As we approach Labor Day, conversations in the Hayden household, as in most of America I suspect, have been trending toward the upcoming presidential election.
And if current polling is to be believed, our conversations mirror the national discontent with the choices that the major parties are offering. Despite that discontent, most Americans seem to have resigned themselves to this being what scholars call a forced-choice test: you have to pick one of the two.
Personally, I’m not yet prepared to do that. And I say that even in the face of arguments that not voting for an R or a D at the top of the ticket is equivalent of at least a half-vote for the greater of two evils. And I have, by the way, had the greater of the evils alternatively described to me both as Hillary Clinton and as Donald Trump.
Voting is a sacred act. Our founding documents declare that the power of our state is based upon something we confer on it, that its sovereignty derives from the consent of the governed. In accepting our Constitution, and especially by voting, we surrender something inherent in each of us to a broader agent to execute on behalf of the whole.
That makes voting a profound, personal moral question since we (should) embrace some measure of responsibility for whatever it is our selection chooses to do with the powers that we (each in a small way) have conferred.
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I am not ready to give either Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump my personal sanction to exercise the incredible powers of the American presidency. I have seen those powers close-up, operating on the outer edges of executive prerogative, while conferring with a president on matters like covert action. And in cases where the operational, legal and ethical way ahead is rarely clear or obvious, character and competence really count.
And so what is it about fantasizing about Muslims celebrating in New Jersey, about the reluctance to defend a NATO country, about the refusal to reveal tax returns, or about the willingness to trash a Gold Star mother? What of all this, and so much more, moves the character and competence needle to an “acceptable” level for Mr. Trump?
And promises of “pivot” and “regret” aside, in what moral universe was it ever acceptable to direct the U.S. armed forces to intentionally kill the families of terrorists?
Mrs. Clinton has her own challenges with accuracy (there was no classified material on my server), openness (you can’t see transcripts of my Wall Street speeches) and process (we decided which emails were official), as well as doubling down on a lot of the current administration’s policies even in the face of two-thirds of the country thinking we are on the wrong track.
Partisans will argue that one candidate must be better qualified than the other. And in my narrow lane of national security, I think Mrs. Clinton has it all over Mr. Trump on experience, temperament and instincts, her ill-advised and half-tried intervention in Libya notwithstanding. But this is about more than just national security (as important as that is) — my point is simply that neither candidate is sufficiently qualified overall.
There’s a lesson here too for the Republican and Democratic parties. Collectively they have offered us a kind of Hobson’s choice: we get to pick one of these two. Take ‘em or leave ‘em. For me and for many others, that’s hardly a choice at all. In the same way that I don’t want to sanction either candidate, I don’t want my vote to be seen as an endorsement (or even acceptance) of the parties or the processes that produced these candidates.
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Both parties faced insurgencies over the real and perceived mishandling of the people’s business. One campaign was so chaotic that it smothered qualified candidates in what looked more like a raucous street brawl than an orderly process. The other was so controlled that it bordered on being predetermined, as party leadership tilted the playing field sharply in the direction of a preferred winner.
Finally, there is the question of mandate. The winner will remind us that elections matter, “I won” and so on. But I’d rather the winner be less sure about a license to plunge ahead, and here the margin of victory and the size of a candidate’s vote matter.
Voting is a responsibility of every citizen, but this may be one election where passing over the top of the ticket or refusing to confine options there to the two major parties may be more appropriate than in most. We don’t have to act like these are acceptable choices even if we believe the victory of one is inevitable.
I intend to spend more energy than usual on the Article I people — the Congress — further down on the ballot and, for the first time, to genuinely explore third party options at the top of the card. In that regard, late entrant Evan McMullin has been a refreshing breath of calm, competence and compassion in his limited media appearances to date even as he struggles to get on the ballot in more than a few states.
We are still more than 10 weeks from Election Day. Stuff happens. Things change. Perhaps things will become more clear. And we all have the right to hope. But right now, I cannot vote for one candidate and I will not vote for the other.
• Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency. He can be reached at email@example.com.