Friday, November 18, 2016

Recriminations and the Democrats' Response to Economic Insecurity

by Neil H. Buchanan

The aftermath of any election loss will inevitably involve endless second-guessing, Monday morning quarterbacking, and even ugly recriminations.  In 2016, with the stakes as high as they were, and with an opponent who seemed so easily beatable, the razor-thin swing state losses by Hillary Clinton immediately led to finger-pointing and anger among Democrats.

If done correctly, that can be a healthy process, albeit a painful one.  The alternatives to hashing out what went wrong, or to being angry about losing, are to refuse to learn from mistakes or to pretend that it does not matter at all.  But even though introspection is a good thing, there are plenty of bad ways to respond, too.

The most important question that Democrats are now trying to confront is how they lost working-class voters, especially in the states that used to be the world's powerhouses of steel, automobile, glass, rubber, and other manufacturing industries.  The fact is that Hillary Clinton did not, as her intramural critics would now have us believe, forget about or drive away those voters.  Before I get to that issue, however, it is helpful to think about some other standard post-election questions.

The first such question is whether the Democrats nominated the wrong person.  Unsurprisingly, supporters of Bernie Sanders are now saying that he could have beaten Trump.  The fact is that we can never know if that is true, although it might be.  He certainly would not have had to spend months dealing again and again with stories about his emails.

Of course, Clinton's supporters are also saying that Sanders supporters, especially in his campaign's last stages and at the Democratic National Convention, did enormous damage by convincing young people not to bother to vote.  We cannot know whether that is true, either, but we must at least acknowledge that low turnout among younger voters certainly cost the Clinton campaign -- and the country.

The strongest case that I have seen for the proposition that Sanders would have beaten Trump is from my co-blogger Michael Dorf.  I encourage readers to look at his argument, because it is a strong case.  Even so, I find myself in the rare position of disagreeing with Professor Dorf.  (This is not as big of a disagreement as it might seem, because both he and I readily admit that it is a very open question with plenty of unknowable counterfactual guesswork.)

The particular point with which I disagree is this: "Sanders probably would have won, partly because he would have held the upper Midwest but mostly because the kind of irrational hatred that many voters--including moderates--felt for Hillary Clinton takes years to build."

It is certainly true that Clinton suffered from the decades of abuse that have been heaped upon her by Republicans.  Moreover, as I noted in a column shortly after Election Day, the nonstop attacks on Clinton fed the media narrative that turned everything she did into a series of supposed scandals and lies that never actually amounted to anything.

Therefore, having Clinton at the top of the ticket forced the Democrats to play defense in a slanted environment where Clinton's efforts to defend her record were dismissed as mere self-serving spin.  Once the narrative was set, Clinton's options were limited.

Why, some people have asked, did she fail to fight back and correct the record?  Actually, she did fight back, but there was only so much that she could do.  In my column, I likened the media's treatment of Clinton to the way the cool kids in high school laugh at the earnest, brainy kid.  Has any victim of that kind of treatment ever gotten a fair shake when she confronted her detractors?  "Hey, Biff and Missy and Tank and Buffy, you're being unfair to me!"  That always turns out well.

So, nominating Clinton instead of Sanders certainly did give Republicans the opportunity to use their built-up arsenal of attacks against her.  But there is one thing that the Republicans have been doing even longer than sliming the Clintons, and that is red-baiting the left.  Thirty years of Clinton hating versus seventy-plus years of red-baiting?

Imagine the howling from Republicans about Sanders's self-labeling as a Democratic Socialist.  Now imagine it every hour of every day from May through November.  That just might have had some effect on undecided voters.  You thought that Rudolph Giuliani looked unhinged when attacking Clinton?

Remember, Republicans describe something as simple as progressive taxation as "class warfare" that is tantamount to collectivist labor camps.  Why should we expect them to respect the modifier democratic when they refuse to acknowledge that socialism, communism, Marxism, and Stalinism are not all the same thing?

In any event, Clinton was the nominee, not Sanders, and now most of the recriminations have revolved around whether her campaign made errors that cost her the tiny number of votes that would have turned around the Electoral College result.

Although I quite unexpectedly became a genuine admirer of Hillary Clinton during this campaign, there is certainly no reason to think that she did everything right or to defend her to the death.  But most of the complaints about her campaign strike me as the most rank kind of 20/20 hindsight.  "Oh, she lost by fractions of a percentage point in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and she underperformed her polls in Florida and North Carolina.  She blew it!!  Here's what she should have done differently."

Of course, such a thought experiment takes as given everything else in the campaign.  If she had done more campaigning in states that she lost and less in states that she won, this thinking goes, she would have won both sets of states.  Maybe, but color me skeptical, and it is certainly not a given.

More to the point, what exactly should she have done differently?  Apparently, because many struggling working class white voters (some of whom had voted for Obama) voted against Clinton, she is now being faulted for failing to give them a reason to vote for her.

