog dies, so why should we expect either of these contests to wrap up with all deliberate speed?  What, may I ask, is the hurry?

The final presidential primary is June 14.  I would be very surprised if we knew both parties’ nominees before then.  Indeed, I don’t see why the Republican race shouldn’t go all the way to the party convention in July (on the 40th anniversary of the last time such a thing occurred).

Then again, in a year in which we have come to expect the unexpected, perhaps a swift and clean primary season would be the most unexpected outcome of all.  Maybe the whole thing will be settled by Tuesday morning, leaving us to enjoy the next six months in peace.

That would certainly be a surprise.  Considering how much fun we’ve had so far, it would not necessarily be a welcome one.

Silver and Gold and ‘Citizens United’

Nate Silver, the New York Times electoral forecasting guru, has had a very good year.  The web’s most prolific and celebrated number-cruncher, Silver correctly predicted the winner of this year’s presidential contest in all 50 states and came within 0.1 percent of calculating the breakdown of the popular vote.

Late in the season, as Silver faced increased hostility from Republican and conservative pundits who claimed his forecast was biased in favor of President Obama, Silver proposed a wager to one such critic, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough:  Should Obama win, Scarborough must donate $1,000 to the American Red Cross.  Should Romney win, Silver would do the same.

Silver received a fair amount of scolding for this stunt—New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan called it “inappropriate for a Times journalist,” adding it would provide “ammunition to the critics who want to paint Mr. Silver as a partisan who is trying to sway the outcome”—but also some praise.

Silver justified himself, “[Scarborough] has been on a rant, calling me an idiot and a partisan, so I’m asking him to put some integrity behind it.”  In short:  Put your money where your mouth is.  Dashiell Bennett, writing in the Huffington Post, noted that Silver was “clearly fed up with pundits who aren’t willing to put anything on the line to back up their numerous predictions.”

In asserting the principle that one’s opinions are given real weight when supported by a piece of one’s personal fortune, Silver made the moral case—however unintentionally—for the Supreme Court decision known as “Citizens United.”

This most controversial of cases, officially called Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, was the 2008 high court ruling that established that expenditures for “electioneering communications” by corporations and unions were protected under the First Amendment—in effect, that money is a form of free speech and cannot be abridged.

I heartily echo Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic, who writes, “I sometimes fantasize about a media landscape where predictions weren’t taken seriously unless the people making them had some personal monetary stake in getting them right.”  Were such a practice introduced, he provocatively asks, “How many pundits would’ve more carefully hedged their Weapons of Mass Destruction predictions?”

The case for Citizens United—and, by extension, for unlimited money in politics—is indeed this question of integrity and intellectual honesty.  If a CEO wants to put the good name of his company behind some candidate or cause, parting ways with a small (or large) pile of treasure in the process, by what possible rationale is such an action less moral than an individual person donating 10 or 20 bucks toward the same ends?

It has been said—loudly—that money is slowly destroying politics and, therefore, government.  That elections are being bought by those who can afford them, i.e. gazillionaires, leaving the common folk with very little power to shape public affairs.

The unspoken, but necessary, assumption here is that our political leaders are prostitutes.  That if, say, the CEO of an oil company offers untold millions to a candidate, he or she has no choice but to accept it and, in so doing, to become an advocate for oil industry-friendly policies, regardless of what the candidate might have pledged his or her constituents.

If we are to accept this state of affairs as inevitable—abandoning the notion that honest politicians exist and dishonest ones can be cast out—then the appropriate counterbalance is transparency.  Make it known to whom our officials are indebted during the campaign and allow voters to make their judgments accordingly.

As to the matter of billionaire financiers and super PACs and all the poison they have supposedly injected into our system, we can take solace in the fact that, on the basis of last week’s returns, elections cannot simply be bought after all.

As noted by online scribblers, a gentleman named Sheldon Adelson expended more than $50 million from his personal fortune toward six candidacies during the 2012 race, and all six of them lost on or before Election Day.  Linda McMahon, former WWE president, managed to lose races for both Connecticut Senate seats, in 2010 and 2012 respectively, spending a combined $100 million of her own money in the process.

