Why the Election Isn’t Quite Locked

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a fundraiser at the Civic Center Auditorium in San Francisco, Thursday, October 13, 2016. 

An earlier version of this article appeared at The Huffington Post.

Three weeks to go. Does Donald Trump’s escalating weirdness give Hillary Clinton a lock on the race? Not quite yet.

Large numbers of voters still don’t like either candidate. The polls do show a small, steady movement to Clinton. But depending on which poll you believe, the campaign seems to be about a six or seven point race. And in some key states like Ohio and New Hampshire, it’s a lot closer.

Nate Silver, noticing that the race has actually tightened a bit in New Hampshire since the disclosures of the Trump tapes, pointed out that New Hampshire has lots of swing voters, who haven’t made their minds up yet.

The New York Times found the same thing interviewing voters in a Columbus, Ohio, diner. Kathy Pappas, who owns the diner with her husband, told reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “I don’t know if I’m going to [vote] this year. I just don’t care for either one, and I don’t trust either one.”

The latest leaks of Clinton’s speeches to Wall Street audiences reinforce the impression that she’s an opportunist. There is no smoking gun, but clearly Clinton tacks left on the issue of bank regulation when that’s politically expedient, and tacks to Wall Street in private conversation.

That doesn’t make her all that different from too many Democrats, alas, but it draws an unflattering spotlight back onto her—when Trump’s outbursts, which become more bizarre by the day, would otherwise be getting all the attention.

As a number of commentators have pointed out, almost any candidate other than Hillary Clinton, especially a women candidate, would be getting a lot more mileage out of Trump’s appalling abuses of women. But because of her own complex history as the loyal wife of a womanizer, Clinton can only sit silently and hope that Trump does himself in.

It fell to Michelle Obama to call out, in graphic personal terms, the sheer creepiness of Trump’s sexual words and assaults.

Republican leaders who are clearly disgusted by Trump can’t bring themselves to put country over party. One principled speech by a high profile Republican would have powerful effect.

One thinks of Joseph N. Welch, the lawyer who triggered the downfall of Senator Joe McCarthy.

For those too young to remember it, or who missed the story in their history books, it happened on June 9, 1954, the 30th day of the so-called Army-McCarthy hearings, which were being televised live. McCarthy was investigating the Army in his witch-hunt for communists.

Welch, the Army’s outside counsel, challenged McCarthy to put up or shut up—to provide his supposed list of 130 subversives working in defense plants. McCarthy countered that if Welch was really concerned about communists he should look at his own law firm, Hale & Dorr, where a junior associate, Fred Fisher, had once belonged to the left-wing National Lawyers Guild.

This was Welch’s reply:

Until this moment, Senator, I think I have never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Fred Fisher is a young man who went to the Harvard Law School and came into my firm and is starting what looks to be a brilliant career with us. Little did I dream you could be so reckless and so cruel as to do an injury to that lad. It is true he is still with Hale and Dorr. It is true that he will continue to be with Hale and Dorr. It is, I regret to say, equally true that I fear he shall always bear a scar needlessly inflicted by you.

If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty I would do so. I like to think I am a gentleman, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me. … Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?

From that moment, Republicans who had been afraid to take on McCarthy began to discover that they had some spine. Are there any Republicans who might have a Joseph Welch moment?  

Paul Ryan keeps dithering, and he’s no Joseph Welch. How about George W. Bush? Maybe Maine Senator Susan Collins? Or Ohio Governor John Kasich? Or Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker? None of these have exactly been profiles in courage.

Trump is now in uncharted territory, claiming that the election is already “rigged.”

That’s preposterous, given that elections are administered locally, and most state administrations are in Republican hands. But Trump is now pursuing a kind of vigilantism, signaling his supporters to stalk the polls like lynch mobs and intimidate voters in the guise of preventing fraud.

This is actually an old Republican tactic. Future Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist first came to public attention as a young Republican lawyer trying that caper in Arizona, challenging black and Hispanic voters during the Goldwater campaign, and Republican congressional staffers used fake mass demonstrations in the “Brooks Brothers riot” to block the Florida recount in the Bush-Gore standoff of 2000.

But Trump takes the tactic to a new low, egging on his supporters to challenge the legitimacy of the election itself. Assuming that Hillary Clinton does win, Trump’s burn-down-the-house tactics are unlikely to stop on Election Day. She is not officially president-elect until the electors officially meet and cast ballots in mid-December and the results are certified by the president of the Senate after Christmas.

And it remains to be seen whether Trump, in defeat, will supercharge the Republican tactic through the Obama presidency of obstructing everything—or whether the schism in the Republican Party will bring closeted Republican moderates into a more prominent role.

As Trump becomes a menace to democracy itself, decent Republicans are temporizing, for fear that a Clinton victory might result in policies they dislike. What are these policies? Let’s see: slightly tighter restrictions on assault weapons, women continuing to make their own reproductive choices, moderately higher taxes on rich people, the Affordable Care Act continuing to live.

The American right has coexisted very nicely with such policies. Really, are these issues worth the destruction of our democracy?

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