This wasn't the column I set out to write Friday morning, my last before this seemingly interminable election mercifully reaches its terminus on Tuesday.
My thoughts then were organized as such: Hillary Clinton was cruising to a 4- to 6-point win – with an outside shot at a landslide – and Democrats were going to take the Senate and a dozen or so seats in the House. So the important thing, I reasoned, was to think about what happens after, in a country where more than two in five voters (and four in five Republicans) think it a perfectly reasonable proposition to hand a narcissistic, know-nothing gas bag the nuclear codes. Even if Donald Trump were to go down in flames, we'd still be short one Supreme Court justice and have an entire political party perfectly fine with that. We'd still have a House majority gearing up to impeach the next president, rather than even pretending to work with her.
This would still be a place where white right-wing gun nuts can take over a federal building and get acquitted by an all-white jury, while more than 1,400 protesters at Standing Rock have been arrested for trying to stop an oil company from destroying a Sioux burial site, some pepper-sprayed and shot with bean-bag rounds by cops in riot gear; where black men get killed by police (or George Zimmerman-type police wannabes) and no one is held to account; where so-called religious leaders like Jerry Falwell Jr. and Franklin Graham have lined up behind a thrice-married racist ogre, selling any claim to the moral high ground for far less than 40 pieces of silver.
This was a depressing landscape to contemplate, buoyed only by the knowledge that political norms, the basic tenets of liberal democracy and the progress made in the Obama years would not be radically undercut.
And then ... James Comey.
I don't know what's in those emails reportedly found on Anthony Weiner's laptop. Neither, if anonymous FBI sources are correct, does the FBI director. (At press time, the feds had just gotten a warrant.)
And yet Comey – a Republican who already broke FBI tradition by giving a press-conference tongue-lashing to someone he wasn't charging with a crime – thought it a good idea to send a vaguely worded letter to Republicans in the House, who promptly leaked and mischaracterized that letter as a reopening of an investigation into Clinton's emails while secretary of state. (The investigation was never technically closed, and the FBI apparently isn't sure whether any of this supposedly new material is in fact new or instead duplicates of already-reviewed emails.)
The media, desperate for another twist and any excuse to call this a horse race, hyperventilated, egged on by Republican partisans and Trump, who buffoonishly called this development "bigger than Watergate." And while FBI sources walked back the dire-sounding early commentary – by Saturday, we'd learned from the Los Angeles Times that these emails were neither to nor from Clinton herself – it's a safe supposition that most late-deciding, low-information voters don't read the fine print. The headlines are what count. And the headlines were bad for Hillary Clinton.
Comey, inadvertently or otherwise, has thrown Trump a life raft. That isn't because another round of email nonsense is going to sway Democratic leaners into Trump's camp, but because this is now the thing we're talking about in the waning days of the election. We'll be talking about email, not Trump's refusal to release his tax returns or allegations of his serial sexual assaults or the weird lack of daylight between his campaign and Russia – all things that tell us more about what he'd be like as president than what kind of email server his opponent set up. Certainly we won't be talking about actual issues, about immigration policy and economic growth, or even about the premium spikes on the federal health care markets and the need for a public option.
For what it's worth, I don't think Comey's boneheaded October surprise changes the outcome, though it may affect the margin. Trump's campaign was built to maximize the crowds at his rallies; the Clinton machine was designed to maximize turnout, which we're already seeing in early voting totals. In a close election, that stuff matters; it did in 2012, when President Obama's ground game outperformed his polls. It also matters that even if Trump loses one of the battlegrounds – Florida, Ohio, Nevada, Iowa, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Colorado – he can't get to 270 electoral votes without snagging a long shot like Wisconsin or Pennsylvania. Clinton's firewall will probably hold.
So this isn't a time for bed-wetting. But neither is it a time for complacency. For starters, without Florida, Trump is effectively finished. Perhaps more important, there's more on the ballot than just Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump: congressional and local elections, races for which even the slightest tightening of the presidential race might portend significant consequences. (See page 15 for our voting recommendations.)
And, again, it's important not just to beat Donald Trump, but to drive from our body politic the cancer he signifies – the authoritarian tendencies and race-baiting and demagoguery. So don't fret or whine about the FBI's interference. Get out there: If you haven't voted, do so; if you have, go knock on doors or make phone calls.
We've got a ballgame on our hands. Don't sit on the sidelines.
@jeffreybillman on Twitter