Look on the bright side

It would be nice to conclude our coverage for 2016 on a totally positive note. Some major disagreements are playing out in the political arena, however, and we would be remiss to omit them from this review of the current state.

The year brought an exciting presidential election, with an outcome that surprised many people (including politicians, reporters, pundits, pollsters, and professors). From our standpoint, Donald Trump’s victory seems auspicious – particularly if some of his policy ideas get toned down a bit. But the billionaire businessman has many critics, some of whom have invested much time and energy in questioning whether he is qualified for the highest office in the land

None of these efforts to change the outcome of the election, or failing that delegitimize it, seem likely to accomplish much. It might be more productive for his opponents to focus on assessing, and if appropriate pushing for changes in, the policy proposals that Trump puts on the table after taking office. Realistically, however, the passions that have been unleashed must play out first.

I. Election in a nutshell – Throughout the nominating phase and general election campaign, SAFE kept trying to focus on policy differences. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a real debate between the candidates about the fiscal problem and other issues of the day?

Time and again, however, most of the available time and energy wound up being devoted to other matters – polling results, style points in debates and other public appearances, and the latest revelations about skeletons in the candidates’ respective closets. Even when policy differences were brought up, the discussions tended to be superficial. See, e.g., Presidential candidates “grilled” on debt & entitlements,

Noting the findings of a recently published academic study, we ultimately concluded that the conduct of the 2016 election was par for the course because most voters don’t cast their ballots based on a reasoned evaluation of which candidates can best represent their policy preferences. Democracy for realists; Why elections do not produce responsive government, Christopher Achen (Princeton) & Larry Bartels (Vanderbilt),

Given the Achen & Bartels findings, it appears that identity politics (aka tribalism) are likely to be a better predictor of the election results than popular sentiment about proposed or even actual policies. And the battle lines were clear in 2016; this was hardly a case of lookalike candidates. Alice in Wonderland: Tweedledee and Tweedledum,
video (1:47).

The only complication was that many voters belonged to more than one faction and therefore had potentially conflicting loyalties. What this election is about,

The group identity fault lines are stark in this year’s election. Thus, at the risk of overgeneralizing, women (especially those who are single), blacks, Hispanics, younger Americans, people who don’t hold a job, government employees, educators, the mainstream media, the well-educated, and big business tend to support Clinton. On the other hand, men, whites, the working middle class, small business, gun owners, evangelicals, law enforcement, and the military lean to Trump.

Until Election Day, it was commonly believed – as shown by most polls, media coverage, and even betting market results – that Hillary Clinton would win the election. She had more establishment backing, her campaign was more lavishly funded and supposedly better organized, and Donald Trump had extraordinarily high unfavorability ratings in the polls (Clinton also had high unfavorability ratings, but it was reasoned that Democrats would vote for her anyway).

As the polls closed and the election results began to be reported, it became clear that Trump had done better than expected. It wasn’t a landslide win, as he would claim later; indeed, Clinton came out ahead in the nationwide popular vote – supposedly by a margin of nearly 3 million votes. Electoral votes were what counted under the Constitution, however, and Trump was the winner (306-232).

It wasn’t hard to imagine that this would be a hard pill for Democratic voters to swallow, even though Clinton gave a gracious concession speech in the early morning hours of November 9 and the president subsequently invited Trump to the White House for a discussion about the transition that ran for some 90 minutes and supposedly went well.

II. Pushback – For a week or so after the election, there were protests of Trump’s victory around the country – some peaceful and others not. And a site called Change.org secured over 4 million signatures on a petition urging Trump electors to ignore their pre-election representations and vote for Clinton. Also, some Democratic politicians, notably Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, kept up a drumbeat of Trump criticism as though to foster the impression that his election was unacceptable.

#The initial argument was that Clinton deserved to win because she had received the most votes. Denying Trump the presidency on this basis would entail changing the rules in the middle of the game, however, which in our opinion was a nonstarter. Furthermore, there didn’t appear to be any good reason for changing the rules going forward. Electoral College serves valid purposes,

Summing up, we have suggested that the electoral system was adopted for valid reasons historically, that the system as it has evolved continues to give appropriate representation to the various geographic areas of the country, and that [ a National Popular Vote] system would introduce new delays and controversies without any clear-cut benefit (partisan considerations aside). Or to paraphrase an old saying, “the system isn’t broken, so don’t try to fix it.”

No matter, there have been continuing efforts to contact Republican electors and convince them that they should – nay must – refuse to vote for Donald Trump as president. In last-shot bid, thousands urge electoral college to block Trump at Monday vote, Robert Samuels, Washington Post,

Carole Joyce of Arizona expected her role as a GOP elector to be pretty simple: She would meet the others in Phoenix and carry out a vote for Trump, who won the most votes in her state and whom she personally supported. But then came the mail and the emails and the phone calls — first hundreds, then thousands of voters worrying that Trump’s impulsive nature would lead the country into another war.

