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Abolish the Electoral College

Proposals to alter or abolish the Electoral College have been around almost as long as the Electoral College has been around. Opponents of such proposals respond along these lines: The Founders in their genius devised the Electoral College as a perfect compromise between the power of the most populous states and the rights of the least populous states.

There are two fundamental problems with that statement. First, the Founders designed the Electoral College to protect slave-holding states, not small states. And second, the Electoral College proved to be the very opposite of ingenious – it has produced unintended results almost from the beginning.

During the constitutional convention, slave-holding states wanted slaves to be counted in determining states’ populations, but of course didn’t want slaves to be allowed to vote. In other words, slaves would count toward a state’s voting power, but not toward a state’s voting outcome. Free states unsurprisingly felt that a person should count toward both or toward neither. The result was the grotesque three-fifths compromise, by which each slave counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of determining a state’s representation in Congress, and therefore for determining the size of a state’s delegation to the Electoral College.

The constitution originally provided for an Electoral College in which electors would cast two votes for president. Whoever got the most votes became president, and whoever got the second-most votes became vice president. That worked fine for exactly two elections: George Washington was elected president and John Adams was elected vice -president.

But things started to fall apart in the election of 1796. Adams ran to succeed Washington, with Thomas Pinckney as his running mate. Their opponents were Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. Alexander Hamilton preferred Adams to Jefferson, but he also preferred Pinckney to Adams – so he tried to persuade Jefferson’s electors to cast their second vote for Pinckney instead of Burr. A number of Adams electors tried to ensure that Pinckney didn’t outpoll Adams by casting their second votes for other candidates. The pro-Adams electors overshot their goal, and Pinckney ended up with fewer votes than Jefferson. The result, probably intended by nobody, was that Adams’s vice president was not his ally, Pinckney, but his bitter opponent, Jefferson.

The next election was even worse. Adams ran for re-election, this time with a different Pinckney as his running mate – Thomas’s brother Charles. Jefferson ran again with Burr. The electors learned the lessons of 1796 only too well. Jefferson beat Adams, and none of Jefferson’s electors defected from Burr. The result was a tie between Jefferson and Burr, throwing the election to Congress, where Burr immediately began to scheme against his own running mate, with support from Adams’s disappointed partisans. Burr almost pulled it off; Jefferson wasn’t able to claim victory until the 36th ballot in the House of Representatives.

Without the three-fifths compromise, Adams would have been re-elected, because the electoral power of the southern states that voted for Jefferson would have been reduced. So while the Electoral College had served the Founders’ intention – that is, it had enhanced the electoral power of the slave-holding states – it had failed to provide for a smooth electoral transition between presidencies.

Jefferson’s partisans didn’t mind so much in 1796 that the Electoral College produced Jefferson’s accidental vice presidency, but they were rather more perturbed in 1800 that the Electoral College almost produced an accidental Burr presidency. They got right on it, and the constitution was amended in time for the 1804 election. The Twelfth Amendment provides for electors to cast one presidential and one vice presidential vote.

We later fought a Civil War and adopted three constitutional amendments that ended the three-fifths compromise, ensuring that every person counted as a whole person, and that no person was deprived of the right to vote on account of race or previous condition of servitude.

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Far from demonstrating our Founders’ genius, the Electoral College has probably been their most glaring failure. First in the count of failings must always be that the Electoral College was premised on slavery. Any electoral system premised on slavery, and its attendant deprivation of voting rights, falls well short of my definition of genius. The Founders only aggravated their crime by allowing slave-holding states to get three-fifths representational credit for their non-voting slaves.

But that was not the Founders’ only failure in their design for the Electoral College. The Founders did not anticipate partisan presidential-vice presidential tickets. Partisan tickets meant that if electors cast both of their ballots for both of their parties’ candidates, their two candidates would always be tied, and the Electoral College would not serve its function of selecting our president and vice president. Instead, the Electoral College would serve only as a nominating committee, with the House of Representatives doing the actual selection.

Similarly, the Founders did not anticipate the practice of binding electors to vote for specified candidates. The Founders imagined that electors would be selected for their wisdom, not for their partisanship, and would exercise their own judgment in selecting our president and vice president.

The Founders did not anticipate selection of electors by popular vote. The purpose of the Electoral College was to attenuate the influence of voters in selecting the president and vice president, leaving these important decisions to the experts. The constitution allows each state legislature to determine the method of selecting electors, and originally only Pennsylvania and Maryland provided for popular election of all of those states’ electors. State legislatures themselves selected electors in many states, playing a predominant role through the 1820 election. Not until after the Civil War were all electors chosen by popular election.

Finally, the Founders did not anticipate selection of electors by winner-take-all state-wide votes. The Founders expected that electors would be selected by districts – either pre-existing Congressional districts, or other districts like counties or specially drawn Electoral College districts. But early partisans discovered that they could amplify their states’ electoral power by providing for winner-take-all elections, and other states had little choice but to respond in kind. By 1836, all states but South Carolina selected their electors by winner-take-all state-wide vote. (South Carolina held out until 1872.)

