There’s an old Confucian proverb: “When James Comey sends a vague three-paragraph letter to Congressional leadership, all hell breaks loose.”
Below are seven PPFA thoughts with seven days remaining in this historic, embarrassing, depressing election that pits, as Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson put it, “a candidate under FBI investigation, and Donald Trump.” In other words, a spot between a rock and a hard place is looking pretty cozy.
1) Where else could I start? We have our October surprise! A week ago some outlets liked Hillary Clinton’s chances to win the presidency at more than ninety percent. PPFA did not. Such a flawed, unlikable candidate should never have been so heavily favored in the craziest election in memory. With huge unfavorable and untrustworthy numbers for the Democratic nominee, it feels like the country is begging for a reason to vote the other way. Of course, the country had stayed sober long enough to realize the main “other way” is the most absurd nominee in American history. Clinton and the Democrats, however, are not making it easy to lay off the bottle.
At this point, it’s like undecided voters are working through a calculus problem on a chalkboard. They figure if they keep squinting at the equation the answer will become clear, but it’s just giving them a headache. If undecideds were indeed looking for a reason to vote for Trump, these developments may have been the nudge they needed.
2) “It’s rigged!” -Democrats.
I mean, this is hilarious, right? After months of praising the steady, fair leadership of FBI Director James Comey, Democrats have summoned every remaining bit of their collective indignation at his partisan wilting under Republican pressure. Yes, he’s a Republican, but that didn’t matter in July, when Democrats sung his praises as a principled arbiter of an overblown scandal. To now say that he’s some lackey carrying Republican water is a clear deflection of responsibility from Democrats Clinton and Weiner, the actual people who got them into this mess. Clinton herself dabbled in Comey-shaming, at the end of her brief press conference, implying that Comey was only in direct contact with Republican committee leaders. (Not true, says Politifact.)
Since this dark cloud loomed long ago, Democrats should not be surprised with this development. This is what happens when your party nominates someone under FBI investigation. Democrats complain about the unprecedented nature of Comey’s interference, but Clinton’s circumstances make her an unprecedented nominee.
Still, the Democratic apoplexy is not totally baseless. A former chief White House ethics lawyer under George W. Bush similarly raises concerns that Comey is influencing the election without having given or found sufficient evidence to do so. Some, like Democratic Senator Harry Reid, accuse Comey of having violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits the FBI or other federal employees from showing favoritism in elections. I think that’s a bit extreme and Democrats should back off; after all, it’s their candidate who’s the potential criminal, and I’ve never cared for the “I’m rubber and you’re glue” defense. However, the timing of this thing is quite the head-scratcher. Three former Attorney Generals, including two from the Bush White House, have been critical of Comey’s decision.
3)”Comey is a nonpartisan hero who did the right thing!” -Republicans
Meanwhile, the Republicans have given us plenty of hypocrisy of their own. For them, it was Comey who lacked the backbone in July when he buckled under the bright lights of an election. Trump Campaign manager Kellyanne Conway complained that Comey had zero accountability when he gave Clinton a pass, but now says it’s dangerous for Democrats to be critical of him. Remember when I cited Politifact under #2? Republicans didn’t care for their fact-checking when it repeatedly calls out Trump for his half-truths and full-lies. But when the site scrutinizes Clinton’s oscillating relationship with truth and deception, it’s a much cited source from the right.
4) Amazingly, Comey has united both sides of the aisle on something: we want — we need! — more information. If there’s been a huge development, tell us. If it’s not huge yet and might never be, make that clear, too. The American people need to know the status as they vote.
Of course, it’s the lack of information presented to the American people that has allowed both sides to interpret this development any way they want. Republicans are saying that of course this is a huge deal — clearly something is in the works! Democrats, on the other hand, remind us that he did not find new Clinton emails, this has nothing to do with her server, and Republicans aren’t fair! They emphasize the lack of specifics in Comey’s letter and instead focus on the fact that this is a tangential connection through Weiner’s scandals. Both sides have since pointed to reporting and “sources,” named and unnamed, who support partisan theories. Comey, in essence, has given us a national Rorschach test. You see what you want to see.
