The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s suggestion to delay the election is the most anti-democratic thing any president ever said

President Trump stops to talk to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House on Wednesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump’s tweet Thursday morning suggesting that the November election should be delayed is more than reckless and irresponsible. It is the single most anti-democratic statement any sitting president has ever made. It should be immediately, forcefully and vocally repudiated by every conservative and Republican.

I do not write these words lightly. I have generally supported the Trump administration’s policies. Everyone has disagreements even with leaders of their own party, but I remain what I was before Trump was even a candidate — a conservative Republican with populist leanings. Were this election solely a matter of Trump’s platform vs. former vice president Joe Biden’s, I would enthusiastically back the Trump agenda.

Nor am I unaware of the anti-democratic elements among the far left. Mob violence and cancel culture are direct assaults on democracy and the rule of law, replacing the voice of the many with the force of the few. The timidity that too many leading Democrats have shown in the face of this summer’s onslaught on decency scares me, as it scares most Republicans I know. Freedom for me, but not for thee, is not America’s heritage.

But Trump’s tweet jumps the shark in so many ways that it is impossible to ignore. Such a statement should be unthinkable (in fact, I assumed it was unthinkable, which is why I strongly criticized Biden in April when he claimed without evidence that Trump would try to delay the election).

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No president has ever suggested that an election be delayed. We did not delay elections when the future of the nation was at stake during the Civil War and World War II. We did not delay the election in 1968 when urban riots were the norm, when the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, and when the Democratic National Convention broke down amid an anti-war riot outside the event that Chicago police brutally suppressed with tear gas and billy clubs. There is no need to even suggest delaying today, when most Americans can move freely and with three months to go before Election Day.

Trump’s stated cause for his suggestion, the purported fraudulent nature of mail-in balloting, is a spurious canard. Mail-in balloting does carry risks, but states have been using mass mail ballots for years with no incidences of significant voter fraud. Other nations, such as Australia, also employ mass mail balloting and have also not experienced mass fraud. A responsible approach to holding an election during the pandemic involves compromise on all sides but is easily obtained: Expand voting options, including expanded mail balloting and early in-person voting, and couple it with guarantees of security and safety such as requiring receipt of ballots by Election Day and a post office postmark on all ballots electoral officials receive. Trump’s refusal to even contemplate such an offer speaks volumes.

Fortunately, Trump has no power to delay the elections. The Constitution clearly establishes the length of terms for senators, representatives and the president. Those terms expire in early January 2021 and cannot be extended by law or executive order. The Constitution also establishes that only Congress can set the date of elections for a federal office and it has no jurisdiction over the times and dates for state and local elections. Trump’s gesture is as futile as it is dangerous.

Nonetheless, his tweet strikes at the heart of American democracy and therefore must be instantly repudiated. Republicans should be among the leaders in denouncing his call. Not long after the tweet, The Post reported that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had this to say: “'Never in the history of the country, through wars, depressions and the Civil War, have we ever not had a federally scheduled election on time,” McConnell said in a television interview with Georgia NBC affiliate WNKY. “We’ll find a way to do that again this Nov. 3.'”

But Republicans should do more. McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) should jointly introduce a nonbinding resolution in their respective chambers reiterating that it is the will of Congress that elections occur on Nov. 3 as scheduled. This resolution should be supported by every Republican member of each chamber, regardless of their beliefs on mail-in balloting. This resolution would immediately distinguish Trump from his party, to the latter’s advantage.

Vice President Pence should also distance himself. He is constitutionally protected as vice president; he is the administration member who cannot be fired. His statement would be especially important because he has been a dutiful lieutenant, rarely if ever uttering a word disputing Trump. He should dispel any worries that Trump would dump him from the ticket in retaliation. Were that to happen, it would only enhance Pence’s stature and secure his political future.

Abraham Lincoln despaired of reelection in the summer of 1864. Union armies were stuck outside Atlanta and Richmond, and the public was tired of bloody stalemate. His Democratic opponent, former general George McClellan, stood on a platform of peace and negotiation with the Confederacy. Yet our greatest president never contemplated delaying that fall’s election, even though as late as Aug. 23, 1864, he felt certain that he would lose. Today’s Republicans should follow the course set by the first Republican president, embracing our democratic heritage and rejecting the fevered musings emanating from the Oval Office.

As President Trump threatens to unleash the military on American cities roiled in civil unrest, it's clear that he's embracing his inner Nixon. (Video: The Washington Post)

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