Politics and Circulated Coins

Like coin collectors, Americans want uncirculated Presidents.

When I was around eight, I collected pennies. Not just to pack ’em into rolls for dollar bills. Sifting pennies, at least back in the 20th century, offered the occasional collector’s item.

OK, not a high-value collector’s item, but something worth more than a penny. To an eight year old, that seemed cool: a penny worth ten or twenty times its stated worth.

Coins are graded. Numismatic societies sort coins into around 20 grades. For typical collectors, there are six: poor, fair, good, very good, excellent, and mint. Expensive old coins, the ones that cost thousands, are in mint condition. That means they’re uncirculated, never passed through pockets and purses, never handed between shoppers and sellers.

A kid, at least in most families, can’t afford to collect mint condition. By definition they’re not in circulation (“uncirculated”.) Excellents are almost impossible to find, too, if the coin is more than a couple of decades old. They’re like finding a 1988 Tercel with 28,000 miles, which everyone forgot was parked behind grandma’s house.

Sifting a few hundred pennies might result in two or three old coins in good condition. Every so often there’s a very good one. If you’re diligent, every few months you might see something that looks excellent. It probably isn’t, The numismatic 20 grades kick in. Between very good and excellent (also called “fine”) there’s “choice very good.”

Circulation tarnishes. Anything that’s been in circulation long enough is no longer pure, or mint.

This is a basic law in politics, too. Candidates who’ve been around have track records. Politics, the art of the possible, involves compromise. You want 100,000 extra police because urban crime soared, circa 1993? Well, you’ll have to swallow longer prison sentences, too. Fast forward 22 years, and the U.S. incarcerates more people per capita than China, Russia, or any other country on earth. Was it a bad compromise? Well, sentencing laws were going to get passed whether the President wanted them or not. A veto would be overcome. A sensible political strategy is to negotiate for what you want by capitulating on what you’d probably lose, if put to the test.

(To those who say more police was a bad policy, too: crime used to be a real problem. One of government’s key functions is to protect citizens, so crime must be addressed. Community policing worked to reduce crime in many cities. That doesn’t mean people who live in very secure suburbs can’t still be afraid. Cowardice is contagious. But community policing reduced real crime, not imaginary stuff. It required a lot more police than previously deployed, more police to walk beats, to respond to calls. If you don’t have enough police, it creates negative feedback, as the outnumbered retreat, promised protection doesn’t materialize, and criminality loses its opprobrium.)

The longer you circulate in politics, the more tarnished you become. It’s not just a time thing. Bernie Sanders has been in politics for almost 30 years. In the Senate, at least, he’s written (not just co-sponsored) only a handful of laws. That’s really unproductive, but protects his reputation. He’s in almost excellent condition, virtually uncirculated. The other Senator from Vermont, Leahy, has produced about five times as many, over similar time-frames. Leahy is also progressive, but if you unpack what he’s written, you can find compromise. He’s not in mint condition, but’s been in circulation. Sift among 50 Senators, and Leahy is one of a handful of good, as good as someone active can be.

Bernie is a bit like the 1988 Tercel behind grandma’s house. As far as I could find, the only law of importance that he produced was an amendment to the ACA (Obamacare) for community health centers. Sounds great, but he didn’t think through the complexities. My experience (or my wife’s, who worked in one) is that the great idea fails from poor planning. The reason laws are often so long is that they’ve got to plan for complexity. Simple is not always better; Bernie’s amendment was too simple.

This was a small program, and tarnished him only slightly, with those intimately involved in health care delivery. Reduced him from mint to very good. Or, in the eyes of supporters, choice very good.

The circulation effect cuts across party lines. G.H.W. Bush, the father, had a number of significant successes. He ran the first Gulf War, which ended completely in a month, was paid for by allies, had minimal allied fatalities, and achieved stated goals. Now that we’ve seen what an Iraq war can cost in time, treasure, and blood, it’s obvious what the first Bush accomplished. He also oversaw the liberation of Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union’s collapse, without firing a bullet. Given the risks that percolated for over half a century, what didn’t happen was as important as what did.

Ending the Cold War peacefully, and pushing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait quickly, are pretty substantial achievements. But Bush Sr. wasn’t reelected. By 1992 he’d served in a White House for 12 years, as well as in Congress, as an ambassador, and as CIA Director. He had a lot of baggage, or, in coin terms, was heavily circulated. In 1988 he claimed he wouldn’t raise taxes. Then, when it became apparent the government’s debt was damping economic growth, he changed his mind and did. Frankly, when facts change, it’s good if people change their minds. But Bush was never a favorite of Reagan right-wingers. He was Reagan’s primary challenger in 1980, and gave Reagan’s supply side magical thinking its most accurate label: voodoo economics. Reaganites didn’t forget, and pushed him to make an anti-tax pledge.

