Presidential Elections are Not National Psychodramas

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Me, when someone talks about which presidential candidate they’d rather have a beer with. Edvard Munch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

People say they “just don’t trust Hillary.” Are you hearing people say this? I’m hearing this – I’m hearing this a lot, actually. It’s disturbing because while there are reasons not to trust Hillary Clinton, there aren’t very many good reasons. Most of the “reasons” are nebulous, confused, based on erroneous information, or outright made up.

I’m going to deal with the “Hillary” issue in two parts. First, in today’s post, we’ll look at why the particular person running for president does not matter nearly as much as the party he or she represents. Of course, there are differences between candidates running for the same party’s nomination, but once in office, these differences don’t amount to much. In a subsequent post, we’ll try to explain why the reasons for disliking Clinton are mostly unfair, unfounded or worse (I’m looking at you, Bob Woodward.) Now, I’m not trying to convince anyone they have to love Hillary Clinton. While I think it’s extremely important that the country elects another Democrat to the White House this year, and while it would be great to elect our first woman president…

I don’t love Hillary Clinton as a candidate. I don’t love the idea of reading a list of US presidents a few decades from now and seeing Bush (41) 1989-1993, Clinton (42) 1993-2001, Bush (43) 2002-2009, Obama (44) 2009-2017, and Clinton (45) 2017-?; something seems a little off when a democracy elects presidents from the same two families for six out of eight terms.

Also, there are aspects of Clinton’s judgment I don’t love; for example, she surrounded herself with centrist buffoons such as Mark Penn back in 2008. I supported Barack Obama in 2008 mostly because I thought Clinton showed poor acumen in foreign policy. However, she certainly wasn’t the only Democrat guilty of that in the early 2000s. Many prominent Democrats covered themselves in shame, in terms of foreign policy, during those difficult post-9/11 years. Clinton has redeemed herself a bit after doing a good job as Secretary of State.

This election, I’m somewhat indifferent between Clinton and Bernie Sanders but I lean towards Clinton because I think she has a better chance than Sanders does to win the general election. Sanders has the more compelling case about the American economic system, and he’s offering a strong critique of the way our election processes have been corrupted by plutocratic interests. Clinton offers a more pragmatic style while agreeing on many policies with Sanders; as of now, Clinton seems to be the candidate who is best suited for dealing with the American political system as it currently exists. My heart says Sanders is right about the need for a political revolution; my head says that the median voter in a general election will reject that notion and vote for the Republican candidate.

The identities of the individual Democratic candidates in the 2016 presidential election do not matter much. Unless Sanders’s revolution actually happens at the ballot box and he’s swept to power along with a filibuster-proof Democratic majority in the Senate and a Democratic majority in the House, Republicans will be in charge of at least one house of Congress. Look at Republicans today. Do we seriously think that if they maintain control of the House, which seems almost certain at this point, that they’re going to help Sanders pass single payer legislation? Health care is one of the only issues that Sanders and Clinton have major disagreements on, but Sanders’s proposals are dead on arrival if he’s elected president and Republicans keep control of the House. Same goes for every big thing Sanders wants to accomplish. Same goes for every big thing Clinton wants to accomplish.

The 2016 election is about the differences between the parties, which are huge and wide-ranging. The Democratic Party needs to hold the presidency in order to preserve all of President Obama’s accomplishments. Admittedly, saying “vote for our party so that the other party doesn’t reverse everything we did over the last eight years” isn’t sexy or exciting politics. But it’s important. Presidential elections are zero-sum: either your preferred party controls the executive branch or it doesn’t.

If a Republican is elected president, he will almost certainly have a Republican House and will probably have a Republican Senate for at least the first two years of his administration. Do voters understand the Republican Party’s agenda and what Republicans are likely to do if they have unified control of the government? First, Republicans are committed to repealing Obama’s big legislative accomplishments with no intention of replacing them with something else beneficial to the American people. That means that a Republican government would throw millions of people off of their healthcare plans with no avenues for securing new ones at an affordable price. A Republican government would also repeal Dodd-Frank, the financial reform bill that has made some incremental changes for the better in the finance industry.

