Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Come Together, Right Now

A flurry of conservative commentary expressed wonder at the tone and message of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Republican pundits were flummoxed to find themselves more in sympathy with speeches by the First Lady or the President than with that of their own party's nominee. Amazement was voiced at the sight of Democrats espousing such "conservative" values as patriotism, discipline, sacrifice, freedom from government overreach, community, and a belief in American exceptionalism.

For Democrats watching this odd spectacle, among its most amazing aspects was the conviction on the part of GOP commentators that the latter were exclusively "conservative" values. This is one of the very, very few positive outcomes to arise from Donald Trump's candidacy. The sheer degree to which Trump has departed from longstanding American political norms has brought into stark relief the common ground shared between Democrats and Republicans that had been occluded by decades of bitter polarization over matters of policy. Ironically, through the unique threat he has posed to it, Trump has taught us again that there really is a general American "political creed," a common commitment to the vitality of our Constitutional liberties and the integrity of the democratic political process.

Conscientious Republicans that make up the #NeverTrump movement have been able to see for some time that Trump's candidacy is a danger to our basic values and our system as a whole. Unfortunately, the structural dynamics of our two-party system and the continuing polarization of our politics has made it difficult to translate these convictions into meaningful political action. The same commentators that were so positively disposed to the DNC message in its first three days expressed dismay at the policy agenda laid out by Hillary Clinton in her speech accepting her party's nomination. Her endorsement of partisan agenda items such as an increased minimum wage, expanded assistance for college tuition, lifting of restrictions on abortion, and etcetera, placed #NeverTrump voters in a double-bind. As motivated as they are to vote against Donald Trump as a matter of patriotic principle, a vote for Hillary Clinton would betray their most deeply cherished policy goals. As Ron Dreher put it in The American Conservative, in appealing for conscientious votes to stop Donald Trump, the Democratic "ask" was too steep.

This is a complicated problem, from the vantage point of both sides of the aisle. In a multiparty system like that of France or Israel voters are given lots of options that express particular and discrete policy preferences, with the possibility of negotiating compromise coalitions after the votes are tallied. Our constitutional system, through mechanisms such as the electoral college and bicameral legislature (where the ratio of constituencies between senators can reach a differential of 71:1), forces our political parties to form large, diffuse political coalitions that blur the distinctions of policy preference between voters of different regions, ethnicity, and economic backgrounds. All policy goals become subordinated to the brute imperative of achieving 51% of the vote in any given electoral contest. Thus, as much as Hillary Clinton might have liked to "tack right" in her acceptance speech and offer GOP voters enticements to join her coalition, such a move would have risked alienating motivated Sanders supporters who are already suspicious of her candidacy, such that the gains among the former group might have been offset (or worse) by losses among the latter. Given what is at stake, Clinton cannot really be faulted for favoring consolidating her base over reaching across the aisle, as the empirical record of electoral politics generally shows the latter to be the riskier move.

We are, however, at an extraordinarily perilous crossroads in our national political life, one that calls for urgent measures. Even though the polls currently show Donald Trump's chances of winning the White House slipping, no one should be in any doubt about the danger that his candidacy poses to our system of government, and that it will continue to pose even if he should lose the election. The damage that Trump has done in debasing our political system will take time and effort to repair, and the destabilizing forces that he has unleashed in our larger political discourse will continue to derail our politics unless they can be met by some countervailing development. Anyone who doubts this need only contemplate Trump's recent veiled call for political violence, and wonder at what other messages he will broadcast in the following months that he possesses a national podium. It would be in everyone's interest if a coalition between Democratic and #NeverTrump voters could be formed, not only to deny Trump the White House, but to repair some of the harm he has done to our political life.

How then, can this be achieved, given the steep structural impediments to cooperation across the aisle in a national electoral contest? In online conversations with my dear friend Kathy Phillips Nanney, she suggested that modest concessions on the part of Hillary Clinton might be enough to win the support of #NeverTrump voters, particularly a pledge to refrain from seeking the repeal of the Hyde Amendment or from sponsoring legislation akin to California Senate Bill 1146 at the federal level. Alternatively, a pledge to retain the Garland nomination in lieu of withdrawing it in favor of a more liberal justice, and some sort of structured participation for GOP lawmakers in the process of developing a "short list" for future judicial appointments might assuage the partisan anxieties of Republican voters appalled by Trump but apprehensive about Clinton.

The problem with this scenario, of course, is that even such relatively modest concessions might cause turmoil within or defection from the Democratic ranks. Democrats harbor grievances over GOP obstructionism, and generally feel that unilateral concessions to Republican sensibilities have been poorly repaid during the Obama years. For Clinton to offer concessions in exchange for Republican votes would be problematic. But if Republican leaders formed a coalition to ask for such concessions in exchange for an electoral endorsement, political breakthrough might be possible.

If some prominent Republican leader, perhaps a presidential hopeful like Governor John Kasich of Ohio or Governor Susana Martinez of New Mexico, would lead a group of Republican officials in offering this trade collectively to the Clinton campaign, great benefits would accrue to all concerned, and indeed to the nation as a whole. To be clear, this would not be the formation of a new "third wave" movement or some grand, European-style centrist coalition. It would be a temporary, one-time pact, a discrete quid pro quo in service of principle during a national emergency.

Though the moment would admittedly be ephemeral, its potential long-term effects should make both Democrats and Republicans welcome such a plan. For the Republicans in the near term, this action would give #NeverTrump voters a mechanism by which to meaningfully participate in and impact the outcome of this election, a sense that their vote could be made to serve their values and interests even during a cycle in which none of their choices match their ideals. In the long term, such a Republican coalition as this plan proposes could serve as the nucleus of a reconstructed GOP in the post-Trump age, a way to put the party back on track in the wake of the damage done to its credibility by the excesses of its current nominee. For the Democrats, though the concessions they offered might bind them during the coming term and their relations with their temporary GOP confederates revert back to being adversarial after November, this moment of cooperation would still yield good effects. Assisting in developing an alternative GOP leadership that could take the reins from Trump is in the long-term interests of the Democrats, and re-establishing the precedent that parties can still horse trade in pursuit of political objectives, without treating each contest as a zero-sum game, might hold out some hope of ameliorating gridlock moving forward.

All this idea awaits is someone to lead the way. If some concerned #NeverTrump voter were to draft a letter or start a petition I, for one, would sign aboard. If the rise of Trump has taught us anything, it is that informed and conscientious citizenship matters now more than ever.

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