The unmaking of a president

By Fred Benson

Whether American voters prefer presumptive presidential candidates Trump, Clinton or neither, it is a good bet that all can agree this is the most acerbic, uninformative and raucous presidential campaign in history.

With Donald Trump diving to a new nadir for campaign behavior and his rivals forced to respond to his off-the-charts rhetoric in-kind, citizens here and observers abroad wonder what in the world is happening to the United States’ political system. Many question why unrestrained negative campaign tactics have reached such proportions. The answer, unfortunately, is that personal attacks work, often leaving voters to choose the person they dislike or distrust the least.

It is no longer a matter of winning an election on merits, but rather surviving the hateful and underhanded assaults on one’s gender, appearance, intelligence and integrity. Is this an appropriate way to elect the leader of our nation and, putatively, the world?

Trump is now setting his sights on a new enemy. Whenever he fails to get the results he wants, he faults the system, not his own shortcomings. He recently warned of “problems” if he is somehow denied the nomination at the GOP July convention in Cleveland. “I hope it doesn’t involve violence,” he said. “I’m not suggesting that. But I will say this: it’s a rigged system, it’s a crooked system, it’s 100 percent corrupt.” His statement plants the very seeds of violence he claims not to suggest. If there is a brokered convention in Cleveland and people are injured, he has only himself to blame. Voters would, we hope, blame him as well.

Setting Trump’s vitriol aside, it is fair to ask whether the process for electing our presidents as established in the U.S. Constitution in 1787 is still the right one. In order to hedge against the “popular passion” of individual voters, the country’s founders established an Electoral College that had very real powers to elect our president and vice-president. Although the makeup and the operation of the college were specifically defined by the Constitution, the process of choosing the electors was left to the states.

Political parties, primaries, caucuses and conventions emerged only after states began exercising the powers granted them by this constitutional provision. As a result, the Electoral College over time has been relegated to a role of confirming the outcome of the electoral process. Some charge that it is obsolete.

There are a number of things to question about today’s Electoral College process. It does not allow U.S. citizens to vote directly for their president and vice-president as they do for candidates for other public offices. Some argue that voter turnout is dampened because citizens don’t believe their votes make any difference in the final outcome. Further, most states follow the winner-take-all rule – only Maine and Nebraska do not – leading to the possibility of electing a president who did not actually win the popular vote if results were tallied proportionally.

The decision by our nation’s founders to let the states determine the process of selecting electors was adopted to ensure that the election was a national bottom-up effort, not a top-down driven centralized process. Changing these rules would require a constitutional amendment. Several have been offered, but none has been successful, as there always has been strong support for continuing a process that, in spite of its encumbrances, “has worked pretty well for a long time.” Best to leave it alone.

Finally, altering the Electoral College process would do nothing to dampen the abhorrent behavior roiling this campaign season. Voters must ignore the destructive backbiting and elect the person best suited to truly unify our nation and enhance its standing in the world. With the campaign atmosphere so laden with toxic haze, at this point, it is difficult to make a rational positive assessment of any candidate’s ability to meet that standard. Hopefully, the air will clear.

Fred Benson is a resident of Mount Desert and publishes Capitol Commentary, an independent political newsletter

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