Why Clinton's Popular Vote Victory Still Matters

When Mr. Trump pushes his agenda, he is opposing the will of the American people.

Americans don’t elect their presidents directly. The Trump administration is correct to point that out when its critics imply that Mr. Trump’s failure to secure the popular vote last November delegitimizes his presidency. It doesn’t.

While it’s true that Mr. Trump was, by a wide margin, the furthest from a popular vote victory of any elected president in U.S. history—the next closest popular vote-losing chief executive, George W. Bush, was 2.3 million votes closer to his opponent than Mr. Trump was to Mrs. Clinton—this doesn’t change the fact that Mr. Trump won the election and is now president. Even the looming possibility that Mr. Trump and his campaign team colluded with the Russians in the latter’s attempt to secure the American presidency for the Republicans doesn’t invalidate (yet) the Trump Administration.

But that doesn’t mean Mrs. Clinton’s popular vote victory over Mr. Trump is without significance. In fact, post-election—with the question of Mr. Trump’s legitimacy settled, at least for now, by the fact of his inauguration and the absence (so far) of the political will to impeach him—Mrs. Clinton’s 2.8-million vote edge over her opponent is a far more important data-point than is November’s Electoral College vote.

Democrats who can’t accept that Trump is president should get over it; Republicans who can’t accept that they lost the national policy debate, and lost it badly, should do likewise.

Recently, Mr. Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, said that his boss was “doing exactly what he said he’d do” in his first days in office. This is not the first time an administration official has implied that Mr. Trump is to be commended for delivering on the agenda that—in the administration’s view, at least—Americans voted for. Indeed, Mr. Trump himself commonly returns to this theme, telling Americans just today that his forthcoming budget will “reflect the American people’s priorities”—a not-so-subtle reference to his view that the election results confirm that his priorities and American voters’ are one and the same.

In fact, the question of which political agenda Americans voted for is a settled one: nearly three million more Americans voted for their government to implement the Democratic agenda than the Republican agenda on November 8th. It is inarguably the case, therefore, that while Mr. Trump did indeed win the election, Mrs. Clinton won the debate over the soul of the nation and the future of its public policy—and resoundingly so.

Mr. Trump and his subordinates should start acting like that’s what happened. Why? Because Americans saw it happen with their own eyes, and our elected leaders fail to accommodate reality at their own political peril. Democrats who can’t accept that Trump is president should get over it; Republicans who can’t accept that they lost the national policy debate, and lost it badly, should do likewise. The 77,000 voters in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania—a population far smaller than the population of Nashua, New Hampshire—who gave Mr. Trump the Electoral College did not also give him a victory in the national policy debate.

The Trump administration’s continued misuse of its Electoral College win as some sort of proxy for a “policy mandate” is a sure path to medium- and long-term disaster. While for the moment this mischaracterization of the evidence is just another talking point for an amateurish White House unusually cavalier about both talking points and phenomenological reality, in short order it could become a major liability for both the administration and the nation.

Journalists are now obligated by the ethical responsibilities of their profession to resist this key component of the administration’s public rhetoric. In political parlance—that is, in view of Mrs. Clinton’s popular vote victory—it is not just appropriate but imperative for journalists, political analysts, and even rank-and-file political activists from both parties to acknowledge, on social media and elsewhere, that the nation opposes Mr. Trump’s agenda by approximately the same margin that it approved of George W. Bush’s agenda when it reelected him president in 2004.

When Mr. Trump pushes his agenda, he is opposing the will of the American people—and that remains true even if he won the Electoral College. Every statement he or one of his subordinates makes to the effect that they are working on behalf of Americans’ priorities in enacting their agenda is a lie.

In short, a duly elected president who willfully ignores the message sent by a popular vote “trolls” the nation he leads and thereby destabilizes it in a way that threatens, ironically, his duly earned legitimacy.

Given this, those with a responsibility to report on and editorialize the news accurately cannot say, or by omission imply, that in the early days of his presidency Mr. Trump is “doing what he was elected to do.” While elevation to the Oval Office results from an Electoral College vote, the will of the people as to what they wish their elected officials to do is expressed—unambiguously—by a quadrennial popular vote. Mr. Trump’s “mandate” is to (a) recognize that minority support for, and majority opposition to, the policy agenda he (if somewhat haphazardly) campaigned upon was solidified by the vote last November, and (b) edit his prescriptions for the nation in a manner generally sympathetic to this. To do otherwise is to invite chaos: mass protests; a breakdown in the separation of powers, as presaged by Mr. Trump referring to “so-called” judges on Twitter and keeping key policy planning from even his own executive-branch officials; a delegitimizing of our electoral process, as was triggered by Mr. Trump’s repeated false claim that illegal immigrants’ votes swung the election to Mrs. Clinton; and the specter of civil disobedience on a national scale.

In short, a duly elected president who willfully ignores the message sent by a popular vote “trolls” the nation he leads and thereby destabilizes it in a way that threatens, ironically, his duly earned legitimacy.

One suspects that President Trump’s continued recalcitrance about his unprecedentedly large popular vote loss is aimed at securing for himself a mandate and a moral authority he well knows he lacks. Unfortunately, in this, as in much else, the opinion of a president is of no more value than the opinion of a taxi driver or a physicist or a day laborer. It is simply not possible for a politician—any politician—to manufacture a mandate in the hothouse of his own mind.

So Mr. Trump is now President Trump. Until such time as he resigns, is removed from office, or, as seems improbable at the moment, is reelected and completes a second term, he deserves all the accoutrements of an ostensibly legal election—if one somewhat muddied by a malicious foreign interference that Mr. Trump himself applauded on camera and may have assisted directly.

But standing beside that fact is this one: Mrs. Clinton, private citizen though she is, and the Democratic Party, toothless as it is now in both the Senate and the House, is the author of the agenda many more Americans voted for than against. And that agenda continues to be the prevailing moral authority in the nation. It should be, therefore, our national lodestar.

Mrs. Clinton, private citizen though she is, and the Democratic Party, toothless as it is now in both the Senate and the House, is the author of the agenda many more Americans voted for than against.

Should President Trump not acknowledge this—by dint of vanity, folly, malice, or stubbornness—his presidency, whensoever it ends, will be deemed a failure. That’s bad for Mr. Trump but worse for all of us, as failed presidencies scar the nation in at least a few ways we never heal from.

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