#A recount was demanded in three “rust belt” states that had gone for Trump by relatively narrow margins, namely Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Allegations were made that the voting results were fishy and needed to be verified; the effort was nominally spearheaded by Jill Stein of the Green Party (who couldn’t hope to win as the result of a recount, but stood to benefit from the associated publicity and possibly to retain some of the cash being raised).

Without joining in Stein’s demand, the Clinton campaign indicated its intention to monitor the recounts if they took place. Clinton campaign will participate in Jill Stein’s recount, newsmax.com,

A convincing basis for recounts was never established, and Stein’s initiative fell flat. Courts in Pennsylvania denied a recount. Michigan courts stopped the exercise before it could go very far (but not before voting irregularities in some Detroit electoral districts came to light that might have favored the Democratic candidate). A recount in Wisconsin increased Trump’s statewide total by a bit over 100 votes.

#What about the theory that voters had been misled by “fake news” reports so Trump’s apparent victory should not be considered binding?

Fake news certainly does circulate on the Internet, and some of the culprits are conservatives. However, (1) liberals also generate fake news, (2) information labeled as fake may represent interpretation versus misstatement, and (3) Democratic candidates have been heavily favored by the messaging of mainstream (print and most television networks) media. Accordingly, claims that the Trump campaign had somehow stolen the election seemed unconvincing. Robust debate is the best antidote for bad thinking,

#A potentially weightier argument is that Russian hackers obtained and publicized non-public information, resulting in disclosures embarrassing to Clinton and her supporters. Surely electors should consider this subversive activity, authorized by the highest level of the Russian government (i.e., Vladimir Putin), before casting their votes to determine the US president. And the matter would seem to be of some urgency as the Electoral College is scheduled to vote on December 19 (

Some of the people fronting this complaint about the Russian hacking appear to be rank amateurs, out to make a statement and little more - consider this
" rel="external">video (2:24). Celebrities beg electors to be “heroes” and vote against Trump, Daniel Halper, nypost.com, 12/15/16.

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However, some respected newspapers, etc. have publicized the effort as though it represented a perfectly normal reaction under the circumstances. Media move to delegitimize Trump’s victory, Eddie Scarry, Washington Examiner, 12/18/16.

•New York Time columnist Paul Krugman called the outcome of the election “illegitimate” because Trump lost the popular vote and won the Electoral College “only thanks to foreign intervention and grotesquely inappropriate, partisan behavior on the part of domestic law enforcement."

•Slate writer Jamelle Bouie (appearing on CBS’s Face the Nation): "And ... if it is true, if we have further verification of this, then what it suggests potentially is that the election was in some sense illegitimate. And I don't know where you go from there."

•Daily Beast contributor Alan Gilbert: [His column] argued that early exit polling favored Clinton, leading many to believe she was headed for a win, and thus should cast doubt on the outcome. "In any other country, the U.S. State Department would declare the presidential election results a hoax."

•Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne: “. . . the post-election Trump has been as abusive and self-involved as he was during the campaign. The opposition’s job is to stand up and mitigate the damage he could do to our country.”

•Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker: "If there are 37 Republicans among [the electors] with the courage to perform their moral duty and protect the nation from a talented but dangerous president-elect, a new history of heroism will have to be written. Please, be brave."

The Russian hacking theory has also been supported to varying degrees by members of the US intelligence community, by the president, and by Hillary Clinton – although the administration’s concerns about alleged Russian cyberattacks were arguably not addressed in a timely manner.

Several months ago, there were reports attributing leaks of information from the files of the Democratic national committee and Clinton campaign adviser John Podesta – released by the WikiLeaks network headed by Julius Assange – to Russian hackers. Clinton defenders slam WikiLeaks as Trump, Russian dirty work. Sarah Westwood, Washington Examiner,

Whatever the source of the leaked e-mails, it did not seem they were having much impact. Perhaps this helps to explain why the administration maintained a relatively low profile on the matter. WikiLeaks is breaking scandal upon scandal . . but the media is ignoring them, Warner Huston, constitution.com,

Secretary of State John Kerry did publicly state that the US might respond in some fashion, but there were no reports of actions taken. Kerry threatens retaliation for Russian meddling in US elections, Joel Gehrke, Washington Examiner,

Recently, with no fresh reports of Russian hacking, the president resurrected this issue and ordered an investigation that will supposedly be completed before he leaves office on January 20. Obama orders “full review” of cyberattacks during election, Gabby Morrongiello, Washington Examiner,

WikiLeaks has denied that the e-mails released were obtained from Russian sources, and there are other possibilities – such as a leaker working for the Democratic National Committee - which cannot necessarily be ruled out. “Not Russians”: Who really was WikiLeaks’ DNC Deepthroat, Robert Romano, netrightdaily.com,

