Lost Opportunities and Silver Linings
Like most liberals, I’m having some trouble adjusting to the fact that Donald Trump is going to be our president. I was deeply invested in the idea of a Hillary Clinton presidency, and I allowed the polling to persuade me that it was going to happen.
The lost opportunities are many, but there’s little sense in rehearsing them all. I’ll just mention my top two. First, I was hoping desperately that the United States would become the 82nd country in the world to be led by a female head of state or head of government, 77 years after the first one in 1940, when Khertek Anchimaa-Toka became the head of the Soviet puppet state of Tannu Tuva. Merely stating those facts demonstrates that Americans are not the leader in women’s equality that we like to imagine, and in fact are pretty far behind.
Second, I was very eager for the first liberal-majority Supreme Court in almost 50 years, which should have followed from a Clinton victory. Conservative Supreme Court majorities have done our democracy enormous damage in recent years, in areas from campaign finance, to voting rights, to Second Amendment interpretation, and others – even while the Court has been a world leader in the fields of gay rights and same-sex marriage.
Donald Trump’s election ratifies the Senate’s wholly unjustified and undeniably racially tinged refusal to consider any nomination by President Obama to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Furthermore, of the eight remaining justices, three are older than the average age of the last 21 justices to leave the Court – since 1960, two justices have died in office and 19 have resigned or retired. Their average age was 75; liberal Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer are 83 and 78. The least conservative of the Republican appointees, Anthony Kennedy, is 80. A Trump replacement for Scalia is a lost opportunity, leaving us no worse off than we were when Scalia was on the Court. But Trump replacements for the other three could be a catastrophe.
I fully expect a Trump presidency to be pretty bad – not just from the point of view of a political liberal who cares about legal equality and equality of economic opportunity, but also from the point of view of a citizen who has a stake in the American economy. Still, my fundamentally optimistic nature leads me to find silver linings, even in the ominously dark cloud that now looms over us.
The fact that Donald Trump lost the popular vote hasn’t gotten the attention that I think it deserves. Not only did Trump not win a majority, he didn’t even win a plurality – Hillary Clinton won almost a quarter million more votes than Trump, and her margin has been growing as the stragglers are counted.
This is the fifth time we have elected a president who lost the popular vote. It happened three times from 1824 to 1888, then it didn’t happen for more than a century. Now it has happened again twice, in 2000 and this week.
So Silver Lining Number One is that more voters rejected Trump than accepted him. Early analysis of voting patterns confirms that African-American, Asian-American, and Hispanic voters heavily preferred Clinton: 88 percent, 65 percent, and 65 percent respectively.
Although 58 percent of non-Hispanic white voters preferred Trump, younger voters preferred Clinton – Trump lost every age bracket under 40 and won every bracket over 40. This implies what pre-election polling suggested, that younger white voters preferred Clinton while older white voters preferred Trump.
Trump’s failure to collect even a plurality, let alone a majority, reassures me that America has not gone irretrievably crazy. I don’t need to surf to the Canadian immigration Web site just yet.
Silver Lining Number Two is that the demographic groups inclined to vote for a racially and religiously intolerant presidential candidate are shrinking, and those inclined to vote for a more inclusive candidate are growing. On the one hand, that is the very fact that resulted in Trump’s election: the insecurity of the shrinking white majority. On the other hand, demographics are moving against Trump, not for him. Maybe this is a phase we just have to go through until we white people get over ourselves.
The “millennial” generation is 55 percent non-Hispanic white; minorities are well represented among millennials. And because of that representation, non-Hispanic white millennials are less likely to regard minorities as “others,” and more likely to regard them as colleagues, friends and neighbors.
The post-millennial generation is going to be our first “majority minority” generation. Children under 15 years old today are just 51 percent non-Hispanic white, and those under five years old are 49 percent non-Hispanic white. This means that our future will include not just more voters in groups that President-Elect Trump seems to be determined to alienate, but also more non-Hispanic white voters who don’t feel threatened by those groups.
Silver Lining Number Three comes two years from now, in the 2018 mid-term elections. Mid-term elections are notoriously hard on the party that holds the White House. In 27 mid-term elections since 1910, the presidential party has gained seats in both houses of Congress only twice, in one house of Congress four times, and in neither house of Congress 21 times. On average, the party in the White House loses 33 House seats and four Senate seats in mid-term elections – more than enough to bring Democratic majorities to both houses in 2018.
I noted yesterday that Trump can choose to govern cautiously, in modest recognition that a majority of voters did not favor him. I don’t think he will, and even if he wants to I don’t think the hard right that controls the House of Representatives will let him.