Adelson and McMahon placed bad bets.  Bill Maher, presenting a $1 million check to President Obama last February, placed a good one.  That is how we should view the role of runaway spending in elections.

Democracy run amok is still democracy.  I would have it no other way.

Electoral Math Problems

My presidential campaign epiphany of the week:  It’s over.  The election is over.  Democrats can get their bottles of Korbel in position.  Republicans might as well begin Monday morning quarterbacking now.  The president will be re-elected on the sixth of November.  Not a doubt in my mind.

This moment of clarity occurred with a studied gaze at the electoral map.  To coin a phrase:  It is a simple matter of arithmetic.

You begin with the map as it looked in 2008, when Barack Obama walloped John McCain by a score of 365-173.  Concede that, unlike McCain, Mitt Romney will win Indiana, as practically every poll suggests.  Despite the DNC’s flag-planting in Charlotte, Romney is likely to carry North Carolina as well.

The third surprise of 2008 was Obama’s victory in Virginia.  While the numbers show him likely to win the Old Dominion a second time, for the purposes of this exercise we’ll move it into Romney’s column anyway.  Finally—just for yuks—we will do the same with Ohio and Florida, the two biggest prizes of all, which, at the moment, are leaning very definitely in favor of the incumbent.

The result of this electoral tweakage, in which we give Romney every plausible benefit of the doubt?  Obama still wins, albeit by a razor-thin margin of 272-266.  So there you have it.

The presidency, as everyone knows, is not determined by which candidate receives the most votes, but rather by which candidate receives the most votes in a combination of states whose cumulative number of senators and representatives exceeds that of the states won by the other candidate.  As God intended.

I speak, of course, of the Electoral College.  There is a time in every cycle to reexamine its usefulness in our democratic system, and as Robert Plant so pungently crooned, “Now’s the time; the time is now.”

My favorite piece of revisionist history from 2004 concerns the state of Ohio, which George W. Bush carried by 119,000 votes, a margin of 2.1 percent.  Had those votes swung to John Kerry, Kerry would have won the state, the Electoral College and thus the election, while trailing Bush in the national tally by nearly three million votes—six times the margin by which Al Gore led Bush in 2000.

What does this mean?  Constitutionally speaking, not a damn thing.  No president has ever been elected by national popular vote, and our system used to be far less democratic than it is now.  (For instance, U.S. senators were not elected by popular vote until ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913.)

Yet somehow it just feels wrong that, as in the above hypothetical, a man could become president with three million fewer votes than his opponent.  In fact, it is theoretically possible for a candidate to win 72 percent of the national popular vote and still lose the election in the Electoral College.  (This would entail winning 100 percent of the vote in small states and a hair under 50 percent in big states.)

You could argue from dawn to dusk that such a ridiculous outcome will never actually come to pass—and you would be correct—but that is pure evasion.  It could happen, and there would be nothing we could do about it.  Those are the terms from which we must begin this debate.

The debate itself, once it does commence, can spin off into a thousand possible directions.  Some considerations are more a matter of opinion than objective fact, as one weighs the relative importance of competing American values, chief among these being the perennial argument over federalism.  It began amidst the drafting of the Constitution itself and it has never quite abated.

Make no mistake.  More than anything, the Electoral College has endured because the country began with it.  There may be no more powerful force in American government than that of precedent.  An entire wing of judicial theory, known as stare decisis, is based upon it.  The essence of conservatism (at least on a good day) is to err on the side of long-established tradition and to alter or abolish such traditions with the utmost care and skepticism.

You don’t need me to point out that the “we’ve always done it this way” argument has occasionally led the U.S. astray.  Pick your favorite example; there are many from which to choose.

As far as the Electoral College is concerned, the smart money would say that if the 2000 election failed to generate a robust movement to abolish it, we just might need to accept that we’re stuck with it for as long as most of us will live.

For those made unhappy by this state of affairs, I hope some solace can be found in how very entertaining the prognosticating profession has been made by the system’s existence.  You wouldn’t want Nate Silver out of a job, now, would you?