Second, Republicans would reverse Obama’s executive actions on immigration and climate change, both of which are credited with having massive benefits for the country. Third, Republicans have their own reactionary agenda they would like to implement once they succeed in reversing the progress made during the Obama presidency. Who knows where a Republican unified government would start, but all of the following would be on the table: tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the rich and explode the deficit, raised eligibility ages and reduced benefits for Social Security and Medicare, criminalizing more and more abortion services with the main goal of overturning the Roe decision, destroying the organizing and collective bargaining power of unions, deporting millions of otherwise law-abiding people who are living in the US without proper documentation, among other things.

A Republican president would almost certainly put the US on a more belligerent footing with other countries, especially Iran, Russia, and maybe China. Do you trust the party of George W. Bush to not launch any more stupid wars? And make no mistake, the Republican Party is still very much the party of Bush. He’s not allowed to campaign for Republicans because so many Americans remember how bad his presidency was, but if you can find one policy matter where the 2016 Republican Party isn’t in agreement with or to the right of the last Bush administration, I’ll give you a free year-long subscription to this blog. Bush wasn’t a bad president because of armchair psychoanalyst reasons like he’s an incurious rich kid born into privilege; Bush was a bad president because his party is backwards and insane. It wasn’t some unfortunate coincidence that Bush was a Republican and a bad president. He was a bad president because he was a Republican.

Lastly, and often overlooked, is that the president is the one who staffs the federal government. The next president will very likely have to fill at least one Supreme Court vacancy, not to mention many other spots throughout the federal judiciary. Also, the president sets the course for the country in different areas in concrete ways through his or her cabinet appointments. These decisions, especially on the Supreme Court, will have decades-long ramifications. Right now, conservatives enjoy a 5-4 advantage and have used it to impede Democratic policies. If that were 5-4 in favor of liberal justices, Obama’s achievements would be even stronger.

Even if a President Sanders or a President Clinton doesn’t pass a single piece of significant legislation between 2017 and 2021, the mere fact that he or she is president will ensure that Obama’s policies stay in place and that the Republican Party’s agenda stays on the shelf where it belongs. It is nice to elect someone you feel a connection with, but honestly, that doesn’t matter. The last time the country went for personality over policy, we ended up with George W. Bush. A Republican.

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8 thoughts on “Presidential Elections are Not National Psychodramas

    • Sometimes the fundamentals of a race mean that one party is likely to win big. For example, the collapse of the Bush presidency, capped off by a global recession, meant that just about any Democrat would have won in 2008. Now we remember that Obama was a charismatic, inspirational candidate; but we forget that he was also a black guy named Barack HUSSEIN Obama. If there hadn’t been a bad economy with two wars raging, I’m not sure Obama wins that race against McCain, a well-liked war hero.

      To your point, I’d agree that enough people’s votes are influenced by personality that it affects close races. 2016 is a year where the fundamentals send mixed signals: decent economy, good for Democrats; 8 years of a Democratic presidency, feels like time for a change, good for Republicans. We can go back and forth like this with fundamentals. Maybe a generic Democrat has a slight advantage over a generic Republican going into this election, but I think it’s going to be close. When we get to the general election matchup this summer and it’s a close race, I fear you may be right. I see 2000 all over again.

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      • Yes, I only meant it to apply to general elections, and I was oversimplifying. People vote for a variety of reasons. I only noticed that in each case since the ascendancy of TV culture, the better “casting choice” won. Take Bush v Gore. A confident performance comes out ahead of competence in credential. And McCain was well-liked, but still came across on camera as a grump compared to Obama’s ease and grace. A similar dynamic sank Bob Dole’s candidacy against Jimmy Carter. The closest refutation I can think of was Nixon v McGovern, but even then the “New Nixon” had a strong TV mojo, while McGovern’s lectures in that whiny voice of his failed to convince.

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