Thus, Democrats want more information, but only if it downplays Clinton’s role. Republicans want more information, but only if it makes her look more guilty. If new details give either side the opposite of what it wants, it will long for these last few days of opacity.
5) Nevertheless, I think Comey deserves a bit of a defense here. A skeptic can say the timing is suspicious, but I actually think he’s been pretty clear that he has proceeded as cautiously as possible since hearing reporting from lower agents. The letter mentions that they need to “review” new emails, “assess their importance,” and “the FBI cannot yet assess whether or not this material may be significant.” This is not an indictment, legally or figuratively. The letter does not convey a bombshell.
Although he should have anticipated the dramatic response and may have indeed dropped a ball that the media picked up and ran with, the text of his letter clearly does not suggest a national overreaction. It’s not his place to urge the media and electorate to remain calm. The media, when it finds a new toy to vigorously shake with its mouth, just can’t help it.
We should also acknowledge that it was a lose-lose situation for the Director. If this were a minor development that has the potential to turn into a major one, but out of fear of tipping the scales of the election he withheld the development until after the election, and then it turned out to be a major development for the president-elect… wouldn’t that be a lot worse than this procedural letter that was spun out of control in the media? In other words, not saying something could have been just as impactful on the race and the next administration as saying something.
I join the parties in begging for a clarification, but we shouldn’t expect one. The FBI has a job to do, and the American people are going to have the burden of trying to pick the better presidential candidate before it’s done.
6) Considering this huge news from Friday afternoon, I’m really glad I did electoral math projections on Friday morning. Clearly Comey has no love for PPFA. (Maybe I shouldn’t have defended him after all…)
Projecting the effects of this news is tough, but I do want to caution against reading into the narrowing national polls that we’ve started to see. Recall my post from Thursday that anticipated a Trump rise in the polls as the election neared. Clinton’s lead was inflated and unsustainable. Her lead was already shrinking before Friday, and the tight weekend polls did not have the time to factor in Friday, either.
The question is: does this news do nothing to shake Clinton voters, who would probably be enough to win the election, or does it prolong Trump’s polling momentum to the point where he takes the lead? Past “October surprises” suggest polling is not as volatile as Republicans are hoping, but there are some scary early statistics for the Clinton Campaign. An ABC/ Washington Post poll found a third of voters were now less likely to vote for Clinton. An NBCNews/ WallStreetJournal/ Marist poll in Florida found that Clinton was up 54-37 among voters who had already voted, but down 51-42 to the majority of voters that didn’t.
We won’t know the full ramifications for a few days, but these are already troubling numbers for Democrats. PPFA still expects that the electoral advantages and superior Democratic ground game will win enough states to get to 270 electoral votes, but the popular vote total has never been more vulnerable. Barring a second Clinton exoneration before the election (extremely unlikely), I expect Trump to get the national polling to near even in the next week with a puncher’s chance of eking out the popular vote win in the election. This, of course, might be the scariest scenario of all. A Trump loss in the Electoral College paired with a win in the popular vote, after a campaign that railed against the rigged system and undermined his supporters’ faith in the election process, could prove to be an impossible pill to swallow for many Republicans. Memories of the College working in their favor in 2000 will not be enough to assuage many of them of a crooked election. The next four years would be gridlock to end all gridlocks.
Ultimately, as someone who worries about a Trump presidency, this was a terrifying development. But as someone who writes a political blog, it was pretty awesome. This race already had the crown for most interesting primary and general election combination in history. Now it’s just lapping the field.
7) I’m busy again, but I’m hoping to squeeze out three more before the election: an endorsement, a final electoral projection, and then an Election Night preview. If I pull it off, that third one will be my 200th post on WordPress since starting the site last September.
And then I can get some sleep.