No Safe States in 2016

We tell ourselves that Oregon is a “safe state,” so we can vote for president based on our conscience. A certain perverse complacency lulls us, reasoning that our state’s seven electoral votes will certainly fall into the Democratic column, as they have in every presidential election since 1988. If the outcome is certain, then our choices won’t matter.

But that reasoning assumes that everything ends on Tuesday night. It fails to consider what might happen the next day, or 72 days after that, or a thousand days from now. All could be influenced by the vote tallies from Tuesday.

For the first time in our lifetimes, a major party presidential candidate is reserving his right to question those vote tallies. If one candidate wins fair and square, that’s not a guarantee that Wednesday morning will bring a peaceful resolution of this campaign.

On some level, this presidential campaign has become a referendum on the American model of democracy. Do we want our current system to continue? Unfortunately, votes for all other candidates will be counted by some as “Nay.” The closer the contest, the more likely the outcome will be contested.

Inauguration Day will be January 20, 2017. Whether any candidate can claim a mandate will in part depend on vote totals from everywhere, all at once. If one candidate secures a strong majority, exceeding expectations everywhere, that candidate will have a better chance of governing with legitimacy.

We didn’t used to worry about legitimacy of our elections or their outcomes, but skeptical voices — inside government and all around it — have been getting steadily louder over the past decade and a half. We’re now to the point where some wonder whether anyone can successfully navigate our check-and-balance system.

Sadly, President Obama contributed to this skepticism when he campaigned against his political opponents by reminding everyone that he had “a pen and a phone.” He could change public policies, whether Congress cooperated or not. His challenge was technically sound, but also an admission that our systems are breaking down.

It’s no wonder that one of our candidates has made extravagant promises about what he expects to accomplish “very, very quickly” once he takes office. Wars will be resolved, terrorism expunged, health care expenses contained, political adversaries jailed. Many voters seem more than willing to hand authority to somebody who will use more than a pen and a phone to exert and expand his political power.

We can hope that our balance of powers will protect us from the worst possible outcomes, but that hope would not be based on recent history. We’ve been allowing more and more power to accrue to the White House for decades. Executive orders, administrative rules, secret signing statements — all of these tools are being used more and more.

What makes us so sure those powers won’t eventually end up in the hands of somebody who doesn’t deserve our trust? Both of our major party candidates have already fallen below that threshold, as many would measure it. But that’s not an assurance that things can’t get worse.

Donald Trump has been a better version of Sarah Palin, but who will step up in 2019 and be a better version of Donald Trump? Will America swoon to the voice of demagoguery on Tuesday? If not, we don’t dare let it be close. Because if we do, there will be somebody else suiting up to out-Trump Trump in 2020.

Maybe that will be Trump again, or his daughter, or some other TV personality who knows the powers of persuasion.

The game plan is clear for all to see. Start with celebrity. Add plenty of simple solutions and blame-shifting between ethnic groups. If that formula got somebody close to the White House, what will happen if they are able to add message and campaign discipline?

The Republican Party leadership was not able to stop Donald Trump’s candidacy. Our best opportunity to dissuade a future candidate that improves on his formula will be in the next few days. That message must come from each and all of us. This year, there are no safe states.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs