The Absurd Choice

There’s no quick fix. There’s no good choice. In November it will be Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. She’s plodding and conventional, if not a bit boring, with an extensive list of quite reasonable detailed policy positions that no one reads, and she’s defensive about the few bone-headed mistakes she made in all her years in public service. That defensiveness seems to be a red flag to voters, but Donald Trump is absurd. He’s never held public office and knows nothing about public policy or, really, about how the world works. He’s a reality show star who used to be a real estate developer but now sells his name to anyone who wants to put it on their product, which has made him richer than he was when he started out, which was pretty damned rich in the first place – and he’s on trial for fraud about his fake university, and now in legal trouble over his fake foundation. And of course two thirds of Americans think he doesn’t have the “temperament” to be president – he could get us all killed. Every week there seems to be another letter from a hundred former diplomats or whatever, saying this guy is totally unfit to be president – but at least he’s not defensive. He says he’s a genius. Trust him on that.

That’s the choice. America is free to choose one or the other, but that’s an absurd choice, in an existential way, if you remember your Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Sartre’s primary idea is that people are “condemned to be free” – and that’s a bitch. We have to make up our own meaning, by what we choose. The world is indifferent to the individual – there’s no external help for you, sorry. You’ve got to figure it out on your own. He wrote of Nausea and then of Being and Nothingness – and Camus wrote of absurdity, using the metaphor of the Myth of Sisyphus – the guy condemned to roll the same big rock up the same big hill forever. That damned rock rolled back down each time, so Sisyphus had to roll it up that hill again. It’s absurd, but life is like that. You cannot choose not to roll the rock up the hill. That would be giving up entirely, accepting a life of not doing anything at all, thus not being anything at all. So here, now, you have to vote for one of these two, even if that damned rock rolls down the hill again and nothing is ever any better.

The existentialists weren’t a cheery lot. They specialized in ennui – they’d seen it all and weren’t going to be fooled by this or that enthusiasm that had claimed to be the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything – and maybe that’s a French thing, or a universal thing. At Amazon there are three pages of products with the logo “I Already Hate Our Next President” – on mugs, t-shirts, tank tops, hoodies and infant onesies. Indulge your inner Sisyphus. There’s no good choice.

Trump, however, may be the worse choice, and Daniel Drezner, that professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, cheers himself up by arguing that Trump won’t win:

At a moment when the American populace no longer trusts itself (or, rather, other Americans), why am I so calm that things will work out?

My model of this election is that Trump has a rigid core of supporters but also a hard ceiling on that support. Clinton has more voter support but also more “soft” support. These are voters who become easily disaffected when she has a bad news cycle or two. (It’s also possible that those on the left get disaffected when she appeals to moderate Republicans and vice versa.) So when the race looks close, it’s not because Trump is attracting Clinton voters, it’s because possible Clinton voters are not feeling all that good about Clinton and might choose not to vote – or answer a pollster.

In this way, the very tightening of the race prevents Trump from winning. There is a bevy of voters who are not jazzed by Clinton but are petrified by a Trump presidency. Once polls start to show that it’s close, they will decide to vote for Clinton or say so in a poll. When the lead expands, they get more complacent and disaffected by Clinton’s flaws.

Given the good recent economic news – and the failure of terrorism threats to benefit Trump – my baseline of the 2016 election is that any tightening of the race creates endogenous effects that prevent Trump from taking the lead.

That’s an interesting theory, backed up by this:

There are a few additional factors that make me even more confident about a Clinton victory:

Contra Trump’s claims that he will change the map by bringing out lots of new voters, none of the data I have seen suggest that this is true. There’s no hidden “reserve army” of Trump supporters in places such as Connecticut or Oregon.

Although Trump has surged in places such as Ohio and Florida, recent polling in crucial swing states for Clinton’s bare-minimum electoral path to 270 continue to show her with a comfortable margin of victory.

I’m assuming that Clinton’s vastly superior ground game and data operation will give her a boost of one to three percentage points above the polling averages, which could make the difference in places such as North Carolina, Florida and Ohio.

The last major moment endogenous to the campaign, when Trump can overtake Clinton, is the debates. And I think Clinton’s extensive debating experience, combined with her recent one-on-one debates with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, leaves her far better prepared than Trump.

