Credit: Rick Bowmer/AP

It’s better to be wrong than to be shallow, but I’m going to admit here to having not thought deeply enough about the Chicago Tribune‘s endorsement of Gary Johnson for president. It might be as cunning as it is ridiculous. 

The Trib, I wrote on September 30, “may have entered a second childhood” with the endorsement of the “What’s Aleppo?” candidate. Still, I’d thought of adding but didn’t, Hillary Clinton isn’t likely to be much harmed by the paper’s eccentric choice: few of its Republican readers would be voting for her anyway. 

But as political maven Stump Connolly astutely pointed out to me, many of those readers willing to hold their noses and vote for Donald Trump because they despise Clinton now have the paper’s permission to vote for the Libertarian. This bodes worse for Trump than it does for Clinton—meaning that in the zero-sum game of presidential elections, she comes out ahead. She doesn’t get the true votes that the Tribune can actually influence, but she gets half-votes, so to speak, in that Trump doesn’t get them either.

And if we suppose the Tribune‘s ultimate purpose is to keep Trump out of the White House—and this is something I’m willing to suppose, though I know I’ll get plenty of argument—the editorial page didn’t find a bad way of serving it. It avoided endorsing a candidate it doesn’t like. It got to preach its ideals instead of its fears. And it stuck it to Trump anyway.

What we don’t know, I told Stump, is whether Trump would’ve been hurt more—and Clinton helped more—if the Tribune hadn’t played games and had simply endorsed her. This editorial would’ve changed fewer minds—we’re assuming here for the sake of argument that editorial pages have the power to change any at all—but Clinton would’ve gained a whole vote from each of them.

The major benefit of a Clinton endorsement, however, would’ve been to the Tribune. It wouldn’t have had to plant its feet firmly in the clouds. It wouldn’t have had to try to mount an argument that Johnson is fit to run the country. “Johnson,” it said, straining to make that case, “speaks in terms that appeal to many among us.” He and the Tribune see eye to eye on global trade and smaller government!

This establishes that Johnson would make an agreeable next-door neighbor to discuss the world with while hanging the wash on Monday morning. Otherwise, it doesn’t tell us a thing.