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When people argue today that the Electoral College protects small states, they are implicitly but incorrectly asserting that small states tend to vote one way (Republican) and large states tend to vote another way (Democratic). That’s factually wrong.

Those who make this argument usually mention California and New York, the most populous blue states, but they typically leave out Texas and Florida, the most populous red states. They mention Idaho and Montana, but they leave out Delaware and Rhode Island. The argument is based on the fact that the 21st century American political divide is primarily urban-rural, and on the assumption that the urban states are the most populous and the rural states are the least populous.

In fact, the ten most populous states include only three blue states. Three others are red, and the remaining four are purple. In 2016, Donald Trump won all seven red and purple states among the ten most populous states. And the ten least populous states divided 5 – 5 between Trump and Hillary Clinton.

It’s simply not the case that big states vote Democratic and little states vote Republican. In his “Upshot” column in today’s New York Times, Nate Cohen calculated that the “small state bias” of the Electoral College probably cost Hillary Clinton just four electoral votes. Since 1876, the only election even arguably thrown by the “small state bias” of the Electoral College was George Bush’s win in 2000 – and even in that case, the undercount of Florida votes probably had a greater impact on the outcome.

Or, as Cohen puts it, if the purpose of the Electoral College is to protect the smaller states, it’s “not doing a great job.”

Opponents of Electoral College abolition argue that presidential candidates visit small states only because of the winner-take-all Electoral College system. But that’s a dubious proposition, because presidential candidates spend their time on contested states, and most small states, like most other states, are solidly red or solidly blue. There’s no reasonable argument to be made that Democratic presidential candidates would spend less time in, say, South Dakota, if the Electoral College were abolished. And Republicans wouldn’t spend less time in Rhode Island without the Electoral College.

But there is a very serious argument to be made that candidates would spend more time in states that are unfavorable to them if they didn’t have to deal with the Electoral College. Texas is home to three of the country’s largest cities; all three lean Democratic. But Democrats don’t fare well in Texas at large, and therefore Democratic presidential candidates don’t spend a lot of time in that state. Conversely, the large rural populations of California and New York are essentially ignored by Republican candidates. Those states as a whole are firmly Democratic, so decreasing your loss margin in those states bears no electoral fruit. Republican voters in blue states and Democratic voters in red states are all but disenfranchised – their votes don’t matter to the presidential outcome, and therefore presidential candidates spend little effort to win their votes.

Our Founders conceived of the Electoral College to distance presidential selection from the popular will, and they designed the Electoral College to enhance the electoral power of slave-holding states. Neither of those purposes should command our loyalty today. Modern democracy is organized around the principle of one person, one vote.

Nearly every assumption the Founders made about how the Electoral College would actually work was wrong. The Electoral College is not working as intended, and the argument that it must be retained because it reflects our Founders’ genius is nonsense.



Mental Health Care in America

A couple of weeks ago, Brooklyn City Council Member Jumaane Williams won a special election to become New York City’s public advocate. His victory margin against 16 other candidates was so decisive that Williams was able to give his victory speech less than two hours after the polls closed.

Williams read the speech, which was as unnotable as most election night victory speeches, thanking supporters and promising a new day for the office he had just won. He finished to the cheers of his supporters, but he didn’t leave the podium. After a pause, he resumed speaking, without a script.

“I’ve been in therapy for the last three years,” he said. “I want to say that publicly. I want to say that to black men who are listening. I know there’s a young black boy somewhere, trying to find his space in the world. Nobody knows he cries himself to sleep sometimes. Nobody knows how much he misses his father. Nobody knows what he’s going through. And the world tells you you have to hide it and you can’t talk about it. But I got something to day to that young man. My name is Jumaane Williams and I’m the public advocate of New York City.”

Williams later told The New Yorker that he had wanted to say more, to “try to give some more words of hope,” but that he was “going to break down pretty rapidly, so I just wanted to get it out.” Williams said he wants to “break down that stigma” surrounding mental health and therapy. “People will talk about visiting the doctor or visiting the dentist, but they can’t talk about therapy, they can’t talk about mental health.”

Williams also told The New Yorker that the “young black boy” he described in his speech was himself.

I hope that Williams finds more opportunities to talk about mental health and the benefits of mental health care. Williams was diagnosed as a child with Tourette’s syndrome, and he experiences visible facial tics and body spasms. He was also diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Williams didn’t specify, but presumably the therapy he mentioned is psychotherapy, and the mental health purpose of the therapy is presumably related to the adulthood effects of the childhood he alluded to.

My mother was a psychologist, and she talked about mental health issues as I guess a physician talks about physical health issues – matter of factly and largely without judgment. Early on, I began to think of physical health and mental health in parallel terms. I remember commenting to a college classmate (who, ironically, grew up to be a psychiatrist) that we go to doctors for annual physical exams, but there’s no such thing as an annual mental exam.

We go to our annual physicals not because we’re feeling sick – not for relief of symptoms – but to be checked out. Doctors do diagnostic and early detection tests. Even when we’re free from illness and injury, a good doctor offers observations and suggestions about improving our health and reducing our future health risks.