On that he cites James Fallows:

Significantly, Clinton, unlike Trump, comes to this fall’s debates as a veteran of five one-on-one debates with Sanders (plus five in the 2008 election cycle against just Barack Obama after John Edwards dropped out, and three against Rick Lazio in her 2000 Senate race). Donald Trump, by contrast, has not been through even one head-to-head live debate. After the multiplayer scrum of the early Republican field, the smallest field he ever faced was Ted Cruz, John Kasich, and Marco Rubio in Miami in the very last GOP debate. These are entirely different experiences: facing one person, with a moderator, versus being part of a crowd. With three or more contenders onstage, each participant is mainly fighting for airtime and looking for chances to get in planned zingers. …

In a head-to-head debate, participants know they will get enough airtime. The question becomes how they use it. Example of the difference: In several of the GOP debates, Trump went into a kind of hibernation when the talk became too specific or policy-bound, letting John Kasich or Marco Rubio have the microphone. It didn’t matter, because he’d have a chance to come back with a one-liner – “We’re gonna win so much.” In debates like the ones this fall, it will be harder to answer some questions and ignore others.

Drezner finds comfort in that:

Trump’s best chance of persuading voters to back him over Clinton is in a venue where Clinton is far more likely to shine.

So that’s how I’m thinking about this election right now. Maybe there’s some motivated reasoning in there in which my brain, believing that Trump would be an unmitigated disaster as a president, can’t possibly, actually win. But until something happens that alters those assumptions of mine. I’m still feeling copacetic.

Good for him, but Catherine Rampell notes this:

Millennials are souring on Hillary Clinton. Again.

Not that they were ever so sweet on her to begin with, at least relative to how they swooned over other Democrats. Both Bernie Sanders in the recent primary campaign, and Barack Obama in the 2008 and 2012 general elections, received far more love from young voters. But in any case, Clinton’s already weak millennial support has gotten much weaker in the past month.

The polls show that:

Quinnipiac, for example, found last month that Clinton had a big fat 24-point lead over Donald Trump among 18-to-34-year-old voters (48 percent to 24 percent). Now that margin has shriveled to just five percentage points (with Clinton at 31 percent, Trump at 26 percent).

Nationwide Fox News polls of registered voters also found that Clinton’s lead has narrowed to nine points, from 27 points in late July and early August. And a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times national poll has Clinton’s August lead not only disappearing but reversing, with Trump now ahead among millennials by six points. There were outliers, but the trend was clear.

Polls in battleground states have likewise shown Clinton’s lead among millennial voters shrinking. In Michigan, for example, Clinton’s 24-point August lead among young voters has shriveled to just seven points. Clinton has just 31 percent of the youth vote there, compared with Trump’s 24 percent.

Then add the complication:

In most of these polls, the young supporters ditching Clinton seem to be shifting not to Trump but to third-party candidates, particularly Libertarian Gary Johnson. The Michigan poll has Johnson tied with Trump; the national Quinnipiac poll actually has Johnson slightly ahead of Trump among under-35 voters.

These trends have been met with liberal teeth-gnashing and garment-rending, plus a lot of sanctimonious scolding of Kids These Days. How dare these ungrateful young hooligans turn their backs on the only serious candidate who actually cares about their issues! Are they really too young to remember the horrors that resulted when Ralph Nader played the spoiler in 2000? Quoth one columnist, “I know you’re young, but grow up!”

That happens when there’s no good choice, but Clinton is fighting back:

That means a flurry of college visits, including from progressive heartthrobs such as Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Michelle Obama. The Clinton campaign explicitly advertised these events as an appeal to prodigal young voters.

The surrogate speeches haven’t always gone according to plan, though. Obama’s speech at George Mason University was at one point met with chants of “four more years” – her stumping apparently got the crowd pumped for the wrong politician.

The Clinton campaign has thus also been desperately seeking coverage in millennial-tailored media. She whipped up an inane essay for Mic titled “Hillary Clinton: Here’s What Millennials Have Taught Me.” (The lesson: Millennials are totes awesome.) And she sat for an awkward, if amusing, interview on “Between Two Ferns” with actor Zach Galifianakis.

