What’s Done is Perhaps Not as it Seems

There is a saying I’ve heard all my life. “What’s done is done.” It is the recognition of the directional nature of time. It is the sentiment expressed by many after a much too long and far too vitriolic campaign for the presidency. We are now faced with the certainty that Donald J. Trump will be 45th president of the United States. Neither principled conservatives nor liberals have much to cheer.

Those of us who served in government and who are wonkish about such things recognize the president-elect’s foreign policy pronouncements shred the Reagan-Weinberger doctrine; his coddling of a Russian dictator and denigration of U.S. generals may make them roll in their graves. The placement in his transition team of someone whose publication called well-respected conservative intellectual Bill Kristol a “renegade Jew” ought to give pause to all who have any sense of history. Constitutionalists, of which I am one, cannot be pleased at the rhetoric about the cracking down on, simple opacity with, or personal attacks directed toward the press. Nor can they be happy about stated policy goals in direct opposition with the 1st Amendment’s protection of religious liberty. But, what’s done is done.

I will call him Mr. President. I respect the office. But what is done is perhaps not quite so clear as his many supporters may believe. Some have said this election represents a sound rejection of President Obama’s legacy and liberalism in general. Pundits sounded a similar death knell over conservatism, the GOP, and the candidacy of the new president-elect. Both obituaries are and were premature in the extreme.

Though the Trump campaign made the case that he was tapping a source of new voters and driving record numbers, that was not the case. It’s true more voted for him during the primary than for any Republican in history. It is equally true more voted against him than any candidate in primary history. From general election data, it appears nearly five million fewer people voted for Mr. Trump than for Governor Romney in 2012. Six million fewer voted for Secretary Clinton than for President Obama in 2012. Voter turnout was lower overall by percentage than it was in either 2008 or 2012, an indictment of the quality of the choice. Of the ballots cast, Secretary Clinton received over one million more votes than Mr. Trump. While that is just a footnote in history as it relates to the election of the president, it should not be ignored by the new administration or by the Republicans controlling Congress.

It might surprise you, given the bluster of congressional leaders, that the ruling party lost ground this election. The Senate GOP majority is razor thin at 51-48 (with one independent). What all this means is that approximately 21% of adult Americans supported the election of the next president—one in five—and some did so only reluctantly. This is nothing new. Voter apathy means no president in modern history has been elected by a majority of Americans.

What is important here is that when more people vote for someone other than you—an anomaly in presidential politics—and when your party loses seats in both houses of Congress, it means you do not have a mandate. Mr. Trump and Republicans eked out a very narrow win; they were not swept to victory. This was a rejection of a particular candidate and the dubious character of the possible dynasty she represented, not much more. It does not mean our country is “deeply divided.” On any given day, roughly half of us support the direction represented by one of two parties. That’s not division. It’s balance. If the new congress and president—along with all of us—can come to grips with that reality, there is a possibility we may again know effective governance. If not, then what appears done may just as easily be undone.

A President-Elect

Democracy is messy. This election season it became vitriolic, caustic, and nearly toxic to the very idea of self-rule. The man who said he would “keep us in suspense” and then only respect the outcome if he won—the last quip admittedly somewhat tongue-in-cheek—did not have to wait in suspense to see if his opponent would do the same. She was far more gracious and understanding of the enormous consequence of withholding such a decision than he was ever capable of. Yet when Americans went to the polls, they decided to entrust the future of the nation to that man. Donald J. Trump is the president-elect of the United States of America. Many are cheering that decision. Some are reluctantly pleased that someone other than a Clinton or anyone with a “D” next to their name will sit in the Oval Office. More of us voted for someone else than voted for him. Of those some are disappointed in the choice of their countrymen, wondering how they will teach common decency to their children when it apparently does not take any such thing to rise to that high office. And some are simply horrified at the prospect of what may occur in their name over the next four years. None of these should be discounted, though the last two invariably will be.

There will be post-mortems on all sides. The nation’s Fourth Estate let us down in such a dramatic fashion that it is hard to imagine how they will recover their credibility. Pollsters did the same calling into question the idea of a “scientific” poll. Some will claim tribal politics—the white vote carried the day for Mr. Trump—when they did no such thing following the election of 2008 and 2012. There will be appropriate blame for meaningless protest votes, for the political actions of a supposedly non-partisan agency, and the encouragement and then denial of other state actors meddling in a U.S. election. There will be a lamenting of what might have been in the face of far more qualified or less polarizing candidates. The Democratic strategy will be torn apart searching for the rationale of so many voters. We will, if we still care, read all about it and most assuredly, as if we need any more evidence than last night provided, it will all be wrong.

