Why is it close?

Our view: Even a con­test be­tween the em­i­nently qual­i­fied Hil­lary Clin­ton and the bom­bas­tic Don­ald Trump can’t break the par­ti­san grid­lock

Baltimore Sun - - BUSINESS -

This pres­i­den­tial elec­tion pit­ted an em­i­nently qual­i­fied can­di­date with decades of ded­i­ca­tion to im­prov­ing the lives of Amer­i­cans and pro­tect­ing our na­tional in­ter­ests around the globe against a bom­bas­tic, misog­y­nist real es­tate de­vel­oper cum real­ity TV star. In Demo­crat Hil­lary Clin­ton, we had a for­mer se­na­tor who demon­strated an abil­ity to get things done in a di­vided gov­ern­ment and a for­mer sec­re­tary of state who showed a steady re­solve in con­fronting crises abroad. In Repub­li­can Don­ald Trump, we had the first ma­jor party nom­i­nee in Amer­i­can his­tory with no ex­pe­ri­ence in ap­pointed or elec­tive of­fice or the mil­i­tary.

We have, on the one hand, a can­di­date who is poised to make his­tory as the first woman elected pres­i­dent, an enor­mous step for­ward in bring­ing the real­ity of Amer­ica in line with its prom­ise of equal op­por­tu­nity for all. On the other, we have a can­di­date who ex­plic­itly called for the ex­clu­sion of peo­ple from this coun­try based on their re­li­gion.

Still, as of this writ­ing, the elec­tion re­mains too close to call.

An un­prece­dented cam­paign

Mr. Trump vi­o­lated virtually all norms of Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal dis­course. He was at turns brazenly racist, sex­ist and xeno­pho­bic. He in­sulted the fam­ily of a sol­dier killed at war, ac­cused a fed­eral judge of bias be­cause of his race, en­cour­aged vi­o­lence at his ral­lies, mocked the dis­abled, traf­ficked in white su­prem­a­cist im­agery, in­sulted women based on their ap­pear­ance, bragged about com­mit­ting sex­ual as­sault, threat­ened to jail his op­po­nent and sowed doubt about the very le­git­i­macy of the elec­toral sys­tem. Yet we saw noth­ing like vot­ers’ re­jec­tion of Ge­orge McGovern in 1972 or Barry Gold­wa­ter in 1964. A best-case sce­nario for Ms. Clin­ton leaves her far short of the land­slide ma­jori­ties Ron­ald Rea­gan and Ge­orge H.W. Bush amassed in 1980, 1984 and 1988. Even if he loses, Mr. Trump will have come within a few per­cent­age points of the Oval Of­fice.

Some might ex­plain that by point­ing to Ms. Clin­ton’s sup­posed weak­nesses as a can­di­date. True, she is not the or­a­tor that Pres­i­dent Barack Obama is, nor the cam­paign trail schmoozer that her hus­band was, but her dis­ci­pline, fo­cus and de­ter­mi­na­tion have shone through dur­ing this elec­tion, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing the de­bates when she man­aged to de­flate Mr. Trump in a way some 17 Repub­li­can can­di­dates couldn’t man­age in the pri­maries. Yes, she has ac­cu­mu­lated bag­gage dur­ing her decades of pub­lic ser­vice — some the le­git­i­mate prod­uct of mis­takes, some the fevered fab­ri­ca­tions of her en­e­mies — but her short­com­ings are sim­ply not on the same plane as those of her wom­an­iz­ing, tax-dodg­ing, bankrupt­cy­declar­ing, con­trac­tor-stiff­ing op­po­nent.

Pop­ulist frus­tra­tion or par­ti­san­ship?

Oth­ers will ar­gue that Mr. Trump tapped into a pop­ulist frus­tra­tion among those who have fallen be­hind in a chang­ing Amer­ica but who have been ig­nored by elites in pol­i­tics and the media. He has done much to frame his can­di­dacy in that light, posit­ing him­self as the leader of a silent and for­got­ten ma­jor­ity. His sup­port­ers are dis­pro­por­tion­ately white and male, even for a Repub­li­can can­di­date, and in con­trast to pre­vi­ous GOP nom­i­nees, he fares poorly among those who have col­lege de­grees. The es­sen­tial premise of his cam­paign was that he would re­turn Amer­ica to an era when white, blue-col­lar work­ers pros­pered with­out com­pe­ti­tion from mi­nori­ties, im­mi­grants or for­eign­ers. Trad­ing on nos­tal­gia and racial re­sent­ment is a strat­egy with se­vere lim­its, given the rapidly chang­ing de­mo­graph­ics of the na­tion and the re­al­i­ties of an in­creas­ingly in­ter­con­nected global econ­omy, but it clearly won Mr. Trump a pas­sion­ate fol­low­ing sim­i­lar to that which pro­pelled the tea party phe­nom­e­non six years ago.

