The Corner

Politics & Policy

The Most Negative of Landslides?

Although the actual polls remain somewhat ambiguous, it now appears that Hillary Clinton is on her way to a huge victory, one that will also give her party very significant gains down ballot. Certainly the Democrats will capture the Senate and conceivably the House.

That doesn’t mean the country has embraced her as a person or her agenda. It’s actually pretty unclear what her agenda is. Sure, there’s a long laundry list of wonkish policies on her website. But she hasn’t been pushed to defend or show her real devotion to them, much less to reconcile her public agenda with that found in her secret speeches.

Our presidential elections are typically close. There’s the occasional landslide affirmation of the accomplishments of the incumbent — as in Reagan in 1984 and even in some ironic and hedged sense Clinton in 1996. There’s also the occasional negative landslide victory — LBJ in 1964 and Nixon in 1972. Those two elections were massive repudiations of the policy alternatives offered by the party out of power. It was generally conceded that Goldwater and McGovern were decent — just very misguided — men.

Without descending into details right now, remember that LBJ and Nixon both grabbed onto their victories as mandates that turned into disastrous overreach. One reason, although not the most important one, for the failures that forced them from office was that neither of these active presidents was ever popular personally, and so they couldn’t draw on a reservoir of goodwill and personal charisma when things went south.

This year most of the “negativity” is generated by the lack of character and basic competence of Trump. The widespread perception is that he is unfit to serve and that he is a dangerous demagogue who wouldn’t respect constitutional limits or individual rights. Everywhere the respectable media and their experts tell us to stifle our doubts and give our critical capabilities a vacation. Trump is a different kind of candidate that must be stopped at all costs. Close your eyes and vote for Clinton!

Some conservatives tell us that if the election were only about domestic policy, there might conceivably be an argument for voting for Trump. He might do less lasting damage to the economy or the integrity of our mediating institutions or to the Court, and he would be checked by a fairly hostile Congress and Supreme Court. But there’s no denying that the ignorant lunatic just can’t been trusted in the realm of foreign policy, where executive power is genuinely risky business and often basically unchecked. Clinton is obviously quite sane and calculates well about all kinds of risk factors. That can be acknowledged even by the majority of Americans who doubt her honesty, integrity, and all that other character and virtue stuff.

So the perception of so many Americans, in fact, that our foreign policy over the last generation has been one bad call after another — sticking our warriors with unwinnable missions chosen by our clueless politicians — has to be ignored for now. And there’s no use worrying that our military morale is so low or that we’ve lost our technological edge. Or that the Obama administration has plain been defeated by Russia and Iran in Syria and elsewhere. Or that, in the case of Russia, Clinton might overcompensate in the other, needlessly risky, direction.

So Clinton’s “negative mandate” will pretty much be based on her (exaggerated but correct enough) claim that she’s all that stood between the wrecking ball aimed at all that is decent and good that would be a Trump presidency. The evil one, we read, must not only be defeated, he must be humiliated.

That is the weakest possible endorsement of a candidate imaginable. And the millions who say “Never Trump/Never Clinton” doubt that even that is deserved. Even if they don’t doubt that Trump is by character and competence unfit to be president.

Still, the need for a clear negative mandate is kind of obvious. Think, for a moment, how the country would be convulsed by a close election. Sure, the Trump people would shout that the system was rigged, and violence would be possible. Violence might be more likely, however, if Trump won, beginning perhaps in our cities and our campuses. Respectable America — our various elites — wouldn’t quietly defer to the legitimacy of a Trump presidency. Imagine what would happen if either candidate won the popular vote and lost in the Electoral College. We’re not talking Bush vs. Gore here.

We can hope that Clinton will accept that negative mandate with the appropriate modesty and let America know she knows her victory was in many ways undeserved. We can hope. More likely is another round of disastrous overreach.

We can also hope that the Republicans accept Trump’s defeat with appropriate modesty, recognizing that it was the hollowness of their conservatism that allowed their party to be taken over by a loser unfit to run a campaign, much less govern. They can forget Trump, but they can’t forget the huge protest that was the Trump vote reconstructing a conservative majority that can be the foundation of effective but limited government.

We can, finally, hope that both parties will honor the good reasons so many decent, un-deplorable Americans chose Sanders and Trump this year. Each of our parties needs a lot of fixing before deserving or gaining a real mandate for change.

Peter Augustine Lawler — Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...

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