Larry Smith

I was in graduate school as the presidential election of 2000 got into full swing. That epic (and highly controversial) contest was the first one that I personally recall in which an almost manic sense of urgency seemed to grip the public — in the U.S. and abroad. Indeed, several of my classmates who were citizens of other countries were nearly as invested in the outcome as Americans were. At least one of them said, “This election is too important for just Americans to vote in!” This person genuinely wanted people who weren’t U.S. citizens to have a say. (Russia, are you listening?) Obviously, the world didn’t end — even though many people felt like it would if former Vice President Al Gore lost. 

Similarly, in 2008, the Great Recession engendered angst among a majority of the electorate. It again seemed that the fate of the world depended on the outcome of the election. The late Sen. John McCain argued, reasonably, that the times called for a president who had a long track record of working to resolve political crises. He also argued, reasonably, that then-Sen. Barack Obama was untested. Unfortunately for McCain, then-President George W. Bush — who was a member of McCain’s party — had historically low approval ratings. In fact, it turned out that Bush would ultimately defeat McCain twice. The first time was the 2000 presidential primary race, which saw Bush prevail over McCain to secure the Republican nomination. The second time was in the 2008 general election, when Bush’s legacy hung around McCain’s neck like a lead albatross. (Incidentally, pundits still debate whether adding former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to his ticket helped or hurt his bid.) 

Fast forward to four years ago. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, charged that Republican businessman Donald Trump was too emotionally unstable, too boorish, too ignorant, too divisive and too inexperienced to assume the massive responsibilities of the U.S. presidency. Though she did convince roughly three million more Americans that she was the more qualified candidate, the results of the Electoral College — which were forged in esoteric and inconsistent rules — determined otherwise. Her defeat was as unexpected as it was stunning.

So, here we are in 2020, enduring what is shaping up to be a schizophrenic and fraught Democratic primary contest. (Perhaps we’ll know by late summer who actually won in Iowa.) The incumbent president is the most divisive U.S. head of state in living memory. Emboldened by his “total acquittal” in the Senate, Donald Trump offers no evidence that he will approach his role differently than he has heretofore. And why would he? Trump knows as long as he has an approval rating among Republicans that is north of 90% he has carte blanche. (Just this week his anger about long-time friend Roger Stone’s recommended prison term prompted the Justice Department to lower said recommendation. This is the type of scenario one would expect in a so-called banana republic.)

What’s my point? The stakes are historically high in this year’s presidential election. For better, and for worse, the United States remains the only indispensable nation. Despite our severely tarnished brand, most of the world expects — and needs — us to lead. No other nation possesses the critical combination of “hard power” and “soft power” required to intervene in seemingly intractable political, economic, social and environmental challenges that exist around the world. For example, what takes place in the next few years will determine whether we can halt, or possibly even reverse, the damning effects of climate change. (As the saying goes, “There is no Planet B.”) Further, the execrable immorality of the yawning wealth gap — here and abroad — threatens to cause a global “French Revolution.” The mainstreaming of proto-fascism in the U.S., Europe and Latin America could overturn the very fragile de facto armistice that has prevented (or perhaps only forestalled) another world war. Who do we want as the captain of our ship as we navigate these gale-force headwinds?

Am I being hyperbolic? Maybe. (But I doubt it.) In any case, as a student of history I understand that the results of many bygone presidential contests have demonstrated that the more “dangerous” or “risky” nominee often prevails over the “safer” one (e.g., Trump vs. Clinton, Reagan vs. Carter, etc). Of course, depending on who secures the Democratic nomination, the notion of “risky” will be a very complicated one. Nonetheless, as the race for the Democratic nomination unfolds, a fractious Democratic Party will need to rally around its chosen standard bearer — no matter who it is — if it hopes to fare well in a very tough fight against a surging incumbent. 

So, please, vote. It really does matter this time. Seriously. 

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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