As an initial matter, it should be obvious that Clinton could have won -- rather easily, in fact -- if she had done better with other blocs of voters.  Shortly before the election, for example, I described how America's youngest voters could take control of their destinies by voting for Clinton.  As I noted above, too many of them decided that she was boring or uncool, and now they will face the consequences for the rest of their lives.

But the broader criticism of Clinton seems to be that she did not have a positive vision, to the point where the press made a big thing about one of the hacked emails in which a Clinton advisor worried about whether she had a good slogan.  This has even led people to disparage Clinton's slogan as being inferior to Trump's.

Why should we take seriously the claim that "Make America Great Again" is somehow better than "Stronger Together" -- other than that Trump ended up winning the Electoral College?  Viewed generously, Trump's slogan evoked greatness, patriotism, and nostalgia.  Clinton's evoked strength, unity, and hope.  This kind of criticism is the worst kind of navel-gazing from Beltway types.

The more substantive version of the Clinton-lost-because-she-ran-a-bad-campaign nonsense is the claim that she was peddling a collection of bullet points from policy papers that did not excite anyone.  That is plainly untrue as a matter of how she actually campaigned, of course, but it neatly fits the "Hillary is a loser because she's such a nerd" narrative so beloved of the in-the-know commentators.

Moreover, the supposedly boring things that formed Clinton's platform should have been appealing to exactly the voters whom we are now told she fatally ignored.  Clinton, not Trump, advocated for a higher minimum wage.  Clinton, not Trump, supported the right of workers to join the unions that were the backbone of that great yesteryear of high wages.  Clinton, not Trump, wanted to give parents the ability to send their kids to college without incurring crushing debt, fulfilling the American dream that each generation's children can climb higher than their parents.

But what about the claim that Clinton failed to focus on those issues enough, and especially the claim that she was more interested in attacking her opponent than making an affirmative case for why people who worry about their pocketbook issues should vote for her?

The only rational response to that question is: Did you see who she was running against?  If she had failed to exploit her opponent's weaknesses, or if she had simply imagined that everyone would know and remember that he was a dangerous autocrat without her campaign having to say so, she would have been rightly accused of political malpractice.  The one thing we know for sure in U.S. politics is that people have short memories.

So now, we are left wondering whether Clinton could have recalibrated her messaging in a way that would have allowed her to win in key states -- states where Republicans had been openly engaging in voter suppression efforts for years.  Maybe, but it strikes me as mere piling on when other Democrats and pundits say, "She lost, so that means she must have done something wrong."

In a future column, I will have a lot more to say about whether Democrats have "ignored" or "talked down to" or in some other way alienated the white working class voters who formed the core of Trump's support.  There is a raging debate about how much Trump's open bigotry played into those voters' decisions, and that is an important question.

Here, however, it is essential to point out that Clinton did not forget those voters, and she did not show disdain for them.  Indeed, despite the Republicans' insistence on making the now-infamous "deplorables" comment a big deal, here is what Clinton actually said immediately after saying that some Trump voters were beyond her campaign's reach:
"But the other basket -- and I know this because I see friends from all over America here -- I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas -- as well as, you know, New York and California -- but that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they're just desperate for change. It doesn't really even matter where it comes from. They don't buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won't wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they're in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well."
That paragraph never made it into the news cycle, even though fact-checkers tried to correct the record about Clinton's supposed disparagement of all of Trump's voters.

Again, no one could ever say after an election loss that they would not do anything differently.  It is, however, important to remember what really happened on Election Day.  More people voted for Clinton than Trump.  Trump won by very narrow margins in states where Republicans turned out their own voters while they suppressed the votes of Clinton's backers.

In spite of all that, Clinton looked like she would win.  For Democrats moving forward, they need to figure out how to do better next time, especially because Trump and the Republicans will shamelessly erect even more barriers for the Democrats to overcome.

What Democrats cannot do is turn on each other.  They lost, and they need to work together to figure out what to do next.  Carping on minor issues regarding Hillary Clinton's honorable campaign is not going to solve anything.


Greg said...

I've thought about the post-game on the question of "how could so many Americans vote for Trump?"

The answer I've come up with is two-fold:

1.) They don't see Trump as inherently bad.
This is because their boss or their male co-workers talk the same racist, misogynist talk that he does, and they have, unfortunately, come to see it as normal.

2.) Trump said he would bring back the factories.
In the vein of "all politics is local," people whose communities have been ravaged by factory closings care about reopening the factory and not much else. Trump told them what they wanted to hear.

A Democrat offering job training or education doesn't help most of the factory workers. Union protections only work if there are people working jobs to join the union. Saying that globalization is causing the closing of factories and that nothing can really be done about it, even if correct, just sounds like you don't care and won't even try.

Based on point 2 above, as well as other factors, I fear that this campaign is evidence that facts are meaningless in politics. It seems that it is far better to provide a partial falsehood or even a bald-faced lie if it's what your constituents want to hear. The worst part is, I suspect part of why Trump's falsehoods were so convincing is because he believes them himself.

