Early Lessons of Election Day 2016

Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders have cruised to stunning victories in the New Hampshire primary, CNN projects, in results that will rock the establishments of both parties and confirm the strength of outsider candidates in a wild presidential race.

by Robert E. Hunter

A few hours after these comments appear on Lobelog, we should know who will be president of the United States for the next four years. Postmortems will begin in earnest as soon as the results are declared and the media’s attention switches from David-vs.-Goliath mode to predicting the course of the new administration.

Without knowing the election’s results, let me hazard a few conclusions based on what we have seen during this political campaign. This is an attempt to glean something of the national temperament and hence at least a few elements of the challenges facing the new president-elect when she or he is sworn in as the 46th  president on January 20. This prognostication is not made easier by the fact that “issues,” those things that will be the real determinants of choices facing the new chief executive and directions for the country, have only occasionally come center stage in this year’s pageant of democracy. Instead, for a variety of reasons, matters of character have been uppermost, pushing to one side the fact that the decision We the People of the United States make this election day will have a profound effect on the nation’s immediate destiny both at home and abroad.

The campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump struck some common nerves in the national psyche. Although much of what Trump has said is odious, in some areas critical to the nature of our country and its future, these two candidates’ rejection of the status quo has been in the majority in electoral measures of the popular will, whatever the final result this election day.

So, for instance, the next president will need to place top priority on a domestic agenda, whether to be “stronger together” or to “make America great again.” That means focusing more on investments at home than on devoting resources to activities abroad. It means rebuilding infrastructure. It means attending to the financing and fairness of the nation’s health-care system, either to build on “Obamacare” or to repeal it and seek something else to put in its place. It means finally coming to terms, through one means or another, with the economic and social impact of immigration, both legal and illegal. It means dealing with anger at legitimate grievances—not racism, sexism, xenophobia, or fear of the pace of social change. This challenge is not of the magnitude of FDR’s “forgotten man [and woman] at the bottom of the economic pyramid,” but there are too many who have not benefited from rising national income or have even fallen back. No functioning democracy can sustain the divisions in the nation that have opened up.

These conclusions also have implications for America’s role abroad. New trade agreements, both for the Pacific and the Atlantic, have lost much of their political support, as they have become symbols if not also substance of the threat to American jobs and social peace. The virtues of globalization are under challenge as never before, along with maldistribution of its benefits. And even though globalization is only one factor in job loss, and even if its good far outweighs the bad for the country as a whole, in at least one area of America’s role in the world, economic and hence geopolitical competition from China, there are demands for greater focus on America’s internal capacities. This focus must be shared by the new president, the for-too-long-dysfunctional Congress, and the private sector.

The temper of most Americans has also been progressively turning away from greater military involvement aboard where that carries risk of new wars and is not clearly germane to national security. Combating terrorism, especially against the United States, is a well-understood requirement, but the public supports indirect means—notably the use of drones and targeted assassinations—not commitment of US ground forces or risk of blundering into new conflict. President Barack Obama may be criticized for doing too little regarding Syria and Libya, but he is in tune with the national disgust with more than a decade’s wastage of both blood and treasure since the misbegotten invasion of Iraq. His successful negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, to constrain its capacity to build the bomb, has the support of the nation, though not some vocal interest groups. There is also no inclination to see US engagement in more Middle East wars or steps taken that could put us on that course, including with Iran. Nor, despite support for containing Russian aggression in Ukraine and pressure on US allies, is there any sense that the American people, as opposed to many in Washington, are willing to see a new Cold War if it can at all be avoided.

This list of requirements and limitations facing the new president does not mean that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, although identifying concerns, rejecting more-of-the-same, and offering some alternatives, have necessarily been right and certainly not in all particulars—and certainly not the noxious courses of action advanced by Trump. But they have articulated what has been “blowin’ in the wind” this year. The two candidates have helped to set an unavoidable agenda and present cautionary notes that the next president, most likely Hillary Clinton, must acknowledge and act upon to govern effectively.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.


One Comment

  1. A worthy read (I wavered in my admiration when I came to “…Russia’s aggression in Ukraine…”). Thank you. May God help us.

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