“Comey Cost Hillary The Election” — Another Groundless Liberal Myth

VOX’s latest “big idea” is to blame the election outcome singularly on Comey

There is a certain type of aging liberal pundit type who will never, ever, ever get over the 2000 Election and Ralph Nader’s alleged role in facilitating George W. Bush’s victory in Florida. An entire literature burgeoned around the subject, along with meticulously-crafted arguments showing how Nader himself was directly culpable for Gore’s loss. For some reason, these liberals tended to fixate on Nader rather than the multitude of forces which caused him to gain traction in select sectors of the electorate, and which made Gore vulnerable to a left-wing, marginal third party candidate’s protest candidacy.

That’s essentially what’s happening with the “Comey Letter” narrative, which has now been enshrined in the annals of Liberal Lore as the main explanation for Why She Lost. There are going to be fights about Comey’s infamous October 28 letter for years, decades, (centuries?) to come; it’s central to the emerging liberal mythology around Election 2016. This is insidious, because the current conception of what transpired — the one being cemented in the minds of aggrieved liberals — is based on a host of fallacious assumptions and unproven premises. It’s imperative to keep showing why this conception is flawed, otherwise the myth will be allowed to perpetuate unchallenged.

The latest apologia installment appears in where else but VOX, the premier news-explaining organ of the day.

Continually having to harp on the Comey Letter, and in some sense defend its propriety, is a little awkward because I have no particular affinity for the FBI. In fact, as I’ve stated on many occasions, I think it’s a largely wicked organization that has done all manner of wicked things. My posture toward law enforcement entities is by nature an adversarial one. But that ought not compel one to adopt highly flawed, warped, and cynical interpretations of what the FBI did on any given occasion. It’s ironic, because the people now running around proclaiming themselves as opponents of the FBI are largely not the type who normally advance systemic critiques of law enforcement; they’re mostly establishment liberal bellyachers who urge fealty to Law Enforcement and demand that Police be accorded due Respect.

But anyway. I’m willing to grant the possibility that the Comey Letter had an observable electoral effect, or put another way, it had enough of an effect on voter sentiment to “swing” what was obviously a very close election. But even granting that premise — that the Comey Letter moved a statistically-consequential number of votes — doesn’t get you anywhere close to the conclusion that “Comey is Bad,” “Comey obviously acted improperly,” or “Comey maliciously intervened in the election.” That is to say: the fact that the Comey Letter might have had a consequential electoral impact is not prima facie evidence that Comey acted maliciously. You have to do a whole bunch of argumentative work to establish that Comey acted maliciously, and that’s not done in the VOX piece. They just assume it, as if it’s already been proven.

So there’s a conflation going on here, and it’s a very lazy one. I continue to maintain that there’s no good reason to believe that Comey acted improperly, even if his Letter did end up moving a significant number of votes.

“Comey cost Clinton the election” is how Will Jordan, one of the authors of the VOX item, summarizes their conclusion. That’s a vast overstatement, in my view, because it exaggerates the causative function of the Letter — the idea that the moving of votes can be directly attributed to the Letter — and places a unwarranted “mono-causal” emphasis on that one event. You could just as easily say: “the Clinton campaign’s over-reliance on a failed computer algorithm cost her the election” or “the Clinton campaign’s inability to effectively channel populist sentiment cost her the election.” Elections are always multi-causal, and the “Comey cost Clinton the election” framing imputes undue mono-casuality to that discrete event.

The only reason that the campaign was susceptible to a late-stage, momentum-shifting event in the first place is because the Democratic Party chose to nominate a candidate with severe legal problems. Even after the email server felony investigation was “closed” by Comey on July 5, there was always a nontrivial chance it could be “reopened” because the FBI had stated that there were devices out in circulation that it had not reviewed over the course of the investigation. Sure enough, one of those devices came into its possession by a series of bizarre coincidences (Anthony Weiner allegedly sexting with a minor → causes a brand new investigation → leads to the seizure of his property → pertinent emails discovered).

The VOX article has embedded within it so many faulty premises that it’s difficult to parse them all and still keep this Medium post at a reasonable length.

Take one bogus assumption.

Why was the state of the race such that Wisconsin voters were amenable to a late “break” based on an exogenous news event? Because a lot of people had big reservations about both Hillary and Trump, meaning the race was consistently “volatile” and susceptible to significant shifts. A lot of people were going to make up their minds late anyway irrespective of whether Comey issued a letter. Especially given that some late-deciders were bound to be GOP-leaning, Trump-skeptical holdouts, there was always a good chance that late-deciders would break in his favor. Many people noted this all along, including myself. Comey or no Comey, that was going to be the likely shift as Election Day approached. Partisan polarization stood to benefit Trump, not Hillary.