Economics is based on the useful fiction that the economy is made up of rational actors. Politics is based on the self-evident destructive assumption that voters are rational actors too. They are not. Many believed the falsehoods told on both sides—the tragedy of globalism (increased productivity is the real culprit), a struggling economy (it is beating every other OECD country with full employment and rising wages), that capitalism is rigged against the middle and low earners (it has brought nearly a billion people out of poverty over the last two decades), that people wanted big change in Washington (incumbents did just fine on the whole), not to mention the incessant conspiracy theories bandied about that do nothing but make imbeciles famous and all of us dumber. The post-mortems will not address the single most important fact of this election. That is that voters, when faced with two horribly flawed candidates who are both ethically and legally-challenged, voted with their gut instead of their head…as they always do. That is the messiness of representative democracy.

Our means of electing a president—the Electoral College—was a brilliant device of the Founding. Today, however, it skews the process by allowing candidates to avoid campaigning to all of us. There is now and will always be a path to victory for someone who can successfully divide the nation along whatever voting lines seem to work. Make no mistake, that is exactly what happened on November 8th, and it will not be remembered as a high moral point in our history.

That is our system. So, it is now not only appropriate but required—again, as it always has been—that we offer a once-candidate far more respect than he or she ever showed us, campaigning as they do by exclusion, and call him “our president.” That is part of the process ensuring an unbroken string of peaceful transitions of power for more than two centuries. We owe it to our fellow citizens to respect differing points of view and the value of informed dissent. No one has a monopoly on patriotism or liberty or freedom as some of us seem to think, and none of us are enemies. We must hold ourselves to a higher standard than we can ever expect of those we choose to lead us…and we can only hope they will follow the power of our example. However, as hope is never a valid course of action, we must demand that they begin to think of themselves as our president. That, even in the absence of respect for who we are and what we aspire to, is what they owe us.

Good luck to you, Mr. President-Elect. My interests are now yours.

It’s Time for Director Comey to Go

Last week the FBI director sent a letter to Congress reopening his investigation of Secretary Clinton’s email server because of what came to light during a separate investigation of former Congressman Anthony Weiner’s alleged prurient correspondence with a female minor. Just when you thought the campaign could go no lower, this. But neither the former Congressman’s conduct nor the revelation that there may be more emails out there—a fact the FBI warned of at the time—is the real story here. It is the inability of FBI Director James Comey to control an agency seemingly headed toward partisanship.

In July, the director took the extraordinary step of holding a press conference in which he stated no prosecutor would bring charges against the former Secretary of State for her “extremely careless” use of a private email server. Not everyone received the news or format well. Members of the FBI may have urged the director to work harder to find a path to prosecution and some may be actively attempting to influence the election. Democrats cheered Comey’s “transparency” while Republicans roundly criticized him. None exhibited any real principle. A mere two weeks from election day, the director again took an extraordinary step—against the advice of the Justice Department and long-standing professional practice—and sent a vaguely worded memo to Congress. The memo said emails uncovered in the Weiner investigation appeared to be relevant to the server investigation while simultaneously claiming the department did not yet know what those emails contained. Director Comey has become a political entity in a non-partisan post. He has actively sought the bright lights and clear type-set of the press when good judgment, professionalism, a long-standing tradition of the republic, and the advice of superiors all said he should do no such thing.

If all that was not enough, amazingly a Twitter robot that automatically posts activity from a public Bureau website came alive after more than a year of inactivity. Its first words? To tweet about a recent document release detailing President Bill Clinton’s pardon of a fugitive donor named Marc Rich. The FBI claimed the release was coincidental, the result of a Freedom of Information Act request that posts on a first-received, first-released basis. Were Democratic strategists as prone to conspiracy theories as the Republican presidential nominee and many of his followers there would be plenty of soil to till. Director Comey, then a young New York prosecutor, led the case against Mr. Rich for tax evasion.

For our system of justice to work, there can be no appearance of impropriety on the part of federal law enforcement officials. As those of us who have served in government know, appearances matter when the public trust is at stake. We also know that we are, and must be, held to a higher standard than our elected officials or those who seek office. Director Comey is at the helm of ship that appears to be veering toward dangerous seas. To right that ship, to restore the best traditions and retain the legacy of the nation’s foremost law enforcement agency, Director Comey must step down. If he does not, even in the face of the shrill cry of the ultra-partisan right who despises this administration and the thought of another Clinton one, the Attorney General must remove him. If he or she does not, the American people have far more to fear than an eminently qualified potential president who lacks transparency and is part of an ethically challenged dynasty or one that is wholly unfit for the office who also lacks transparency and would build an ethics-free dynasty. With either in office, if the public cannot have confidence in the non-partisanship of federal law enforcement, the republic is in greater danger than anyone might have thought.