January 27, 2017 What a REAL electoral college would have done
After the election, my Democratic friends suggested that the Electoral College should have exercised its independent judgment to protect the nation from President Trump, while Republicans argued that the Electoral College was meant to protect us from domination by California (which, because they voted heavily for Hillary Clinton, is now apparently not part of the USA).
It seems to me that my Democratic friends are right in suggesting that the Electoral College was originally designed to exercise independent judgment. (Hamilton said so in Federalist 68). I thought to myself: who would such an Electoral College have picked in recent elections?
Answer: Nobody who actually got elected. Hamilton wrote that under the Constitution, “there will be a constant probability of seeing the station [of the Presidency] filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue.” Presumably he meant people who were experienced (“pre-eminent”) and scandal-free. Trump doesn’t pass this test (inexperienced, not very virtuous), nor do Obama and Bush (OK on the virtue front, but probably a bit less eminent and experienced than Hamilton envisoned), and Clinton (a bit weak on the whole virtue thing). So who would a less populist Electoral College have picked?
To narrow down the field, I am going to assume that my imaginary Electoral College was limited to people who actually ran for President in a given year (so no Paul Ryan or Elizabeth Warren). And I’ll avoid having to make stark ideological choices by limiting this thought experiment to candidates in the winning party (which also eliminates 1996, 2004 and 2012 from my sample, since incumbent Presidents were unopposed within their party in these years).
2016- Lots of Republicans to choose from – even if I limit myself to people whose campaigns lasted to the NH primary, we have Bush, Trump of course, Cruz, Rubio, Jindal, Christie, Huckabee, Santorum, Kasich, Carson, Fiorina, and Paul. I can’t imagine my hypothetical assembly favoring people with as little experience as Carson or Fiorina. Paul, Rubio and Cruz had only been in the Senate for a single term, so I think their relative lack of experience would weaken them (unless of course you assume that our Electoral College had a distinctive affinity for the distinctive views of any of these gentlemen). Jindal is pretty unpopular in Louisiana so I think he wouldn’t make the cut, and Kasich’s infamous temper might have been a problem. Bridgegate would sink Christie. Huckabee and Santorum are scandal-free and have enough experience to be plausible choices- but I think an assembly of the Great and the Good would prefer someone who served as the governor of one of our largest, most diverse states (Florida) and was, I think, reasonably virtuous. I refer, of course, to John Ellis Bush.
2008- Clinton, Obama, Richardson, Kucinich, Biden, Dodd. Someone as ideologically extreme and flaky as Kucinich seems like a hard sell to me, and Obama was too green. Richardson was slightly tainted by the Wen Ho Lee affair, Dodd by the Countrywide scandal, and Biden by the plagiarism mini-scandal that ended his 1988 campaign. Hillary Clinton’s major scandals were far in the future, so my guess is that (assuming an Electoral College that had evolved to accept women) an Electoral College would have preferred Sen. Clinton to the other Democrats.
2000- Six Republicans made it to New Hampshire: Bush, McCain, Forbes, Keyes, Bauer and Hatch. I can’t imagine an Electoral College selecting the three nonpoliticians (Forbes, Keyes, Bauer) and Bush was somewhat experienced but still not as grownup as the rest. That leaves McCain and Hatch. I don’t think anyone can match Orrin Hatch for virtue, but on the other hand John McCain is one of the lions of the Senate as well, and his scandals (the collapse of his first marriage and the Keating Five affair) were very much in the past by them. My verdict: either McCain or Hatch; if you assume a tie goes to someone actually capable of getting people to vote for him, I’ll go with McCain (who was essentially the second-place finisher within the Republican party, while Hatch’s campaign went nowhere).
1992- Clinton, Brown, Kerrey, Tsongas, Harkin. Not Clinton (sex scandals), not Brown (general weirdness) or Harkin (too populist). Kerrey had only been in the Senate for a few years. Paul Tsongas was a relative moderate with an inspirational life story of retiring from the Senate due to cancer and then going into remission. I think my hypothetical Electoral College would have been happy to elect Paul Tsongas.
So in Bizarro World, we have Presidents Tsongas, McCain, Clinton and Bush. Would they have served more effectively than the people who actually won? I think Tsongas would have been pretty good but would have died of cancer at the end of his first term. (He in fact died Jan. 18, 1997; if anything the pressures of office would have shortened his life). It is hard to imagine McCain pr Orrin Hatch being worse than Bush. As far as Clinton and Bush, I think it is a bit too soon to tell.