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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

September 16: The Risk of Fighting the Last War

After reading some of the initial commentary on Hillary Clinton’s new book, What Happened, which despite her candor and self-criticism has subjected her to a whole new round of criticism, it occurred to me that the 2016 “hangover” for Democrats is becoming a real problem. I wrote about this at some length for New York:

[J]ust like anyone else, the most recent Democratic nominee is entitled to a take….But worthwhile as all these assessments are, at some point Democrats will need to close the book on 2016 and fight the tendency to assume that the next presidential election will be a do-over.

The reality, as Clinton’s own self-examination illustrates all over again, is that the 2016 presidential election was so close — and the popular-vote loser winning the Electoral College by insanely close margins in three states is about as close as it gets this side of Florida 2000 — that there are multiple credible explanations. Using a “but for” test, Clinton lost because of gender bias and the email “scandal” and excessively vague messaging and media bias and James Comey and dangerous dependence on election modeling and bitter-end Sanders supporters and the Wall Street speeches and accumulated resentments against her husband and Russian hacking and fake-news dissemination and third- and fourth-party votes and GOP hypocrisy and the Trump campaign being forced by its narrow path to victory to better target resources and … on and on.

The understandable but dangerous temptation for frustrated Democrats is to throw up their hands and blame the whole mess on their centrist woman nominee, resolving right now to go with her polar opposite. That would be a left-leaning man.

As it happens, there is a left-leaning man available who nearly derailed Clinton in the 2016 primaries, and who is thought by many of his supporters to have been a sure winner against Donald Trump.

Like many counterfactuals, there is no way to prove or disprove the “Bernie woulda won” assumption. Yes, there were polls showing him enjoying significantly better approval ratings than Trump or Clinton, and there’s an argument that he would have done better than HRC in precisely the Rust Belt states that decided it all. But we’ll never know what might have happened if the vast infrastructure of the GOP, conservative media, and the MSM had devoted a billion dollars or so to exposing and attacking Sanders vulnerabilities that primary voters did not care about or that Clinton chose not to bring up. These range from his favorable rhetoric about Cuba and Venezuela to his agreement to serve as a presidential elector for the Marxist-Leninist Socialist Workers Party to his so-called “Soviet Honeymoon” with his wife, Jane (Trump’s Russian friends would have had some rich, ironic fun with that chestnut), and might have also extended to the tax increases his various policy proposals, most notably single-payer health care, could have required. Maybe none of this would have mattered in the end, particularly as compared to the vast damage to HRC’s image decades of attacks had wrought. But there is no good-faith case to be made that Clinton was the worst of all possible Democratic nominees.

As it happens, we have a very good recent example of the folly involved in excessive retrospection about a presidential defeat: the post-2012 Republicans. In the famous “autopsy report” authorized by the Republican National Committee in 2013, and much praised at the time, some very smart people reverse-engineered Mitt Romney’s nearly successful campaign and made a series of recommendations based on addressing his weaknesses. They mostly involved outreach to young and minority voters, and especially emphasized unqualified support for comprehensive immigration reform. The winning candidate and message Republicans actually took into battle just over three years later could not have been more distant from what party leaders set out to produce.

Democratic primary voters, not backward-looking pundits and activists, will ultimately decide what kind of candidate and campaign to send up against (presumably) Donald Trump in 2020. Bernie Sanders has a lot of tangible assets to take into a 2020 candidacy, as do Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren. They will also be 77, 78, and 72, respectively, in 2020, making their health and durability unavoidable issues and perhaps, if they so choose, reasons not to throw their hats in the ring. Democrats also don’t know for sure if Trump will run again, and if not, whether his “brand,” for good or ill, will be passed on to his successor as Republican nominee. Depending on the condition of the country and the blame or credit born by the GOP administration, the dynamics of 2020 may or may not resemble those of 2016. The more you think through it all, there are many, many things we don’t know about the next presidential contest. That’s all the more reason for Democrats to stop fighting the last war. They’ll have plenty of options once the midterm cycle is over and things get serious, but none of them should involve a systematic effort to avoid the missteps and bad luck endured by Hillary Clinton. Praise the Lord, we will never again see a presidential election just like 2016.

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