Trump, Clinton: Pass the Ball to Pence vs Kaine

It can’t just be my own political fantasy. A contest between the VPs could install a president without such a deficit of good will and political capital – and cause less damage to America’s standing.

GOP Vice Presidential candidate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence greets the crowd at a rally at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa on Friday August, 5, 2016.
Steve Pope, AFP

Fall brings the return to school and football (in both its European and American variants) and the spinoff fan-led fantasy leagues that have mated virtual reality to professional sports. It would be a great consolation for this idea to be transported to the political world as well.

A fantasy that, I suspect, is shared by other observers would be to see Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump stand down in favor of their running mates: Tim Kaine and Mike Pence.

No, it’s not going to happen. Donald Trump is convinced that he can merely tweet his way to the presidency and his ego will not let him withdraw.

Hillary Clinton, the current front runner, is too busy measuring the drapes in the White House against their January 2001 dimensions to consider that proposal.

She will do the historically obvious: when you are on the cusp of power, whether via the ballot or by revolutionary violence, you do not altruistically relinquish it.

Most of the enlightened class will recoil at this evenhanded request for both Trump and Clinton to exit right and left. They can understand requesting this of Trump but not of Clinton.

Some Never Trump Republicans such as the WSJ's Brett Stephens believe that however distasteful a Clinton restoration is. it will not wreck the country, whereas a Trump presidency invites disaster.

These Republicans-for-Clinton are overwhelmingly certain that a Clinton landslide would provide a curative allowing them to pick up the pieces following their party's return to Post-Trump normalcy.

I am less complacent than Stephens. The race appears to be tightening, although the Electoral College map still strongly favors Clinton. More importantly, to judge by all the recent polls, Clinton - after the fading of the post-convention bounce - has nearly caught up with Trump in terms of being unfavorably perceived by the public.

The Washington Post-ABC poll showed her liked by 41% and disliked by 56%. This negative to favorability ratio will grow for both candidates, because the election advertising will concentrate overwhelmingly on attack ads.

The "it's all smoke" refrain that Clinton uses to deflect the email scandal dogging her is redolent of Richard Nixon's "stop wallowing in Watergate" argument. The problem is not going away even if Clinton is elected by a landslide.

Nixon too was elected by a landslide, losing only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia in 1972, but was forced to resign in 1974. Any Clinton landslide will not be credited to her but to the toxicity of her opponent.

US Democratic Nominee for Vice President Tim Kaine speaks during the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 27, 2016.
Saul Loeb, AFP

Newly elected presidents generally start off with a balance of good will and political capital to spend. Clinton and Trump start with a huge deficit that will make American legislators and foreign leaders less likely to show deference to the elected president.

The United States is not a Belgium that could make do without a government for two years: the United States is the unquestioned pillar of international order.

The Obama Administration has bequeathed a plethora of foreign and domestic problems to its successor's inbox. We can start with the baleful legacy of the Iran nuclear deal.

Having shown its inability to police a comparatively minor deal on Bashar Assad's chemical weapons, it is hard to see the U.S. enforcing the flawed JCPOA in Iran where the government and its repressive apparatus enjoy a much firmer grip.

Europe is threatening to implode as founding EU members consider emulating Brexit. Others such as Hungary and Poland bypass the issue and simply tune out Brussels.

Europe's financial crises are still with us and may now extend to bigger beasts and unsustainable bailouts. The United States has to decide what to do with a resurgent Russia. What will it be neo-containment, accommodation or an a la carte approach depending on the issue?  A war in Southeast Asia threatens to erupt testing the complex Sino-American military and trade balance.

At home the U.S. faces the problems of racial polarization after two terms of the ‘post-partisan’ president and anemic economic growth. The hallmark Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is struggling with rising premiums and the exit of insurers.

Regardless of whether one supported or opposed the bill originally the results must be addressed quickly and decisively. This entire laundry list of problems requires a president who can command a modicum of confidence and public support if unpopular and painful decisions have to be made.  At this stage, neither Clinton nor Trump commands such confidence or support.

A fair question is how can I predict that the favorability meltdown that has plagued Clinton and Trump will not engulf Kaine and Pence as well? No such guarantee is implied, but the prospects appear more favorable.

Both vice presidential nominees have been around for a while and have competed for elected office without triggering a mudslide of damning revelations. Pence does not have Trump's mouth; Kaine does not have the Clinton Foundation albatross.

Since the mutual withdrawal proposal will not fly the American voter will be left with a Hobson's choice. Other countries –even if they prefer the more predictable Clinton over the unknown quantity of Trump – may have to downgrade their expectations from the next American president.

Amiel Ungar is a political scientist.