We treat mental health completely differently. First, if we go to mental health professionals at all, we only go for relief of symptoms; there is no mental health parallel to the annual physical – would it be called a “mental”? Yet surely all of us could benefit from occasional consultation with mental health professionals. All of us engage in counterproductive and even self-destructive behaviors from time to time, and all of us could improve how we handle conflict and stress.

Second, even in our woke and worldly 21st century, even with all of our legal protections for people with disabilities, including mental disabilities, we still attach powerful stigma to mental illness. In talking about mental illness, we often do the equivalent of confusing a chest cold with lung cancer: a need for therapy would imply that we’re “crazy.” We assume that no one without mental illness would consult a mental health professional, so if we stigmatize mental illness, it follows that we stigmatize psychotherapy. Stigmatizing mental health treatment is perhaps the surest guarantee that those who might benefit from it won’t get it.

Americans are an especially violent people. I don’t care to argue the point at length – one statistic will suffice: the American homicide rate is the highest in the developed world – three times that of Canada, four times that of France, Britain and Germany, six times that of Australia, 19 times that of Japan. A 2014 United Nations study found the American homicide rate to be six times that of the rest of the developed world.

Ready availability of guns certainly contributes to our homicide rate – we have twice the gun ownership per civilian than the second-place jurisdiction, the Falkland Islands. But gun ownership is hardly the full explanation, for two reasons: first, because non-firearm homicides typically account for one-quarter to one-third of American homicides, and second, because other high-firearm countries such as Austria, Canada, Finland, Norway and Switzerland have much lower homicide rates than ours. Gun ownership is not a full measure of a people’s homicidal aggression.

I grant that it takes an unconventionally flexible definition of mental illness to say that mental illness accounts for all homicides, much less all criminal acts of physical aggression. But I’m willing to start from the proposition that homicide is fundamentally both anti-social and self-destructive. If we think of mental health treatment as a means to reduce violently anti-social and self-destructive behaviors, then homicide is a mental health issue.

Support for this proposition – or more accurately, lip service – comes from an unexpected source. Pro-gun politicians and advocates typically respond to high-profile homicides by insisting that the problem isn’t guns, it’s our mental health system. But the Venn diagram of gun advocates and universal health care opponents shows a remarkable degree of overlap – in other words, too many gun advocates who blame our homicide problem on our mental health system have opposed the development of a health care system capable of meaningfully addressing American mental health.

Imagine if we adopted a national custom of an annual mental exam – paid for by health insurance like annual physical exams, and engaged in voluntarily by Americans without stigma. The exam might consist of a 45-minute interview with a professional skilled in identifying not only fully developed mental disorders but also areas for improvement of mental health. Even healthy people can benefit from skilled coaching in areas like handling stress and avoiding counterproductive behaviors.

Imagine if public awareness of mental health issues grew to match our awareness of physical health issues. Imagine if the mental health industry suddenly had a couple hundred million annual mental health exams from which to draw anecdotal evidence of mental health risk patterns. The mental health literature would explode; newly prolific anecdotal evidence would inform academic papers, conferences and research studies. Whole new specializations would develop.

The mental health profession, which has traditionally focused almost exclusively on treating mental illness, would expand into prevention. Like a good physician, a good mental health professional would reach beyond treating disorders to maximizing health.


Deciding How to Vote in the 2020 Primaries (Part 2)

As important as it is for Democratic presidential primary candidates to discuss and debate their policy differences, it’s at least as important for Democratic primary voters to gauge the importance of those policy differences. Yesterday I argued that our first priority must be to restore our constitutional norms and traditions, including the defense of our electoral integrity against foreign interference, meaning that our first priority must be to defeat Donald Trump. Today I propose a second reason that policy differences among Democratic candidates are less important in 2020 than usual.

We’ve all worried about what the country will look like if President Trump is re-elected. In selecting our 2020 nominee, we need to think about what the country will look like if Trump loses. The country will remain deeply divided; the harsh partisanship that has been rising in this country for decades will not vanish. The resentful white identitarian appeal that Trump so successfully cultivated will still be with us.

The Trump Triumvirate will remain intact: Trump’s Twitter account, Fox News, and the 35 percent or so of Americans who are the fervent hard core of Trump’s popular support. The Triumvirate runs on grievance, and nothing engorges a sense of grievance more than losing – which, our narcissistic president knows, could only happen if he was cheated. The Triumvirate will be even more fired up by a loss than by a win. Even as ex-president, Trump would likely continue to drive the Republican Party, because he will continue to command the loyalty of the Republican base. He might even declare his candidacy for 2024.

Trump excels at making himself the center of attention, and the media has proven willing to play his dupe. He would be, after all, a former president of the United States.

No presidency goes perfectly right, at least not for very long. And some big things are likely to go wrong for the next president. For example, whoever wins in 2020 will likely preside over the next recession – the current economic expansion will be the longest in American history by this summer, and troubling indicators have been accumulating for some time. Even if the proximate cause of the next recession is, say, a Trump-declared tariff war, it’s the president in place who gets the blame.