The VOX writers concede,

That’s a big “to be sure.” Trump was already gaining markedly on Hillary, and was always likely to do so as a result of the partisan polarization effect. Is it possible that the Comey Letter acted as an “accelerant” and made the already-existing effect marginally more pronounced? Perhaps. Is that enough to conclude, as the VOXers do, that Comey thereby “cost Clinton the election”? No.

And then here’s their grand conclusion:

Characterizing Comey’s action as an “intervention” accords sinister intention where none likely exists. Comey didn’t “intervene.” An intervention would have been if Comey declared his support for Trump, wore a Make America Great Again cap, or did something that could be reasonably construed as electioneering. The letter wasn’t an intervention; it was a justifiable action taken incidental to a criminal investigation — it just happened to occur at an especially electorally-impactful time. There’s a huge distinction there that keeps getting glossed over.

I made a point along these lines on Twitter earlier today and Will Jordan jumped into semi-disclaim the highlighted passage. He conceded that it’s an “assumption” which has not been argued. I agree. In order to establish this logical progression,

A. Comey issued the letter

B. Comey’s issuance of the letter had a determinative electoral impact

C. Because of B, Comey is bad

You need to elucidate the assumptions undergirding “C.” I’ve still not seen that done anywhere. Even if Comey did have a determinative electoral impact, that fact alone would not be sufficient to prove that he acted improperly. Additional argumentation would be required. I’ve written repeatedly that Comey did NOT act improperly, based on what is presently known. I would like to see a counter-argument that actually grapples with the details of the email server investigation. Since so many Clinton loyalists dismissed the email server investigation and declined to study the full details, I understand how this would be a difficult task. But it’s necessary in order to weave the “Comey cost Clinton the election” narrative that they’re evidently so desperate to weave.

I also just want to note that one of the authors of the VOX piece is a gentleman by the name of Matt McDermott, who purports to be a professional political operator of an unspecified kind (something to do with polling? Unclear.) Whatever he actually does, aside from opining on Twitter, McDermott was clearly flagrantly wrong all throughout the 2016 election cycle, to an almost comical degree. The fact that he’s been rewarded with VOX bylines (to the extent that constitutes a “reward”) just shows that there’s no price to pay in punditry circles for wrongness. If I got so much wrong as McDermott — if I staked my professional credibility on certain iron-clad assumptions that proved false — I would probably want to take some time off from the punditry game, at the very least. And yet here he is, being given a platform by VOX to pronounce on the malignancy of James Comey. That’s sensible for McDermott’s purposes, because if it becomes cemented in the public imagination that Comey really did “cost” Hillary the election, people like McDermott get off the hook. They are given additional professional opportunities that in any actual meritocracy would be withdrawn from them on account of their failures.

So here’s McDermott on the day the Comey letter was issued. At the time he was trying to pass it off as trivial, overblown, inconsequential, overhyped, etc.:

McDermott was factually wrong there. Hillary was under criminal investigation at that point. This can’t be disputed anymore by anyone who knows what they’re talking about. That she was under criminal investigation as of October 28 was extremely obvious on that very day, but McDermott and his compatriots waged a propaganda offensive to insist otherwise. Now they know that they failed, and are trying to rewrite history. On October 28 the letter was nothing to be concerned about. Today it cost Hillary the election. Kind of a whiplash, no?

Question: Why wouldn’t it have some measurable impact on public opinion if a presidential nominee was suddenly once again under criminal investigation, after assuring everyone that the matter was 100% resolved? Comey is not the one who initiated this outcome. That’s why using the word “cost” is so misleading — Comey “cost” her the election. How about, “Clinton’s unresolved legal problems cost her the election?” That’s a little more accurate.

Ezra’s tweet here is cute, but he’s trying to impute parity where none exists. Comey didn’t “reshape American politics and policy based on unverified info.” The fact that FBI agents in Manhattan, under the direction of Obama-appointed U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, seized Anthony Weiner’s laptop was “verified info” at the time Comey issued the letter. The fact that the laptop contained “info” pertinent to the previously-closed Hillary email investigation was also “verified.” FBI agents sought and received a warrant from the presiding magistrate. That too was “verified.” These “pollsters” and pundits need to learn the basics of criminal procedure, and then revisit.

Ezra & Co. are trying to make Comey look like some kind of out-of-control renegade who had it out for Hillary, but that interpretation doesn’t make any sense.

This theory of the Comey Letter as the principal determiner of Hillary’s defeat has already been crystalized in the liberal pundit imagination. They are largely unamenable to countervailing facts. That’s fine. But as long as they keep talking about it, and thereby misleading the wider public, I’m going to continue talking about it.

***Aside: it wouldn’t be a VOX article if it didn’t contain a blaring factual inaccuracy. (Just like Matthew Yglesias’s article on the very same subject from a few weeks ago.)

Comey’s letter was sent to multiple committee chairmen; it wasn’t directed solely to the House Judiciary Committee. Maybe a trivial error, but still funny to note because of VOX’s presumption to “explain the news to you.”

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