This seems pretty hopeless, but there’s a hopeful explanation:

Several recent polls, anyway, suggest that younger voters are much more likely to see a Clinton presidency as a fait accompli. Per Quinnipiac, 71 percent of voters younger than 35 believe Clinton will win in November; just 49 percent of voters older than 65 believe the same. YouGov also finds that 58 percent of voters under 30 expect a Clinton victory, versus 47 percent of those over 65.

If you believe a Clinton presidency is inevitable, then casting a ballot for a third-party candidate probably doesn’t feel like it has much consequence. It’s a mere protest vote, a victimless expressive gesture, like angrily tweeting into the void, kneeling during the national anthem or, I don’t know, sending unhinged hate mail to unsuspecting columnists.

But that’s not harmless:

A tighter race – one, ironically, made tighter largely because of millennial defections from the Clinton camp – changes the calculus. It’s riskier to “throw away” your vote, either by supporting someone who has no chance of winning or by abstaining from the polls altogether.

But not to worry:

See, millennials may not adore Clinton, but they really, really hate Trump. Six in 10 young voters view him “strongly” unfavorably, and the same-share describes him as “racist.” Don’t be surprised if their third-party crushes start to fade as the prospect of President Trump begins to feel all too terrifyingly real.

That can be put another way. There’s no good choice, there never is, but some things are simply unacceptable.

John Judis, however, examines how Hillary Clinton made herself a bad choice:

If I had to bet on this election, I’d still put my money on Hillary Clinton. But there is a big question about why she is not doing better. When presidential candidates face opponents who can’t even command the support of their party’s leadership and leading interest groups, it’s usually landslide time. Think of Lyndon Johnson against Barry Goldwater in 1964, and Richard Nixon against George McGovern in 1972. And Trump has less support in his party’s leadership than either Goldwater or McGovern had. Yet if the polls are to be believed, the race between Clinton and Trump is close.

I don’t accept some of the explanations proffered by her supporters: that the media tilts toward Trump or that there is a silent majority of racists and sexists in America. I think she does suffer from representing the party that has controlled the White House for the last eight years and for 16 of the last 24. In these cases, voters accumulate grievances with a long half-life that affect their view of the current candidate. And the candidate finds it difficult to advocate dramatic change without appearing to repudiate her predecessors.

All that may be so, but Judis argues that the real problem is that Hillary Clinton has turned herself into Michael Dukakis:

Beyond not wanting her opponent to be president, I have my reasons for supporting Clinton – and they begin with Supreme Court nominations – but I can’t think of three positive reasons why the average voter would support Clinton. Her own ads have been almost entirely devoted to warning about a Trump presidency, which is why complaints from her camp that the media devotes too much attention to Trump run hollow. Voters want to know what she really wants to do as president.

When I presented this conundrum to a friend, he pointed me to Clinton’s website, where there are detailed proposals on 38 issues – from climate change and campus sexual assault to HIV and AIDS and protecting animals and wildlife. But that’s not really what I mean by standing for something.

Political campaigns are thematic. They are not about detailed proposals. That’s what governing is partly about, although politics is crucial to governing, too. The most successful campaigns can be summed up in slogans and simple demands. I think of Ronald Reagan in 1980, George H. W. Bush in 1988 (who had to face the third term problem), Bill Clinton in 1992, George W. Bush in 2000, and Barack Obama in 2008. These campaigns had easily remembered slogans — yes we can, compassionate conservatism, putting people first, kinder, gentler nation, making America great again (Reagan and Trump) and they had simple programmatic proposals – end welfare as we know it, an across the board 33 percent tax cut, read my lips; no new taxes, withdraw from Iraq, and not a dime from special interests.

Trump’s campaign is very much along these lines, which is one reason he has gotten this far. Clinton’s is not. Nor was that of Dukakis (competence, not ideology) who at one point in the summer of 1988 was 17 percentage points up on Bush.

It seems she forgot the one thing that matters:

What a candidate is against is as important as what a candidate is for. And I am not referring to being against your opponent. It’s a simple principle of linguistics. Positives are defined by negatives, and vice versa. As the philosopher John Austin once remarked, what “real” means depends on whether it is being used in opposition to being toy, artificial, virtual, insincere, or apparent. Franklin Roosevelt was famously against “economic royalists,” Reagan was against “welfare queens” and the “evil empire.” Presidential candidates can’t declare too many enemies for fear of losing votes. Clinton dumping Trump’s supporters into a “basket of deplorables” certainly wasn’t good politics. But if candidates have no enemies, their message becomes fuzzy.