Another example – ISIS will reorganize and re-emerge from its imminent defeat in Syria, regardless who wins our next presidential election. If Trump remains in office, ISIS’s rejuvenation will somehow be Barack Obama’s fault; if Trump loses, it will be the next president’s fault, and the Trump Triumvirate will make sure everyone hears about it.

The mainstream media, having ridden President Trump justifiably hard for four years, will be under pressure to show “fairness” by aggressively reporting the lapses of Trump’s successor. For instance, those who counted up every false statement made by Trump will count up the false statements made by his successor. If Trump’s successor is not prone to false statements, the media will identify some anyway, because that’s how the mainstream media defines “fairness.”

Republicans in Congress will demand investigations of Trump’s successor’s improprieties comparable to the investigations of Trump’s improprieties. If Trump’s successor is not prone to improprieties, Republicans will identify some anyway, because that’s how partisans define “fairness.”

Upon every stumble, by the next president or by anybody anywhere close to the next president, Trump will tweet about how much better things were when he was in charge. Fox News will do its reality inversion trick, and the 35 percent will buy it. If he can figure out a way he doesn’t have to pay for it, Trump will continue to do campaign-style events around the country, rallying the resentful against his successor.

In short, the next president is not likely to have an easy time of it. When Bill Clinton took office, Republicans immediately went into full attack mode, using his campaign promise to open military service to gay men as a cudgel. When Barack Obama took office, Republicans did the same. The only difference this time is that the attack would be led by Donald Trump.

In that context, Democrats are unlikely to have any real opportunity to enact sweeping legislation. Democrats’ best case for the 2020 Senate elections is a small majority – the 13-seat gain necessary to reach a filibuster-proof majority is unrealistic. Even if Senate Republicans would rather not follow Trump himself, they will still follow Trump’s base, because that base constitutes a large majority of Republican voters. That will put Senate Democrats to the choice of repealing the filibuster rules or figuring out how to negotiate and compromise with Republicans.

Many Democrats will argue for repeal of the filibuster, and the argument will be hard to resist. But repeal of the filibuster will be one more loss for comity and compromise, one more institution felled by the Trumpian onslaught. Many Democrats will say good riddance, but I say there’s plenty of time for that later. The hallmark of the first post-Trump presidency should be a return to democratic norms and traditions, not a shift in the angle of attack on those norms and traditions, from the right wing to the left wing. If Democrats hope to peel off enough Senate Republicans to be able to govern, the only way to do it will be to focus their legislative efforts on smaller, more incremental, but more popular changes.

There are scores of ways to improve American health care at the margins: opening Medicare to people who are working, and not just to those who are retired, and reducing the age of eligibility from 65 to 62; restoring funding and operational support for the Obamacare exchanges; reforming prescription drug pricing and purchasing. There are lots of ways to improve access to education without eliminating college tuition. Democrats have many incremental options to expand employment opportunity without guaranteeing government jobs or minimum incomes.

Modest legislative action does not mean that the next administration must have a modest policy agenda. Much of the damage that President Trump has done has been by executive actions that can be undone by other executive actions. Judicial appointments can be insourced back from the Federalist Society. Budgetary priorities can be reconfigured. Carbon emissions can be decreased by incentives instead of mandates, and federal funding could hugely expand carbon reduction technology research and development. Our international treaties and alliances can be restored to respect, and Trump’s dalliances with dictators can be ended. A more intelligent approach to unfair international trade practices can certainly be devised.

I would love to see comprehensive change in areas like health care, taxes, climate change, gun control, and so on. But the next president won’t have those options. Next year, my primary vote will go to the Democratic candidate with the best chance to win, regardless of the fine points of disagreement I might have with that candidate.

This might sound like defeatism. But ousting Donald Trump will be a victory for our country, our constitutional norms, our international standing, and our democracy itself.


Deciding How to Vote in the 2020 Primaries (Part 1)

Elections are always about policy choices. I’ve voted for the Democratic nominee in every presidential election since I first became eligible to vote in 1975, because in every case I’ve preferred the policies of the Democratic candidate to the policies of the Republican candidate.

All policy decisions made by our presidents are not equally durable. Most policy decisions can be completely or at least partially reversed, and the most decisive means to reverse them has always been to elect a new president. In other words, as long as we maintain an effective electoral democracy, we retain the means to make policy corrections.

But policy differences between Donald Trump and whoever the Democrats nominate will have an importance in 2020 that they haven’t had in any previous election in my voting history, and probably not since 1860, when the Union itself was effectively at stake. Domestically, Trump’s presidency has eroded American constitutional norms and traditions – most importantly, respect for the independence of institutions such as the news media, law enforcement, the judiciary, and the Federal Reserve Board. Internationally, Trump has eroded the institutions and alliances that gave us Pax Americana, diminishing the standing of pluralistic democracy in the world and enhancing the standing of sectarian authoritarianism.

Trump’s erosion of constitutional norms and his deference to authoritarians converge on at least one point, and it’s a very important one: the integrity of our elections, and our ability to resist foreign interference. Trump relies not on the unanimous view of American intelligence agencies that the Russian government intervened in the 2016 election, but on Vladimir Putin’s denial of such intervention. If the Russians didn’t interfere in the 2016 election, there’s no particular reason we should investigate Russian interference in 2016 and try to prevent a repeat performance in 2020.

