Friday 9 December 2016

Break Glass In Emergency

The Electoral College will meet on the 19th of December. It is almost certain to formalise the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States.

Almost certain. Thereby hangs a tale.

Maybe he won't be looking so smug after all?

The President is not directly elected by the voters, but by the Electoral College. Each state chooses a slate of electors. While it is customary for the electors to vote for the winner of the popular vote in their state (or in a few cases, their congressional district), nothing in the US Constitution requires it. On occasion, so-called "faithless electors" have voted for someone other than the individual mandated by their state.

At least one Republican elector, Christopher Suprun of Texas, has declared his intention not to vote for Trump. This raises hopes that others may follow, and deny Trump the White House.

2016 has been a bizarre and astonishing year, full of extraordinary events; but even by those standards, it's unlikely the EC will stop Trump. Five, ten, or even twenty faithless electors would be remarkable, but not sufficient; it would take 37 defections to overturn the result. A non-standard EC scenario is among the longest of long shots, and always has been.

That said, let's run with this idea for a while, and see where it leads.

The EC votes separately for President and Vice President. So they could choose Tim Kaine as VP, in recognition that the Clinton-Kaine ticket clearly won the popular vote. (The EC could also pick Hillary Clinton, or anyone else constitutionally qualified to be President, but let's say it's Kaine.)

This would be largely symbolic --- unless Trump was unable to serve as President through death, ill-health, or impeachment, in which case Kaine would take over. Donald Trump is 70 years old and clearly not in the best of physical shape, so the first two are very real possibilities. It would set up a fascinating dynamic, in which Republicans prayed devoutly for the health and well-being of the faithless man in the White House.

At the very least, it would be amusing to see the look on Mike Pence's face.

Now let us turn to the big prize of the Presidency.

While the letter of the law allows the EC to choose a President other than Trump, doing so would be completely without precedent. The political and constitutional upheaval would be a sight to behold. Trump's core supporters would deride the winner of the EC as an illegitimate President. Depending who was chosen in Trump's place, many mainstream Republicans and even Democrats might do the same. Far-right groups would openly call for armed insurrection.

What would Trump himself do? We don't know. There is a school of thought that Trump never really wanted the Presidency, is alarmed by the work and responsibility it entails, and would privately welcome the excuse to be rid of it. However, I suspect his ego would get the better of him; with Trump, that is usually a safe bet. He would rail against the result, addressing massive, angry rallies of his supporters. He might not openly call for violence, but so far he has shown no inclination to discourage it.

Let us be clear: If the Electoral College denied Trump the White House, its members would be taking on a grave responsibility. Such a choice would be fraught with risk, and could easily end in blood on the streets.

Supposing for a moment they go through with it, who would the EC choose instead of Trump?

The obvious candidate is Hillary Clinton. After all, she won the popular vote by a margin of 2.6 million and rising. But now we run up against another problem. Electors are selected by their respective political parties. The parties are well aware of the potential for faithless electors, and so they choose for partisan loyalty above all else.

Hillary Clinton is not just any Democrat; she has been the GOP's prime hate figure for a quarter of a century. For the most part, the GOP electors will see her as a criminal, a would-be tyrant, and possibly a threat to their precious bodily fluids. Whether this is fair or accurate is beside the point; it's what they believe. Are thirty-seven of them going to break off and cast votes for Clinton? I think not.

Creative thinkers are suggesting some other candidate as a compromise. In the Washington Post, a conservative writer named Michael F. Cannon argues for Mitt Romney:

Democrats’ best chance to prevent Donald Trump from assuming the presidency is instead to do the unthinkable: Throw their support behind another Republican, such as Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and 2012 GOP presidential nominee.

I don't know much about Cannon, but he clearly has testicles of solid brass.

Romney wasn't running in this election, but back in the primaries, there were plenty of other establishment Republicans: Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich. None of them came close to winning the nomination.

The voters didn't want what they were selling, and with good reason. All of them offered the standard Republican package: Cut taxes, deregulate and privatise on a massive scale, slash civilian spending and fatten the military. Its popularity now wears thin, as voters notice it has failed to live up to its grandiose claims as a cure for America's ills.

Trump didn't win votes by being an establishment Republican. Neither did Clinton. For all the cynical posturing on the left about Clinton being no different from the Republicans, the fact is there are real and substantive differences between her and the likes of Romney. Say what you will about Clinton, she didn't stand for slashing taxes on the rich, denying that climate change exists, or dismantling public services. Romney would cheerfully team up with Republican majorities in Congress to do all this and more.

This election was many things, not all of which are easily understood; but it surely wasn't an endorsement of Romney Republicanism. If Cannon wants to put forward a centrist consensus candidate, he could at least suggest someone like Michael Bloomberg or ex-Republican Jim Webb. Mitt "Forty-Seven Percent" Romney, the great healer of national divides? You've got to be kidding me.

Cannon says the Democrats should overlook all this in the cause of stopping Trump:

If Democrats believe Trump poses a unique threat to the republic, and signal this is not okay by reaching across the aisle to marginalize and stop him, then win or lose, Democrats could legitimately claim they put partisanship aside for the good of the country.
If Democrats believe Trump poses a unique threat yet don’t support another Republican in the electoral college, it will indicate that Democrats see Trump as no different from any other Republican.

In a twisted way, this is almost admirable. It is extortion worthy of the most cold-blooded sociopath. "Yeah, I could take the matches away from this pyromaniac before he burns us all to death. I could, but I won't, unless you give me everything I want."

In Cannon's view, duty and patriotism are for suckers. Establishment Republicans can't be expected to lift a finger to stop Trump, but the Democrats can sacrifice most of what they hold dear. In exchange, they get a non-Trump Republican President who is less likely to destroy the world through sheer ineptitude. I mean, that's not nothing, but it's a pitiful reward for winning the popular vote.

If the Democrats found some testicular (or ovarian) fortitude of their own, they could put forward their own alternative candidate. They could go so far as to acknowledge Hillary Clinton is toxic to Republicans, but no further.

The Democrats need a person of stature, someone with experience and authority. Someone who has served in high office with dignity. Someone with a sense of humour.

Joe Biden, this is your hour.

It would be marvellous if a combination of Clinton's electors and defections from Trump placed Biden in the Oval Office. So long as I'm wishing for Christmas miracles, I'd like a lifetime supply of single malt whisky, but a man can dream.

Sadly, we are stuck with a grubby reality in which the electors will anoint President Trump. I fear I may need a great deal of whisky to get through the next four years.

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