Judis gives an example of that:

Compare for a moment Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton’s response to the consumer fraud perpetrated by Wells Fargo. During Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf’s appearance before the Senate Finance Committee, Warren told Stumpf, “You should resign. You should give back the money that you took while this scam was going on, and you should be criminally investigated by both the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission.”

By contrast, Clinton’s response was an open letter to Wells Fargo customers. “I was deeply disturbed when, last week, we found out that Wells Fargo had engaged in widespread illegal practices over many years… Today, Wells Fargo’s CEO will appear before Congress. He owes all of you a clear explanation as to how this happened under his watch. There is simply no place for this kind of outrageous behavior in America.”

Clinton then went on to present a raft of proposals for reforming the banking system.

Here’s one:

First, we need to defend the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau… Second, we need real consequences when firms on Wall Street break the law…it’s frustrating that a bank can simply pay a fine and keep doing business as usual – with massive compensation for the executives responsible. That compensation should be clawed back. I’ve put forward an agenda to enhance accountability on Wall Street. Executives should be held individually accountable when rampant illegal activity happens on their watch. .. Third, we need to make sure that no financial institution is too big to manage. I’ll put additional safeguards in place to address the risks that the big banks continue to pose to our system. .. I’ll appoint regulators who will stand with taxpayers and consumers, not with big banks and their friends in Congress.

Judis:

These are reasonable proposals, but they belong in a transition committee’s report on financial reform. Did Clinton expect that many of Wells Fargo’s customers would actually read this letter? By not singling out Stumpf and not taking the kind of tough stance that Warren did, Clinton missed a golden opportunity to tell voters what she really cared about – and do so without alienating a significant bloc of voters. And it certainly wouldn’t have put her at odds with Obama. I simply don’t understand why Clinton and her campaign took a pass, but it’s more or less characteristic of her campaign, and it is one important reason Trump has pulled close to her in the polls.

She is kind of hopeless:

Clinton and her campaign do see a problem. They recently put out a positive (non-Trump) ad showing, in the campaign’s words, “Hillary Clinton’s lifelong record fighting for children and families.” But I’m not sure that kind of ad does the trick. Sure, she’s for families and children, but the ad lacks any edge and dramatic demand and there isn’t an enemy lurking in the back yard that needs to be slain. Will average voters, after seeing this ad, feel Clinton cares about their own family and children? I doubt it.

Clinton’s got demographics on her side in this election, and she’s facing a damaged opponent. She should win. But by this time, she should be well ahead, as Johnson was in 1964 and Nixon in 1972, but she’s not, and I think some of the fault lies in the kind of campaign she and her advisors are running.

She could have made herself the one good choice this time around, and somehow couldn’t, perhaps because she is plodding and conventional, and rightfully defensive after all the years of mostly bullshit attacks, but Heather Parton argues that this year was just not her year:

In recent days we’ve seen most prescriptions directed at the Hillary Clinton campaign, as the always nervous Democrats are waking up the startling reality that the flamboyant, white nationalist demagogue on the other side might just pull this off. And they have as many different ideas as there were GOP all-stars Donald Trump smoked in the primaries. These range from “She needs to take the fight to Trump and call him out” to “She should attack the Republican officials who endorse him” to “She should stop attacking him and lay out a positive policy agenda so people have a reason to vote for her” – which, to be fair, sounds like a good idea.

But the question is, if someone lays out a positive policy agenda and nobody hears it, did it really happen?

That was never going to work:

It’s an old truism that negative campaigning works, so it’s no surprise that Clinton’s campaign would try to leverage Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric against him. But there is plenty of positive material out there as well. It’s just the press isn’t interested, and there isn’t a lot of evidence that the voters are either. This doesn’t seem to be that kind of election.

The armchair strategists who think a more positive, uplifting message is what Hillary Clinton needs to put this election away may be right. But the question is whether anyone could hear such a message above the din of cynicism and negativity that characterizes the coverage of this campaign.

That din of cynicism and negativity has created what Sartre and Camus would have called an absurd world, one where there are no good choices. What can one do? Push that rock up that hill, even if it rolls down again. To do nothing is to disappear. And you can always buy that “I Already Hate Our Next President” shirt.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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