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
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.