Electoral integrity is the single most important component of democracy. If the integrity of our elections can’t be assured, then it’s not clear that we still have a democracy. President Trump likes to say that if a country doesn’t control its borders, the country will fail: “We either have a country, or we don’t have a country.” I contend that if a democracy doesn’t control its own elections, the democracy will fail.

Trump’s inability to take the Russian threat seriously probably owes to his vanity, since outside help would diminish the greatness of his electoral victory. But in an important sense, it doesn’t matter why he won’t take the Russian threat seriously. His failure to appreciate the scope of the threat dictates a failure to act decisively and effectively to counter the threat. Failure to counter the threat compromises our electoral integrity, and therefore our democracy.

When our democracy itself is under threat, and one of the candidates is unwilling or unable to counter that threat, a presidential election takes on existential importance. It’s as if after Pearl Harbor, or after 9/11, we had a president who insisted that we hadn’t really been attacked, and therefore had no need to respond.

When a presidential election takes on existential importance, the candidates’ specific policies aren’t the most important consideration. In deciding my vote in the New York primary next year, my first consideration will be to address the threat to our democracy.

My top goal for the 2020 elections is to restore constitutional norms, including defense of our elections from foreign interference. Essential to both is the removal of Donald Trump from the White House. Therefore, in the New York primary, I’ll vote for the candidate I think will be most likely to beat Trump in the general election, as the most effective means at my disposal to help end Donald Trump’s presidency and its concurrent threat to American democracy.

If the Democratic candidate loses, it won’t matter whether the candidate preferred Medicare for All over smaller, more incremental improvements to our health care system. It won’t matter whether the candidate preferred a marginal income tax rate of 70 percent, a wealth tax, increased taxation of dividends and capital gains, or an increased estate tax. It won’t matter whether the candidate endorsed the Green New Deal or a less comprehensive approach to climate change. None of the policy preferences of the Democratic candidates, and none of the differences among the Democratic candidates, will matter in 2021 if the Democrat loses in 2020.

And worse, if we don’t elect a president who recognizes the seriousness of the foreign threat to our elections in the internet age, future elections themselves may not matter. We either have a country or we don’t.


Running, but for What?

Before Donald Trump, no United States president came to office without government experience. Democrats in 2020 could take Trump’s neophyte presidency as proof that extensive government experience is no longer a presidential prerequisite. Or, Democrats might maximize the contrast with Trump by selecting a candidate with well-proved governing skills and judgment.

In that light, let’s take a look at the Democratic candidates – not qualitatively, but solely based on their current or most recent government positions. Of the nine candidates so far (counting Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, who is announcing her candidacy tomorrow), five are sitting senators, two are sitting representatives, one is a private citizen who served most recently as a cabinet secretary, and one is a sitting mayor.

Senators often proliferate among presidential primary candidates. After the president and vice president, senators are the elected officials who deal most broadly with national and international issues – as opposed to representatives, governors and mayors, who are focused primarily on more local issues. And senators tend to have better name recognition than representatives, better even than most governors, at least outside their own states.

But the Senate has not produced many winning presidential candidates. Just three sitting senators have been elected president: Warren Harding, John Kennedy, and Barack Obama. And in only two other cases was a president’s most recent government position in the Senate: Andrew Jackson and Benjamin Harrison.

Senators Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren all have good national name recognition, but historically speaking, the odds are against them.

Thirteen presidents came to office directly from the vice presidency, but nine of those succeeded to the office on the death or resignation of their predecessors. Only four sitting vice presidents have been elected president: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren, and George H. W. Bush. A fifth, Richard Nixon, was elected president eight years after leaving the vice presidency. Former Vice President Joe Biden may or may not run in 2020, but he would be only the second former vice president in history to win.

It is governors who have most often been elected president. Maybe this is because governors, like presidents, serve as chief executives. Seven sitting governors have been elected president, plus we’ve had three presidents elected as private citizens whose most recent government position was governor. As it happens, no governors are among the nine candidates declared so far, although three have expressed interest in running: former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, and former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe. If any of them runs, historically speaking, he would have the best chance in 2020.

After governors, interestingly enough, cabinet members have most frequently become presidents. Five sitting departmental secretaries have been elected president. Unfortunately for Julian Castro, who served as President Obama’s secretary of housing and urban development, no cabinet member has been elected president since Herbert Hoover, who was Calvin Coolidge’s secretary of commerce, and no one has ever been elected president as a private citizen whose most recent government position was in the cabinet. (Just ask former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.) So Castro is running against the historical odds.

Only one sitting member of the House of Representatives has ever been elected president: James Garfield. And only one other president’s most recent government position was in the House: Abraham Lincoln. So Tulsi Gabbard and John Delaney have uphill battles in front of them.

Partisans of Beto O’Rourke, who has promised a decision whether to run by the end of this month, draw a parallel to Lincoln. O’Rourke, like Lincoln, stakes his national claim to fame not on his service in the House but on his unsuccessful Senate campaign two years before running for president. Lincoln’s stature came from his loss to incumbent Democrat Stephen Douglas in 1858, the campaign that produced the great Lincoln-Douglas debates. Basing a presidential campaign on the rather less inspiring O-Rourke-Cruz debates is a dicier proposition.

