History will decide if 2016 race is worst-ever in American politics
The link between alcohol and elections is older than the republic. As Daniel Okrent notes in his book “Last Call,” George Washington won his first term in the Virginia House of Burgesses after his campaign supplied the electorate with about half a gallon of rum, punch, hard cider, and beer for every vote he received. Continuing into the twentieth century, saloons served as ersatz campaign headquarters, where trades of votes for hooch were common. This sort of petty corruption has largely faded away, like so many chads in the wind, but the historical association between voting and imbibing has rarely seemed more relevant. After the election of 2016, Americans will need a drink.
History will judge whether this Presidential contest was the worst ever, but it certainly deserves to be a contender. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump entered the race with unenviable reputations, which suffered further from prolonged public exposure. To use a favorite campaign buzz phrase, this was due, in part, to pervasive false equivalence. Trump is a serial liar, a shady businessman, a bigot, and a self-proclaimed abuser of women; Clinton has a sometimes unsteady relationship with the truth and a faulty devotion to information security. Media attention focussed almost exclusively on these traits, rather than on, say, what either might actually do as President. In three debates, the moderators asked the candidates precisely zero questions about climate change, which represents an existential threat to life on Earth, but did provide a thorough airing of the fund-raising practices of the Clinton Foundation. In the past fortnight, though, the campaign has taken an even more bizarre turn, from the personal to the prosecutorial.
Eleven days before the election, James Comey, the director of the F.B.I., wrote a letter to congressional leaders reporting that there were new developments in the investigation of Clinton’s e-mail practices. In July, Comey had announced that he would not recommend any prosecution, but, in his letter of October 28th, he wrote, “In connection with an unrelated case, the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation.” That was followed by a cascade of leaks from the F.B.I., which was a rich irony, since the whole controversy supposedly involved Clinton’s inability to keep secrets. The leaks revealed that the F.B.I. had found the e-mails on computers associated with the former congressman Anthony Weiner. Comey’s letter did not say whether the e-mails implicated Clinton in any wrongdoing—agents hadn’t even examined the contents at that point—but, as any remotely sentient observer could have predicted, his interjection created a sensation that was damaging to Clinton’s chances.
The letter—a much appreciated gift to the Trump campaign—was outrageous for many reasons, starting with the fact that Comey violated Department of Justice policy by sending it. As a rule, prosecutors and investigators are supposed to refrain from offering updates on pending investigations. Their practice is put-up-or-shut-up; that is, bring formal charges or say nothing. This custom is especially important in politically charged cases, and even more significant in the period before Election Day. Comey released his letter not because he had any real information to impart but, it seems, to placate Republicans in Congress who are disappointed with his decision not to prosecute the Democratic nominee. (Comey may also have been trying to appease a rump group of right-leaning F.B.I. agents, who are also unhappy with the exoneration of Clinton. The leaks are unclear on this point.) For months, crowds at Trump’s rallies have greeted mention of Clinton’s name with shouts of “Lock her up!” The F.B.I. director told them to keep hope alive.
In a broader sense, Comey’s letter reflected an evolution of the campaign and, indeed, of the political moment. Bill Clinton’s Presidency was defined, for the most part, by criminal and congressional investigations. The subjects of those probes sound like entries in a nineteen-nineties time capsule: Whitewater, Filegate, Travelgate, the suicide of Vincent Foster, and, ultimately, Monica Lewinsky. It was clear from the beginning that these investigations were rooted less in fact-finding than in score-settling, or, more precisely, in weakening or even destroying Clinton’s Presidency. The Republicans succeeded in staging the second Presidential impeachment in American history, but Clinton had a lofty approval rating when his term ended. During the Presidency of Barack Obama, Republicans seemed generally to recognize the failure of the investigatory obsession with his Democratic predecessor. Their most successful attacks on Obama were policy-related, on issues like health care, slow economic growth, and the endless carnage in Syria.
This article continues at [New Yorker] Clinton Investigation Mania, Part 2