When the president addressed this issue in a year-end press conference (and also an interview with NPR released around the same time), it was interesting to see how he threaded the needle. Press conference transcript,

On one hand, the president stated that information obtained by Russian hackers had been released by WikiLeaks to the detriment of the Clinton campaign. Such activity could not be tolerated, and the US needed to respond in a manner that would “make sure that we are preventing that kind of interference through cyberattacks in the future.” The need for a US response should not be a partisan issue, but action had been deferred earlier due to a desire not to politicize the issue during the election campaign. He had now ordered a full review of the matter, which would be published – with necessary omissions to avoid giving away US sources and methods – in due course.

On the other hand, there was no evidence of Russian hacking of US electoral systems, attempts to alter voting results, etc., an activity that the president had warned Putin in early September might have serious consequences. The president ducked a question about how seriously the alleged Russian hacking/WikiLeaks disclosures had affected Clinton’s campaign, suggesting it might be more appropriate to focus on rebuilding a Democratic Party that had seemingly lost sight of working class voters. He wouldn’t comment on whether electors in the Electoral College voting should get a security briefing before voting (so clearly this wouldn’t happen) or how the cyberattacks should influence their thinking. The administration would continue its full cooperation with the president elect’s transition team.

For her part, Hillary Clinton has incorporated Russian hacking into her narrative about the election outcome. Clinton blames Comey and Putin for her loss, Kyle Feldscher, Washington Examiner,

•The Times reported Clinton told rich donors in Manhattan on Thursday the letter from the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (re a temporary reopening of the investigation of her e-mails) and the hacks reportedly done by the Russians into the Democratic National Committee and campaign chairman John Podesta convinced undecided voters to go for President-elect Trump.

• Clinton told her donors the press didn't help her enough during the campaign in order to make the case that Russia was trying to interfere in the election. The reports of Russian involvement in the hacks were widespread. "Make no mistake, as the press is finally catching up to the facts, which we desperately tried to present to them during the last months of the campaign."

What a change from Clinton’s feigned outrage at Trump’s “horrifying" refusal to say, during the final presidential debate, that he would necessarily accept the results of the election. Now Clinton and many members of her party are doing exactly what they claimed Trump might do, namely looking for any excuse they can find to challenge the outcome. The peaceful transition of power? Derek Hunter, Townhall.com,

Let them throw their tantrum. This attempted bloodless coup will fail, and power will be transferred. But never forget. The next four years undoubtedly will be a constant reminder. Wear your seatbelt. 

III. Path forward – Meanwhile, the Trump team has been moving forward in a reasonably constructive fashion. A series of “thank you” rallies in battleground states has been upbeat and seemingly aimed at building a spirit of inclusiveness that was not always achieved during the campaign. Cabinet, etc. appointments are being announced on schedule, and generally seem consistent with the president elect’s campaign promises. There will be some controversy about Trump’s business interests, and his pledge to cede management responsibility to his two adult sons will be predictably attacked as insufficient after the press conference on this subject in January (postponed from December 15).

The president elect doesn’t necessarily share SAFE’s vision of smaller, more focused, less costly government, but we applaud his instincts for cutting regulations and tax rates. In combination with sensible fiscal policies, such changes – scornfully referred to by big government fans as “trickledown economics” - could go a long way towards rejuvenating the US economy.

There will be ample opportunity to discuss the specifics next year, but we would like to point out a comment by noted economist Kenneth Rogoff. Harvard’s Rogoff: Trump will spark “significantly faster” growth than Obama, newsmax.com,

Those who are deeply wedded to the idea of 'secular stagnation' would say high growth under Trump is well-nigh impossible. But if one believes, as I do, that the slow growth of the last eight years was mainly due to the overhang of debt and fear from the 2008 crisis, then it is not so hard to believe that normalization could be much closer than we realize. After all, so far virtually every financial crisis has eventually come to an end.

Rogoff adds caveats about the need for competent, surefooted implementation of the Trump game plan, but his overall thrust seems auspicious. Heretofore, most preeminent academic economists have opposed Trump, and 370 of them signed a
letter panning his economic approach that was published about a week before the election. Prominent economists, including eight Nobel laureates: “Do not vote for Donald Trump,” Nick Timiraos, Wall Street Journal, 11/1/16.

In attempting to check whether Rogoff signed this letter (he did not), we discovered that the link in the Wall Street Journal article – which worked fine several weeks ago - now leads to computer code gibberish versus a readable document. Perhaps this is a sign that the Trump team is headed in the right direction and the top economic gurus realize it. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

On that note, dear readers, this blog will close for the year. Our next entry will be on January 9th. In the meantime, happy holidays to all!

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