No sitting mayor has ever been elected president, and no private citizen whose most recent government position was mayor has ever been elected president. So Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has to be a long shot.

The thing is, there are lots of reasons to run for president, and winning the election is only one of them. For instance, even an unsuccessful run can advance a candidate’s career. Presidential nominees often select unsuccessful candidates for their running mates. Most recently, Joe Biden became Barack Obama’s running mate in 2008, and John Edwards became John Kerry’s running mate in 2004.

An unsuccessful run might gain the candidate a cabinet appointment, as Ben Carson and Rick Perry can attest. Even when the payoff isn’t a government position, an unsuccessful presidential candidacy can raise the candidate’s profile, establishing or enhancing the candidate’s place in the national political discourse, like TV commentators Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, or like Senators Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders. Members of Congress who don’t have to give up their seats to run for president can enhance their stature and influence in Congress even by unsuccessful presidential candidacies.

Candidacies can also promote social and political causes. The more women who run credible presidential campaigns, for instance, the more plausible it becomes for a woman finally to be elected president, and the more implausible it becomes for women to be excluded from presidential-vice presidential tickets. The proliferation of female presidential candidates in the Democratic primaries, like the proliferation of women elected as Democrats to Congress, sharpens the contrast between the parties’ respect for and inclusion of women.

Similar can be said of Castro’s candidacy. Even if he loses, he advances the plausibility of a future Hispanic president.  Meanwhile, he serves as walking disproof of anti-Hispanic stereotypes – at a time, and during a presidency, in which those stereotypes hold unprecedented public prominence. (“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”)

An unsuccessful campaign by Pete Buttigieg, who is openly gay, might make it plausible, or at least less implausible, that an openly gay man – a man married to a man – might someday be president. By the way, at 37 years old, Buttigieg has 30 years – or, by today’s standards, maybe 40 – for acceptance of gay politicians to evolve. If he were to win in 2020, he would be beat out Theodore Roosevelt by almost four years as the youngest president ever.

Castro is almost as young, at 44. Like Buttigieg, Castro comes from a state that limits a Democrat’s career options, leaving national politics as the only alternative.

Another reason to run for president is to further a cause or a movement. Senator Bernie Sanders did this in 2016, creating a space for social democrats, both in the Democratic Party and in the American political discourse at large. Elizabeth Warren’s progressive tax proposals and her advocacy for consumers and wage-earners put her in a similar position in 2020.

Finally, an unsuccessful candidacy can position the candidate for the next time around. Most recently, Hillary Clinton won the nomination in 2016 after losing it in 2008; Mitt Romney won it in 2012 after losing it in 2008. Candidates like Senators Booker, Harris, and Klobuchar might benefit from this effect – their terms are not up in 2020, so they will remain in the Senate if they are not elected president.


Letting Republicans Off Easy

It happens from time to time that you agree with someone’s conclusion but not his reasoning. I agree with the consensus conclusion that Virginia Governor Ralph Northam should resign. I don’t agree with the reasoning that’s been offered for that conclusion.

It’s useful to be precise about what Northam did wrong. There have been three main charges.

First was the photograph: a photo on Northam’s page in his 1984 medical school yearbook showing two white men, one in blackface and one in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood. Because the photo appeared on Northam’s yearbook page, the natural inference was that one or the other of the men in the photo was Northam. The other photos on the page were obviously of Northam, bolstering the inference. Even if Northam wasn’t in the offensive photo, he must have submitted it for inclusion in the yearbook. The other photos of Northam looked like they came from Northam’s personal photos – they didn’t seem like photos taken around the medical school campus by a yearbook photographer.

Many reacted immediately, demanding that Northam resign. Indeed, it appears that Northam himself initially assumed he was in the photo – he apologized for appearing in it.

But at a press conference the next day, Northam disavowed the photo. He insisted that he wasn’t in it, that he hadn’t submitted it for publication in the yearbook, and that he had never even seen the photo until his staff showed it to him after its public disclosure. The obvious question, then, was why Northam had apologized for appearing in the photo if he hadn’t appeared in it at all, and his answer was clumsy, at best.

Also at the press conference, in an effort to get ahead of any further disclosures, Northam volunteered that he had used shoe polish to darken his face as part of a Michael Jackson costume he wore to a dance contest in which he performed Jackson’s iconic moonwalk. That brings us to the second charge, that Northam should resign because by his own admission he darkened his face as part of his Michael Jackson get-up.

Meanwhile, right after the medical school yearbook came to light, someone came up with an earlier yearbook from the Virginia Military Institute, which listed “Coonman” as one of Northam’s nicknames. At his press conference, Northam recounted that two classmates had called him that nickname, but that he didn’t know why. No one asked Northam if he had submitted the nickname for inclusion in the yearbook entry, or if it had been supplied by the yearbook editors.

