(Cross-posted at Daily Kos)
“A Republic – if you can keep it”
Two hundred and twenty-nine years ago, America’s founders gathered at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, exchanging ideas that ranged from the brilliant to the nutty, for how to shape a radical new form of government. We remain in their debt for their creativity, their thoughtfulness, their judgment, their scholarship, and their willingness to compromise for the greater good. But the need for Americans to cultivate and exercise such qualities did not end in 1787. To the contrary, we can only maintain their incredible achievement by improvising necessary adaptations as current situations demand.
At the present moment, we face a crisis in American democracy equal to the greatest challenges this country has ever faced. In response, I hereby propose a solution that is wild, ridiculous and unlikely to ever happen. But guess what – that’s what America’s founders once did too. Better to indulge in a few crazy ideas than to just throw up our hands in despair and hope for the best.
A historically unique threat
The threat Donald Trump poses to our democratic institutions has been articulated by conservatives and progressives, academics and politicians, laymen and experts alike. The most critical points include:
- There is widespread evidence of successful Russian cyber interference in our election, undertaken with the goal of electing Trump over Clinton. This is on top of many disturbing links uncovered between the Trump campaign and Russia – representing a threat simultaneously to the credibility of our democracy, to the next presidency and to our national security and foreign policy goals. The creepy foreign dimension makes for a bigger scandal than Watergate – and a grossly impeachable offense.
- The potential for the Trump organization to exploit the presidency as a profit center continues to grow, with no sign of the presumptive new administration taking any serious steps to head off these massive conflicts of interest. To the contrary, Trump is blatantly mixing his personal business and presidential transition by putting his children in charge of both – rather than putting his assets in a true blind trust as most of our recent presidents have done. The likelihood of foreign actors paying money to Trump properties (e.g., his new Washington, DC hotel) as a means to influence the president is likely to bring him right up against the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause (“No person holding any (U.S.) office of profit or trust…shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present…of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state”) – representing a second impeachable offense. The only – utterly unacceptable – response from Trump has been to say: “the president can’t have a conflict of interest.” Even the Washington Post’s Chris Cilizza can tell that is highly problematic to US democracy.
- In case those aren’t enough impeachable offenses to make Republicans queasy, Trump recently agreed to pay $25 million for defrauding 6000 students of the phony Trump University and his foundation has admitted to violating a ban on “self-dealing” – i.e., looting the foundation for the Trumps’ private gain. Furthermore, he is presently a party to 75 lawsuits, presenting many additional opportunities for embarrassment, distraction and liabilities for our president and country.
- It’s no secret that Trump rose by exploiting racial, ethnic, religious and gender division and conflict. With appointees like Steve Bannon, champion of the openly neo-Nazi “alt right” at Breitbart and Gen. Mike Flynn, whose tweets reveal a frightening level of racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic paranoia, there is little reason to think that this gang will let up on attacking and baiting minority groups while in office. This raises the real prospect of violence in the streets, as this nation’s enormous progress in race relations slips several decades backwards. It is hard to see how any responsible Republican could see this as good news. Putting intelligence agencies and the military, along with the rest of the government, in these people’s hands, creates terrifying risks of state-sponsored repression of minorities and dissenters.
- Finally, there is the vast discrepancy between the popular vote, which Clinton is winning by over 2 million votes, or about 1.5 percentage points – and the electoral vote. This gap represents one more factor serving to diminish the credibility of the next president and of our electoral system as a whole.
A way out
America’s founders designed the Constitution specifically to guard against the threat of a dictator rising up by exploiting weaknesses in our system. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist Paper #1, “… of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”
The whole system, as we learn in grade school, is based on a delicate equilibrium of checks and balances: the three branches of government, Federal vs. state power, etc. The Electoral College is one of the least appreciated components of this balancing act.
As Hamilton explains in Federalist #68, the Electoral College was originally meant to be, not a rubber stamp, but a deciding body: “the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favourable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements that were proper to govern their choice.”
We have evolved from this original intent to an Electoral College that usually just endorses the state-by-state results. That said, Electoral College members retain the Constitutional right – and responsibility – to cast their ballots based on their conscience.