But if Trump does govern modestly, focusing on economic issues like corporate tax reform, deregulation, and infrastructure investment, liberals have to accept the possibility that Trump could preside over a significant improvement in economic growth – as Ronald Reagan did, although not during his first two years in office. There are even areas where liberals could work with Trump – infrastructure investment being the most obvious. Liberals could agree to revenue neutral corporate tax reform, trading reduced nominal tax rates for elimination of loopholes, with tax incentives to repatriate capital from abroad and keep or bring manufacturing jobs onshore.
If Trump presides over significant economic improvement and avoids implementation of his more divisive and hurtful campaign proposals, then he deserves success in 2018. But if he governs along the lines that won him the white vote and the election, and if he is unable to prolong the eight-year-old economic expansion he will inherit, then the 2018 mid-terms could be deeply problematic for Republicans. Democrats will only need to pick up three Senate seats and 24 House seats to take majorities in both houses, ending Trump’s ability to govern in the style of his campaign.
Looking even farther out, Silver Lining Number 4 is the next presidential election in 2020. Again, if Trump were to preside over substantial economic improvement and refrain from implementing the more divisive of his campaign proposals, then he probably earns re-election. But if not, voter shifts of less than five percent from Trump to Not Trump would flip eight states, accounting for 135 electoral votes. The youngest of the millennials will be eligible to vote in 2020, as will the oldest of the “post-millennials.”
The big thing about the 2020 elections is that the next federal census occurs that year. In other words, the state legislatures elected in 2020 will largely control the next re-drawing of state and federal legislative districts. Democrats are now laboring under the redistricting that was done after the 2010 census and what was Republicans’ best mid-term success in history. In 2012, for instance, Democratic House candidates outpolled Republicans nationwide by more than 1.4 million votes but won 49 fewer seats. This Republican-favorable gerrymandering appears in a significant majority of states, and applies both to House districts and state legislative districts. Some of these artificially Republican state legislatures are the ones that have adopted some of the most brutal voter suppression measures, the better to preserve their gerrymandered majorities.
If Trump’s presidency is unpopular, and Democrats can find an appealing candidate, the 2020 elections could be very favorable to Democrats, and could go a long way to undoing the damage done in 2010.
On the other hand, there isn’t much reason to believe that a Clinton presidency would have been successful. Republicans were gearing up to be even more obstructionist than they have been with President Obama – for instance, talking of blocking all Supreme Court nominations for her entire term. The hard-right House majority would almost certainly have impeached Clinton, goaded by Trump and his unhappy fans.
No party has won four consecutive presidential elections since Roosevelt-Truman, and it’s only been done two other times (1800 to 1824 and 1868 to 1880). Under the circumstances that almost certainly would have surrounded a Hillary Clinton presidency, there isn’t much reason to believe that Democrats would have done it.
And finally, I have to mention Silver Lining Number 5: the Clintons will be gone from our electoral politics. Don’t get me wrong: I like both Clintons, a lot, and I voted for them in three general elections. I admire Bill Clinton’s mastery of policy, his political instincts, and his post-presidential work. I admire Hillary Clinton’s tenacity and resiliency. I like both Clintons’ politics.
But both of them seem to be unable to nip a problem in the bud. Whether it’s Bill Clinton denying he had sexual relations with that woman and talking in self-indulgent seriousness about the meaning of the word “is,” or Hillary Clinton promising she didn’t send or receive classified information through her personal server, both of them have a bizarre, self-sabatoging knack for making a small scandal into a big one. And there’s no denying that Bill Clinton has a zipper problem.
Even if you can excuse Bill Clinton, who legitimately might not have seen the “vast right-wing conspiracy” coming, there’s no excuse for Hillary Clinton, who after all coined that phrase. She should have known that she needed to do better, to do fast and full disclosure and decisively end the Benghazi non-scandal, the e-mail server quasi-scandal, and the Clinton Foundation mini-scandal. A good lawyer knows not to make a statement that can easily be disproved; Clinton should have known not to say she didn’t e-mail classified information unless and until someone had fully checked – which, obviously, no one did.
As much as I like Hillary Clinton, I didn’t want her to run in 2016. I was hoping for a fresh face, a happy warrior – someone with enough distance from President Obama to run for a third consecutive Democratic term but close enough to President Obama to continue the great good works he began, and which now may be largely undone. Clinton’s candidacy, first as a possibility and then as a reality, suppressed the development of new candidates who might have filled that bill. I first thought that then-Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley might be the one, but he turned out to lack dynamism and charisma. Bernie Sanders could have been great, but I just couldn’t convince myself that America would elect a candidate who calls himself a socialist, even if he isn’t actually a socialist. By the time Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination in May and the FBI reported in July on the first conclusion of its investigation into Clinton’s handling of classified e-mail, it was clear that Sanders would have been the preferable candidate. We’ll never know whether he would have won.
In any event, with the Clintons off the electoral stage, there is room for other players to develop into stars. And that ties Silver Lining Number 5, the departure of the Clintons, tight to Silver Lining Number 4, the 2020 election.