Circulation causes compromise, and compromise tarnishes. Having pledged no taxes, Bush either sunk the economy or his own reelection.

Reagan was called the Teflon President, because scandal didn’t stick to him. Reagan’s actions, his radical right-wing statements, didn’t impress many voters. His disposition, uniformly bland and upbeat, untroubled and old-fashioned, suited many. The effect reminds me of chemical mixtures advertised in coin magazines. They were supposed to improve a coin from poor to very good. I ordered some. The coin’s tarnish was reduced, and a shiny surface revealed. Unfortunately, whatever details existed were eaten away. Details are what coins get graded on, so the chemicals did more harm than good. From a distance coins looked refurbished, a mirage. Reagan’s grade has been inflated this way, glittering at a distance, but seriously deficient in detail. A life spent as an actor and a company spokesman was artificially polishing.

Hillary Clinton has been in circulation for a quite a while. By the 1990s the GOP had lost it’s moral bearings. There’s always been a split between old-school Republicans, like Eisenhower, Nelson Rockefeller, or Bush Sr., and Goldwater-Reagan Republicans, like Gingrich, Quayle, or Bush Jr. The Reaganite wing has been ascendant since 1980. These pseudomoralists used lies and baseless attacks to undermine their opponents. Bill Clinton was a young, vigorous center-left leader, as was his wife. The GOP’s nefarious wing hated his appeal; they understood his policies could undermine Republican support in suburbs. Instead of challenging him with their own, better policies, they attacked his character, and Hillary Clinton’s too.

It’s like taking a coin and grinding it into the rocky mud. You can pull it out and rinse it off, but damage has been done. The Clintons faced dozens of Congressional panels, which claimed they had done this or that evil deed. It culminated in Bill Clinton’s impeachment for saying he didn’t have sex with an intern (he’d gotten blow-jobs.) Now, of all the things to impeach someone on, denying a sexual fling seems a real stretch. It doesn’t reach the threshold put forth by Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards, that only “a live boy or a dead girl” in one’s bed can lose an election.

None of the panels, hearings, or ultimately the impeachment, succeeded. Facing a truly hostile group, eager to grind them into the ground, not a single charge held. That says something, namely what didn’t happen. Republicans didn’t fail, however. They found a new crew of attackers, people like Ann Coulter, who went on to serve Roger Ailes at Fox News. More important, they applied the ‘big lie’ principal effectively. Repeat anything loud and often, and it sinks into the public’s consciousness. Tarnishing the politicians, fait accomplit.

Recently we’ve been electing people with limited track records. Bush Jr. had been governor for five years before running for President in 2000. Obama had been a Senator for three years. Their lack of experience didn’t seem to damage their electability. Instead, like uncirculated coins, they were easy to grade well. Incidentally, Bush Jr. defeated a man who’d spent 8 years as a VP, 8 years as a Senator, and 8 years as a Congressman. Obama defeated someone who’d been a Senator for 22 years. The less circulated beat the heavily circulated.

This has led some to propose that only politicians with limited track records can get elected. Like all political rules, this one will be broken. LBJ and Nixon were scions of their respective political parties, and as Presidents they ended badly. After that, Americans veered towards less-circulated types, starting with Jimmy Carter, epitomized by Reagan, and continuing with Bush Jr. and Obama. But G.H.W. Bush was deeply experienced, and Bill Clinton had been a governor for 11 years.

Still, judging from the success of Donald Trump (a shiny coin guy, if there ever was one), Bernie Sanders, and third party candidates, the uncirculated effect is important. Hillary Clinton’s track record is enviable. She designed and almost passed a single-payer health care system. Chewed up by fierce insurance opposition, she responded by putting together the Children’s Health Insurance Plan, or CHIP. Over 30 million American children have been covered by CHIP. Very few politicians can boast of such a giant impact. Yet people, including many of CHIP-insured children who now can vote, associate Clinton was “liar”, an association now pushed by the media. Asked what she’s lied about, and it comes back, vaguely, “emails.” The facts show she sent three emails that were marked confidential, out of 30,000. Later, many more emails were changed to confidential, but that’s nothing she could predict. Those three had a “c” for confidential embedded someone in the document, instead of up top as regulations state. Any email user would have stumbled into reading them, before finding the “c.”

On one side, 30 million kids with health insurance. On the other, three emails that barely qualified as confidential. But Clinton’s been in circulation a long time. The Republican “big lie” effect has taken root. Looked at carefully, one can see that Hillary Clinton is a very good candidate, as good a rating as one can find in circulation. She faces someone who fancies himself a golden boy, yet despite this, she’s probably going to win.

Still, the race is way too close. There’s a lot of people who want to get a mint coin for free, instead of slogging through hundreds and finding a good one in the mix. It’s been dirtied, but if you look close, you can see its value. It takes work. Coin collectors make the effort, because most people don’t. But elections are different. People either must become collectors, or find trusted sources who do.