Thus the third charge is that Northam must resign because of the nickname, although as yet no one has spelled out the theory upon which politicians are to be held responsible for all the names they were called by other people when they were in college.

It’s important to point out that a Michael Jackson costume is a different thing than the blackface tradition it is now inaccurately being equated with. Blackface performance has its roots in “proslavery propaganda” that was intended, as eloquently described by Wesley Morris in yesterday’s New York Times, to portray “black people as hideous and stupid and freakish and dumb and lusty and unworthy of more than torture, exploitation, derision, oppression, neglect and extermination.” Or, as Jamelle Bouie put it in today’s Times, blackface performance was “an unambiguous form of racist mockery with clear origins in the virulent white supremacist history of the United States” – blackface performance “was defined by its caricature of and gross hostility toward black Americans … blacks – and free blacks in particular – were objects of ridicule, lampooned for seeking equality and respectability.”

The medical school photo was true blackface mockery, with its portrayal of an African-American man “in a parody of country-club casual,” next to the man in the KKK outfit. The message is right out of traditional blackface: you may think you’re somebody, that your education and your clothes and your money give you respectability, but we’re still going to lynch you because you’re still a n—–. But Northam says he had nothing to do with that photo, and as yet no witness has claimed otherwise.

A Michael Jackson costume is more flattery than mockery; it carries neither inherent hostility nor inherent threat of violence. Northam said he was a Michael Jackson fan, not a hater, and anyway perfecting and performing the moonwalk would be an odd form of mockery.

I don’t say that Northam’s shoe polish isn’t offensive to African-Americans; it’s not for me to decide what is and isn’t offensive to African-Americans. I do say that every black face is not blackface.

I have to point out that if, as I expect, Northam ends up resigning, then we as a society we will have decided that if you attempt forcible rape in 1982 you can be confirmed to the United States Supreme Court, but if you put shoe polish on your face in 1984 you can’t complete your elective term as governor of Virginia.

I also have to point out that if Northam resigns, we will have decided that racially insensitive acts 35 years ago are more blameworthy than racially insensitive policies are today. Republicans who tolerated Iowa Representative Steve King’s racist stupidity for more than a decade before acting (and then only by taking him off House committees, not by expelling him from the House) now righteously demand Northam’s resignation. Even Donald Trump, who called black-majority countries “shitholes,” and found “fine people” among the neo-Nazi demonstrators at Charlottesville, leaps to condemn Northam. As Bouie wrote in today’s New York Times, this logic “produces absurd results, like forceful condemnations of racism from a Virginia Republican Party that fielded an unapologetic neo-Confederate for Senate just over three months ago.”

We will have decided, in Bouie’s words, to treat “expressions of racist contempt or mockery as the most egregious forms of racism, when that distinction should belong to the promotion of racist policies and ideas.”

We need to maintain some awareness of differences in degree. Northam’s use of shoe polish was insensitive and offensive. But Trump’s rhetoric is worse; King’s rhetoric is worse. Scheming to suppress African-American votes in order to perpetuate white political power is much worse.

No matter how heinous, a costume is not a policy. A photograph is not a policy. Demanding Northam’s resignation while Republicans are pushing racist policies lets Republicans off too easy. When the Northam thing is over, Democrats need to turn to the absurd hypocrisy of today’s Republicans condemning Northam for racial insensitivity.

I’ve said that I agree that Northam should resign, but that I don’t agree with the reasons others have given. Here’s my reason he should resign: it’s not what Northam did or didn’t do in the 1980s, it’s the wide gap between who Northam is and who Virginia needs right now.

Northam’s clumsy press conference was in one sense just a continuation of his awkward gubernatorial campaign. He campaigned as a sort of humble Everyman, the antithesis of the slick, fancy talking, blow-dried, focus-grouped, poll-eying politician. He wasn’t his own most articulate advocate, but in that he became his own most effective advocate, and he won by a convincing margin.

The yearbook photograph changed everything. Disclosure of the photograph made demands on Northam that far exceeded his abilities. Now his ineloquence, his inability to express emotional depth and nuance, became a liability, not an asset. Race is the single most difficult topic in American public life. Even if Northam was completely innocent regarding the yearbook photo, if he had nothing to do with it being there and no idea that it was there, still, disclosure of the photograph was a stab wound, and Northam is simply not the man who can stanch the blood.

Northam has an opportunity to use a racially difficult moment to make an important advance in American racial politics. If Northam resigns, his lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, who is African-American, becomes governor. In our entire history, we have elected only two African-American governors, and two more have succeeded to the office. Fairfax would be just our fifth African-American governor, and he would make Virginia, seat of the Confederacy and home of Robert E. Lee, the first state to have two African-American governors.

Northam doesn’t have the rhetorical or emotional capacity to heal the wound. But he has the legal capacity. It’s hard to think of a clearer demonstration of commitment to empowerment of African-Americans than ceding office to an African-American successor. By resigning, he can demonstrate his commitment, and his party’s commitment, to celebration of American diversity and racial equality, drawing a harsh contrast with that other party, the one that wants to preserve the United States as a bulwark of white privilege against the heathen onslaught.


