Democrats Must Go Beyond Mere Opposition to Trump
As the still shell-shocked Democrats try to figure out what went wrong and what to do about it, Hillary Clinton's formal announcement of her candidacy in 2015 would be a good starting point.
The beautifully produced two-minute video was replete with attractive and aspirational Americans. It presented a diversity of color, young, old, gay and lesbian couples, a single mother and immigrant entrepreneurs. The candidate, who appears in only about a third of the video, was comfortable and self-assured. Even though she warned that the deck was too often stacked against average Americans, her tone was upbeat.
It got good reviews for tone and content. The New York Times reported, misleadingly, that it included "plenty of white working-class people," a signal that she would address these voters' concerns in the campaign. A subsequent Times video chat was more insightful: Top political reporter Maggie Haberman noted that despite the video's high production values "it's not clear what her message is." The theme, she said, seemed to be striking a balance between "things are getting better" and "things are great."
For the economically struggling voters in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan -- the ones who determined the election -- that didn't seem reassuring. Their unease didn't abate much over the next year and a half.
Democratic polls showed that voters were split almost evenly on the question of which candidates' economic policies would help them the most. But even though the economy is better than four years ago, surveys showed that a wide range of voters had more confidence in President Barack Obama on this score than in Clinton this time.
My theory, based only in part on data and a few interviews, is that late-breaking voters, as the exit polls suggested, went for Donald Trump, despite their doubts about his abilities and character. Clinton wasn't giving them much reason to believe things would change, so they decided to roll the dice -- Trump probably wasn't going to win anyway.
It's easy to forget that Clinton won the popular vote, probably by more than 2.8 million votes when everything is counted. Under normal circumstances, that would be considered a clear-cut victory. And if she had turned out a few more of the Obama flock in urban and suburban communities, she would have won the electoral vote, too.
But the Clinton campaign vested too much trust in its vaunted data and analytics gurus -- the campaign stopped most conventional polling four weeks out and miscalculated how these leaners, or late-breakers, were going.
The Clinton team, including the candidate herself, insists the outcome would been different had FBI Director James Comey not intervened by raising potential issues involving her use of a private e-mail server as secretary of state.
Yet the lack of a coherent compelling economic message was a bigger deal. That's not just Monday morning quarterbacking by the likes of Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. In October, Bill Clinton railed to friends about this danger -- the failure to connect with voters in less urban and working-class areas. The former president was viewed as a relic by some in the campaign.
Instead, the emphasis was on slicing and dicing the electorate -- gays, Hispanics, blacks, unmarried women or younger professionals. This was identity politics. The Republicans attack on this were hypocritical, because they did the same thing, just with different identities: evangelical Christians, white nationalists and nativists.
But Trump had an overarching message, "Make American Great Again," which held these groups together. It gave a rationalization to evangelicals, who should deplore Trump's morality; and while he ran a campaign with blatantly racist tones, struggling non-racist whites could justify their vote on other grounds.
To be sure, the panaceas he offered often were fraudulent: Erecting walls along the border or rounding up millions of undocumented immigrants, slashing taxes for the rich or falsely promising to drain the swamp aren't going to bring back many jobs or raise wages in most distressed areas.
But for these struggling voters his message was easier to comprehend, even if they had doubts, than Clinton's prescriptions, a 17-point program, often thoughtful, that covered almost every imaginable problem.
Democrats face a huge challenge in trying to settle on an economic agenda beyond mere opposition to most of Trump's prescriptions. Can they recapture and modernize the centrist/progressive policies of the Bill Clinton administration -- and much of Obama's -- or will the future be the Warren-Sanders, anti corporate, populist message?
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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