Joe said...

Yes, I question if Sanders would have did better in the general -- the three Rust Belt states alone to me seem to be full of voters who are in various ways somewhat conservative, or conservative enough that they would be influenced by attacks on a "socialist." That label is risible as applied to Barack Obama, who has left leaning critics for being too economically conservative. Less so there.

It is true Sanders has outsider cred (though a bit silly given he was in Congress and politics for decades) but he did lose in the primaries. He has weaknesses, including less passion from certain quarters that very well could have helped Clinton in states that turned on some sliver. Clinton also showed much skill even if certain missteps can be cited, as they can for any election. Sanders had weaknesses there too.

I personally think a third candidate would fit the ethos of the time better but we don't have perfect choices. Democrats were quite lucky to find Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. They had some blah choices too. Clinton was in the middle & had a lot going against her. And, Sanders strongly supported her in the general.

Fred Raymond said...

Obama pretty much had a lock on the black vote, as would be expected. Similarly, Trump got most of the white male vote. (See the pattern?) By analogy, HRC did not remotely get a similar proportion of the white female vote. Millions of white female voters elected the misogynist over the female candidate.

David Ricardo said...

Speculating on whether or not Sen. Sanders should have been the nominee is useless, it adds nothing to the knowledge of the situation. And the idea that he would have performed better than the nominee who won the popular vote is naïve. Sen. Sanders is an old, grouchy white guy whose connection to the Democratic party has been tenuous to the point where he is still not even a Democrat. What additional support he might have generated among white voters would have been more than offset by African American, Hispanic and Asian Democrats who would have had no identification with him, because he had no identification with them. Hillary inspired women, African Americans and other minorities. Sanders would have inspired indifference.

Hillary Clinton received the nomination because she earned it. A loyal and hard working Democrat her resume was outstanding. One cannot compare her foreign policy experience to Sen. Sanders because he had none. She has been the victim of a 30 year un-relenting attack and as Mr. Buchanan has so skillfully documented, the victim of a national media interested only in false scandals and not policy issues. The chattering class drowned out her message.

Donald Trump was allowed to lie with impunity because his fabrications made news, and he continues to today with his claim to have saved a Ford plant that was not going to close. A media that is both fawning and coerced is the future. Like Alice Democrats will not gain if they run as fast as they can, they will have to run faster than they can to win.

Finally, while all of us will work to restore decency and democracy, we will no longer heed the woes of college grads who have crushing student debt. Too bad, you stayed home election day. We will not longer sympathize with those who are losing their voting rights, you didn’t exercise them when you had them. And since 30% of Hispanics voted for Trump, too bad when the deportation thugs come marching through your house. It’s not that you were not warned. For all those neocons now horrified that Russia is the BFF for the White House, well what did you expect? Finally, Mitt Romney has now achieved almost all he wanted in life, no he is not President but he is the public image for the word ‘craven’. Congrats Mitt!

Shag from Brookline said...

Many of the white working class voters supporting Trump were angry at political insiders for their trade and other policies related to globalization for losses of their good paying jobs, which left America for foreign shores. These political insiders, going back to the Reagan Administration, included more Republicans than Democrats. Some, perhaps many, claimed the insiders were doing less for them than for minorities, especially African-Americans, Latinos. But those policies were not targeted at the white working class. Those policies impacted ALL working class Americans. Economically these claimed favored minorities have yet to achieve the economic levels of the white working class to this day. Compare this to Jim Crow laws and practices that specifically targeted African Americans. The Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s have not as yet created a level playing field. Exit and other polling has demonstrated that that white working class voters looked upon these minorities as benefitting from political insiders. Unions once offered strong protections to the white working class, including by not permitting or limiting African-Americans in joining unions. Which political party took steps over the years to reduce the role of unions? Reagan was most effectivee in this regard. If white working class voters had been more vociferous over the years of their economic decline, which political party historically had been anti-union, anti-labor? America is not post-racial as evidenced by the 2016 election. And the Trump transition's nominations for cabinet and other key positions make this clear in spades. Trump promised to "Make America Great Again" but he never told us when America, in his view, was great, or for whom America was great. Was it before the civil rights movement?

Tam Ho said...

As if we needed another reason to hate millenials.

Joe said...

Millenials on the whole were more likely to vote for Clinton than non-millenials.

Shag from Brookline said...

Further with respect to the good old days when America was great, according to Trump, consider the possible Muslim Registry and the fact that the Supreme Court's Korematsu has not formally been overruled by the Court, serving as a precedent. Plessy v. Ferguson was not formally overruled by the Court. What might that be a precedent for the Trump Administration? Today's NYTimes has an interesting column arguing that Korematsu is not a precedent for a Muslim Registry.

I do not denigrate millenials. Their voices will be heard. Recall the then millenial-equivalents late in LBJ's Administration and into the following Nixon Administration. And then there are the younger groups as they become eligible to vote. Will Trump's America be great for them?