If we have a tool to save us from a presidency threatening to drive our nation off a cliff, then why not use it?
My admittedly off-the-wall proposal is to declare a compromise that extracts America from the present looming crisis and charts a course for genuine democratic progress. It is based on the spirit of compromise that animated our founders – compromise meaning that nobody gets everything they want, but everybody gets something.
Look, while I would love to see the electors certify Hillary Clinton as president, I believe that result even more unlikely than the scenario I’m laying out here. A large majority of Republicans has shown that, whatever the circumstances, they just will not vote for her. After 25 years of funding conspiracy theories against the Clintons, the GOP continues to reap handsome returns off of that investment. I don’t see any evidence that they’re going to back down on that stance now.
And yet there are undoubtedly millions of Republicans who would be relieved to replace the erratic and unstable Trump with a more predictable, reliable Republican. After all, polls showed 60% of voters had an unfavorable opinion of Trump, 63% did not consider Trump honest of trustworthy and only 38% considered Trump even qualified to be president. Having the electors declare Mike Pence rather than Trump president would win many of them over to the cause. These Republicans could then help join with Democrats as a majority bulwark against the smaller though rambunctious Trump diehards, who of course would be up in arms if their candidate were rejected.
At the same time, with Hillary winning the popular vote by over 2 million votes, Democrats have earned the right to gain the other half of the bargain. And here is the part of the proposal that would be truly innovative – making Tim Kaine vice-president as part of a concept rare to the US, though common to parliamentary democracies – a coalition government of national unity.
Beyond saving us from the threat of Trump’s unpredictable finger on the nuclear button, or likely national trauma of impeachment, this is the part that would make the electors genuine heroes of American democracy. The truth is that our system is stagnating from the failure of the parties to agree on very much. A national unity government would demand that cooperation as nothing else ever has.
Like coalition governments in other countries, the two parties would divide up the cabinet posts. They would jointly develop a legislative and regulatory program, at least temporarily giving up the delusion that in a political system divided in half, either side can ever achieve anything resembling total victory.
How else can we ever truly resolve such enormous issues as fixing our immigration system, making our tax system both fairer and simpler, reforming our broken political system, finding the right mix of economic development and prudent regulation? While Trump fans would certainly react to such an Electoral College decision with outrage and violence, one would hope that they could eventually be moved by any actual successes obtained in fixing some of the worst dysfunctions of Washington.
Republicans have shown that they will bring the system to a halt if they don’t get their way – and sadly, have been rewarded for that tactic more than once. But how could they continue to do that if forced into a marriage with the opposition party? This deal would offer something to both parties as well as to those independents always complaining about the parties getting nothing done and failing to represent them. The two unassuming vice presidential candidates would have the opportunity to deliver lasting change without stirring mass opposition in ways that perhaps more flamboyant personalities could not.
Would I personally want Mike Pence to be president? Hell no – he’s way too right-wing for my taste. But I suspect he would govern more as a conventional conservative Republican than in whatever unpredictable and dangerous ways Trump would. Yes, we would still go backwards on too many issues — but after four years, there’s a greater chance that we would still have a recognizable democracy to work with. With Trump, by contrast, all bets are off.
Politics is about choices, the art of the possible – it’s not about unattainable ideals. A Pence-Kaine coalition government would be the best option of the ones that are conceivably available.
History in our hands
Following the path I’ve laid out here would require tremendous courage, vision and strategic foresight on the part of our electors. It is not easy to step onto the American political stage and do something utterly unprecedented. And yet that is precisely what we need right now.
What would the founders do in this situation? We cannot know. But they left the democracy that they created in our hands for us to decide what to do with it. So dear electors, please take that responsibility with the utmost seriousness.
Yes, the idea I’m proposing here is highly unconventional, but that is exactly what the whole 2016 campaign has been. We have reached a point where lazy, conventional thinking isn’t enough to save us anymore. Let’s try thinking differently – even wildly – in hopes of landing upon a real solution to salvage American democracy, peace, prosperity and progress. It’s worth it.