Two Things Not Happening

While we’ve been paying attention to other things, something interesting has been happening in the U.S. Senate – or, to be precise, something interesting hasn’t been happening. Only one of Donald Trump’s judicial nominees has been confirmed since October 11. It’s the least active time for judicial confirmations since the Trump administration geared up at the beginning of his term. By comparison, during the same period one year earlier – from October 12, 2017, to January 29, 2018 – the Senate confirmed 17 of Trump’s judicial nominees.

After the midterms, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell planned to devote the rest of 2018 to three priorities: confirming judicial nominees, passing the 2018 Farm Bill, and funding those government agencies whose budget appropriations were set to expire on December 22.

In mid-November, the Senate spent two days debating funding for the Coast Guard, and a third day debating exports to Bahrain. Then the Senate recessed for Thanksgiving.

When the Senate reconvened on Monday, November 26, Senator McConnell filed cloture  motions – motions to end debate – on five presidential nominations: three for executive positions and two for judicial positions. The Senate spent all four sessions that week on those nominations. Then on Friday, November 30, former President George H. W. Bush died, and Senate business was largely suspended until his funeral on December 5.

Meanwhile, Republican senators who had been party to successful bipartisan negotiations on a criminal justice reform bill, known as the First Step Act, pressed McConnell to allow a vote on that bill. They were concerned that the incoming Democratic-controlled House would ask for additional concessions that would be unacceptable to enough Republican senators that the bill would fail. The bill had to be passed in December, they told McConnell, or it wouldn’t be passed at all.

McConnell resisted, complaining that there wasn’t enough senate session time left in the year to pass the criminal justice reform bill and also attend to his other three priorities. On December 7, President Trump publicly called on McConnell to bring the bill to a vote. Still, McConnell hesitated.

Meanwhile, on December 10, a House-Senate conference committee reached agreement on the Farm Bill of 2018, and on December 11 the Senate approved the committee’s bill. (The House approved it the next day, and President Trump signed it on December 20.) On December 11, McConnell relented and called the First Step Act to a vote. The bill passed the Senate on December 18 and the House on December 20; President Trump signed it the next day.

In the end, though, it turned out that McConnell was right – there was not enough time for the First Step Act and McConnell’s three priorities. There was enough time for two priorities – the Farm Bill, which passed, and the government funding bill, which didn’t pass, but not for lack of time. After the Senate passed a funding bill on December 19 that didn’t fund Trump’s border wall, Ann Coulter and other commentators ripped into Trump. The next day Trump withdrew his support for the bill, sending us into the longest government shut-down in American history, a shut-down that ended on terms that were essentially identical to those adopted by the Senate on December 19.

What happened to McConnell’s other priority, confirmation of judicial nominees? The Senate debated the two nominations that McConnell had brought to the floor on November 26: Jonathan Kobes, nominated for the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, and Thomas Farr, nominated for the District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. Republicans held only a 51 – 49 edge at that time, and Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake had announced that he would oppose every judicial nomination until McConnell allowed a vote on legislation to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Losing Flake’s vote only meant that Vice President Mike Pence would have to cast a tie-breaking vote for confirmation. But a nominee couldn’t lose a second Republican vote and still win confirmation.

On November 29, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott announced his opposition to Farr because of Farr’s involvement in voter suppression efforts in North Carolina. The Farr nomination was doomed.

But Kobes’s nomination moved ahead. A cloture motion passed on November 29, but only because Pence cast a tie-breaking vote. Kobes was confirmed on December 11, becoming the first federal judge in history to be confirmed by a vice president’s tie-breaking vote.

A long list of pending judicial nominations expired when the 115th Congress went out of business on January 3, 2019. On January 17, Trump made six new judicial nominations, then on January 23, he re-nominated 51 candidates whose nominations had lapsed.

I’m sure it won’t take long for the Senate to resume rubber-stamping President Trump’s judicial nominees. And now, with a 53-47 Republican majority, a nominee has to lose four Republican votes to lose a confirmation vote. Still, the pause in confirmations was welcome.

*          *          *

Something else hasn’t been happening, and for much longer. Candidate Trump famously promised to fill the prison at the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with “some bad dudes.” But to this day, Trump has sent not one new prisoner to Gitmo.

President George Bush determined to close the prison in 2008, and former President Barack Obama formalized that determination with an executive order. Congress did everything it could to obstruct implementation of that order, but Obama managed to winnow the population down to 41 prisoners before leaving office.

Despite his campaign promise, it took Trump a year to get around to revoking Obama’s order that the prison be closed. And a year after that, no prisoners have been added. In fact, Trump actually released one Guantanamo prisoner, carrying out a plea agreement with Ahmed Muhammed Haza al-Darbi. Al-Darbi pled guilty in 2014 to participating in an Al Qaeda attack in 2002. In his plea deal, Al-Darbi agreed to testify against another terrorism suspect, and to spend nine to 15 years in custody on top of the 12 years he had already spent at Guantanamo. Three-and-a-half years were to be spent in American custody and the remainder in Saudi Arabian custody. His transfer to Saudi Arabia in May 2018 reduced the Guantanamo prison population from 41 to 40.


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