November 13 Letter to Constituents

While my letters typically focus on our City, I feel compelled to discuss the national election, which likely will have a greater affect on our lives than anything that happened in City Hall.

Character and the Presidency

In 1800-01, when the House of Representatives voted to break the Electoral College tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton faced a difficult choice.  Jefferson’s principles and policies were directly opposed to Hamilton’s, but Hamilton’s concerns about Burr’s character led him to encourage his allies to support Jefferson.  In Hamilton’s words, “Mr. Burr loves nothing but himself-[t]hinks of nothing but his own aggrandizement–and will be content with nothing short of permanent power in his own hands.”

In the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton devoted the bulk of her campaign to raising concerns about Donald Trump’s character – his statements about ethnic and religious minorities and women, his “birther” campaign against President Obama, and so on.  Because the Democrats already supported Hillary Clinton’s policies, she directed this argument to independents and Republicans.  Preliminary exit polling data suggests it did not work – Mr. Trump received around 87% of the vote of self-identified Republicans, about the same level as Ms. Clinton received from self-identified Democrats.  I agreed with her proposition – while Hillary Clinton has her own flaws, they were within the ballpark of some previous Presidents, while Trump’s were of a different order of magnitude.

This raises the question of the importance of character in the Presidency.  If the Democratic candidate had Trump’s character and the Republican candidate had Clinton’s, would I as a Democrat have chosen character over policy?  Given the risks I see Donald Trump posing, which go beyond the personally-directed vices of the Clinton years to a more Nixonian risk of damage to American citizens, I hope I would choose character, but I as a Democrat was spared such a choice in this election.

There is no question Donald Trump’s election is a sign that voters rejected President Obama’s legacy.  With that said, the concerns about the President-elect’s character (which are shared by many Republicans as well as Democrats) only raise the standing of President Obama.  He is near the end of two terms in office, and his character has never seriously been questioned.  While many of his policies and decisions were controversial (and at times less than successful), his opponents devoted their greatest passion to questioning his religion and his place of birth, because they could not find any legitimate issue to serve as a pretext for their visceral antipathy.  After the election. President Obama urged all Americans to root for President Trump to succeed, even though Trump led the “birther” movement and opposes much of what Obama stands for.  In making this difficult statement, we saw once again how fortunate we are to have a president of impeccable character.

Eight years ago, Lauren and I spent the weekend after the Presidential election in Las Vegas, awash in the dream of hope and change.  This weekend is very different for me, but I draw inspiration from President Obama’s legacy of public service and character, which will remain a source of inspiration as I return to City matters in the coming weeks and months.


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