The early returns suggest that Hillary Clinton is getting a convention bounce, converting a one- or two-point margin-of-error lead into something close to six (in a new post-convention CBS News poll, for example). We’ll see more polls today, and tomorrow, and the next day and the next day, but it looks for now like the Democrats’ version of Morning in America is working, especially against Mr. Midnight in America.
There is one potential danger coming out of the convention, though, that Ross Douthat identified in his New York Times column Sunday: That while the Democrats offered up a lot of symbolism that undoubtedly appealed to “Republicans and right-leaning independents,” they put forward nothing of substance to give those voters a good hard reason to dump Trump and go with HRC.
Douthat built his case on three points: abortion, immigration, and entitlement reform. On all three, he argued, the Democratic platform jumped leftward this year, leaving the voters he’s concerned about with little or no plausible way to rationalize a Clinton vote. The program was “just Great Society liberalism come ’round again, saner than Trumpism… but ideologically similar at bottom.”
It’s a fair argument to a point, but… ideologically similar? Not adding “rare” to the rhetorical mantra about abortion is ideologically similar to proposing that thousands of federal agents be empowered to enter immigrant families’ homes, find out which ones of them came here without papers, and take those family members away? Not paying lip service to deficit reduction is equivalent to suggesting that members of a particular religious group be banned from entering the country? Now that’s a three-dimensional game of false equivalence if I’ve ever seen one!
Douthat felt some of that good old Twitter heat on Sunday and took to the platform to re-explain himself in a series of 15 tweets that made a more interesting—and to some extent persuasive—case than the original column. Here are a few of the tweets that sum up the gist:
2/ There is a growing sense among liberals now that it’s simply obvious that anti-Trump conservatives should and indeed must support HRC.
3/ There are plausible arguments that they’re right. BUT: I think liberals could profit from imagining how they themselves would react …
4/ …were the shoe on the other foot. That is, imagine a “Trump of the left” as the Democratic nominee.
6/ Okay. You don’t want to support them. But the Republican nominee is… Rick Santorum.
Then there were a few in which he defended analogizing Clinton to Santorum, and then:
13/ And it’s that level of ideological horror that liberals need to recognize that many conservatives feel about idea of a Hillary vote.
Okay, I kinda get that. Suppose the Democratic Party had nominated… I don’t know, who’s the closest equivalent to Trump? I’ve thought about this and the best answer I can conjure up is Sean Penn. He’s famous from another realm, and his views are generally outside the mainstream. But Penn’s no racist/neo-fascist, so it’s quite unfair to him in that respect, but as a loose analogy, it sort of works. I can’t come up with anyone better.
But Santorum is a bridge too far, because he’s been such an intense culture warrior (Douthat acknowledged this in a subsequent tweet). No, a Republican analogue to Clinton would be someone who is somewhat centrist, who picks his conservative spots, and who, like Clinton, is dragging around some scandal baggage.
Anyone come to mind? Yes—Chris Christie! That’s the Clinton of the GOP, or as close as we can come. I mean the pre-groveling-to-Trump Christie. So let’s imagine that this election were Democrat Sean Penn versus Republican Chris Christie.
Could I support Christie? To be honest, I doubt it. I’d probably skip voting on the presidency and take the George Will position, which I think is rather honorable under the circumstances—just let the other side have it for four years, and we’ll concentrate on Congress for now and regroup in 2020.
But here’s the answer to Douthat’s column, not his tweets. I don’t think Christie making comparatively minor rhetorical adjustments would persuade me to vote for him, no. And more than that, I don’t think Christie would need the likes of me to beat Penn. This calls into question the premise of Douthat’s 2/ tweet. I wouldn’t say it’s “simply obvious” that anti-Trump conservatives should back Clinton. It’s got to be very painful for committed conservatives to back Hillary Clinton. What they should do, though, is say that while they can’t vote for Clinton, Donald Trump should never be president of the United States, ever.
That’s the only principled position for conservatives to take in this election. It doesn’t endorse Clinton. But it says what needs to be said about Trump. People may infer from those two statements what they wish.
As for Clinton and the Democrats’ lefty platform, well, we’ll see if the Democrats are going to pursue all those things. I would imagine that if we really research the matter, we’d find that presidents don’t especially follow platforms. Every Republican president since 1980 was supposed to end legal abortion, but none did. Presidents do what seems politically possible at the time. The platform, as Douthat surely knows, was an intra-party negotiation with Sanders people to get their support. It doesn’t hold a Clinton administration to anything. If she’s president and the best she can do on minimum wage is $11 instead of $15, that’s what she’ll do.
Her selection of Tim Kaine—and her own history—tell us more about what kind of president she’ll be than the platform. I find Kaine admirable: It’s much harder to be pretty liberal in Virginia than it is to be a perfect lefty in, oh, Vermont, to choose a state name out of a hat. I find Clinton too cautious and have said so dozens of times, but for better or worse her history and nature are surer guides to how she’ll govern than the platform is. I would also expect that she and Kaine will make the overtures Douthat is asking for—maybe not those exact ones, but one or two general-election audience signals that she wants some center-right votes. If Trump is going to cede that space by offending everyone in sight, she’d be foolish not to try to take it.
I feel for conservative pundits and thinkers to some extent, I really do. I’ve wondered many times what I would do if the situation were reversed. But here’s the thing: The situation is not reversed. And it would never be reversed. The idea that the Democrats would nominate Sean Penn or, I don’t know, Alan Grayson (who probably isn’t even going to win his primary) or Charlie Sheen or Susan Sarandon or whomever is totally insane.
Democrats have cantered a bit to the left, but the Republicans have galloped to the right like Secretariat on crack. And over these past eight years of birther conspiracies and racially coded barbs at the moocher-class president, they’ve led their voters to the point where those voters thought voting for Donald Trump was a sensible and defensible thing. If I were on the right, I’d spend a lot more time examining why that happened than I would analyzing Hillary’s imperfections.