By Tim Kalich
GREENWOOD – USA Today broke a tradition that goes back to its founding 34 years ago.
It made for the first time an endorsement in the presidential race.
The national newspaper says that every four years its editorial board has revisited its no-endorsement policy on presidential races, the only contest it would consider weighing in on. Until now, it has come to the conclusion that it should keep its opinions to itself. It says it hasn’t wanted to risk the charge of political bias, voters have no shortage of information on presidential candidates to make up their own minds, and its ideologically diverse board could rarely agree on an endorsement anyway.
But this year, the fear of a Donald Trump presidency has caused the newspaper to offer an endorsement — although technically a non-endorsement might be a more apt description.
USA Today didn’t actually endorse anyone — not Democrat Hillary Clinton, the most viable alternative to Trump, nor any of the third-party candidates. It instead told voters to cast their ballots for anyone, even a write-in, as long as it’s someone other than Trump.
USA Today is not alone in concluding, as its editorial says, that Trump “has demonstrated repeatedly that he lacks the temperament, knowledge, steadiness and honesty that America needs from its presidents.”
As of a couple of days ago, 21 other major daily newspapers had already made their endorsements, too. Not a single one backed Trump. Eighteen went for Clinton, and three for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson.
For those who conclude this is just another manifestation of “liberal media” bias, it’s worth noting that these same 21 newspapers split almost evenly four years ago between the major party nominees: 11 went for Democratic incumbent Barack Obama, nine for GOP challenger Mitt Romney, and one made no endorsement.
Furthermore, three of the papers that are backing Clinton have not endorsed a Democrat in at least 70 years. One of them, the 126-year-old Arizona Republic, had never backed a Democratic presidential nominee before now.
The Greenwood Commonwealth will add its tiny voice in three weeks, on the Sunday before the general election, as is our custom. Not to ruin the suspense, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who reads this editorial page regularly that Trump will not be our choice.
Of course, I also know that our endorsement won’t make a hill of beans’ worth of difference in the outcome. Trump might not win Leflore County, with its majority-black, majority-Democratic population, but he is a shoo-in to capture Mississippi.
Even in states where the outcome could be in doubt, a newspaper endorsement is probably a wash. Those voters who have made up their mind won’t be changed by anything a newspaper says. For those who are on the fence, as many are as likely to be turned off by the newspaper’s recommendation as swayed by it.
So why make endorsements at all?
We do it not because we think we have the power to change anyone’s opinion but because we think we have an obligation to be clear where this newspaper stands on the values and issues with which this nation wrestles. Nothing crystallizes that thought process like an election, during which we are forced not only to weigh the qualifications of candidates but also their philosophy and world view.
I have been writing the Commonwealth’s political endorsements ever since my predecessor, John Emmerich Jr., died in 1995. He believed in endorsing candidates, and I have tried to continue in that tradition while adhering to his independent streak by not being hitched to any one party.
It is a balancing act, as I have yet to come across a candidate who isn’t flawed or with whom I completely agree on all issues.
Although I have written endorsements of Democrats for the presidency, it’s not without some discomfort as I differ fundamentally with the national Democratic Party’s uncompromising defense of abortion rights.
I believe the rationalization for abortion is akin to the defense of slavery from a century and a half ago. Both are based on the premise that a class of humanity is actually less than human, and that its worth is not fixed but variable, determined by the convenience or interest of others.
Conversely, I have written endorsements of Republicans, even though I am at major odds with their national party on gun control. I believe that the GOP, in toadying to the gun lobby, has twisted the intent of the Second Amendment and has empowered the maiming and slaughter of untold numbers of innocent people.
Politics is messy, or it should be if you subscribe to the notion that no party has a monopoly on good ideas and candidates, or their opposites.
Every four years, we are challenged to wade through this messiness and say, all things considered, this one is better for the office than that one — and to say it even when the polls tell us our choice is not going to win.
Tim Kalich is editor and publisher of The Greenwood Commonwealth and a past president of the Mississippi Press Association. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.