But that kind of coali­tion isn’t enough to bring Mr. Trump as close as he is to the pres­i­dency. The un­der­ly­ing real­ity of this elec­tion is that, for all its quirks, it is fun­da­men­tally sim­i­lar to the highly po­lar­ized pres­i­den­tial elec­tions we’ve seen con­sis­tently since 2000. How­ever much was made about Repub­li­cans who re­jected Mr. Trump — from the el­der Pres­i­dent Bush to Mary­land’s own Gov. Larry Ho­gan — they were a clear anom­aly. In the end, he ap­pears to have got­ten the sup­port of Repub­li­cans and Repub­li­can-lean­ing in­de­pen­dents at about the same rate as more con­ven­tional nom­i­nees like Mitt Rom­ney. Whether it’s be­cause of the splin­ter­ing of the media that al­lows par­ti­sans to live in their own in­for­ma­tion bub­bles, the pro­fu­sion of money in pol­i­tics that tilts the sys­tem or just the real­ity of our age, few vot­ers are le­git­i­mately per­suad­able, no mat­ter the can­di­date. The po­lar­iza­tion is so pro­found and so deeply in­grained in our un­der­stand­ing of the elec­tion that the North Carolina Repub­li­can Party could is­sue a press re­lease re­joic­ing in a drop in turnout among African-Amer­i­cans dur­ing early vot­ing. We make no pre­tenses.

The fights ahead

The mo­ment feels markedly dif­fer­ent from the one eight years ago when Pres­i­dent Obama stood on a stage in Chicago and promised a new day when old grudges and re­sent­ments would be left be­hind. The en­tire ba­sis of Mr. Trump’s cam­paign is grudges and re­sent­ments — against for­eign­ers, mi­nori­ties, even the lead­er­ship of his own party. For­get work­ing with Se­nate Democrats, it’s un­clear whether a Pres­i­dent Trump would get the co­op­er­a­tion of the Repub­li­can cau­cus in the House — or whether he would even seek it. With Ms. Clin­ton, the grudges and re­sent­ments come pre-loaded. Repub­li­cans have al­ready threat­ened to block any nom­i­nee she makes to the Supreme Court. Oth­ers prom­ise con­stant con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tions and im­peach­ment — for what? Who knows, but they’ll dig up some ex­cuse.

Which­ever can­di­date is in­au­gu­rated, he or she will face tremen­dous chal­lenges — a hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis and ter­ror­ist threat in the Mid­dle East, a shaky Eu­rope and as­cen­dant China and Rus­sia; cli­mate change that is spawn­ing ex­treme weather and ris­ing sea lev­els; an econ­omy that is adding jobs but fail­ing to pro­vide good wages for mid­dle-class Amer­i­cans; an ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem that is leav­ing many un­pre­pared to com­pete and oth­ers sad­dled with mas­sive debts; health care re­form in need of re­pairs if it is to live up to the “af­ford­able” part of the name “Af­ford­able Care Act”; long-term threats to the sol­vency of Social Se­cu­rity and Medi­care; crum­bling in­fra­struc­ture; a bro­ken im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem; and a deep dis­trust be­tween mi­nori­ties and the po­lice. Mr. Trump has said lit­tle about how he would ad­dress any of those prob­lems, other than to be tough, bring law and or­der and make Amer­ica great again. That Ms. Clin­ton has de­tailed and well-thoughtout plans to ad­dress those is­sues and more is not in ques­tion. Whether Congress will al­low her to en­act any of them is.

Even this, we will en­dure

Amer­i­cans have just en­dured one of the nas­ti­est pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns in mem­ory, full of ugly rhetoric and oc­ca­sion­ally ac­tual vi­o­lence and van­dal­ism. Who­ever wins, the vic­tory will be nar­row by his­tor­i­cal stan­dards, and con­tin­ued grid­lock is al­most cer­tain to lie ahead. Par­ti­sans on each side are ter­ri­fied at what will be­fall Amer­ica if the op­pos­ing can­di­date wins — jus­ti­fi­ably, in our view, in the case of a Trump vic­tory, given his ev­i­dent dis­dain for bedrock in­sti­tu­tions from the free press to the in­de­pen­dent ju­di­ciary. At this point, all we can do is put our faith in a Con­sti­tu­tion that has sur­vived se­ri­ous chal­lenges before and in the Amer­i­can peo­ple’s ten­dency to, even­tu­ally, put progress over par­ti­san­ship.


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