Like many journalists who write about politics for a living, I had a story on the 2016 outcome written the week before Election Day that presumed Hillary Clinton was going to win the election. Since she instead lost the election, we didn’t run that piece. I’ve since written a bunch of stories about the consequences of the election, but I hadn’t managed to pull my thoughts together on a piece laying out my view of what actually happened and why.
For inspiration, on Tuesday I turned to my pre-election take whose lead I think turns out to work pretty well for a post-election take. Here it is — I promise — exactly as drafted and edited and ready to go on the morning of Election Day:
It’s largely forgotten now, but one of the signature moments of the 2016 campaign happened way back in March at a debate in Miami during the height of Bernie Sanders’s insurgent presidential campaign. Moderator Karen Tumulty asked Hillary Clinton a tough question. Not about her health care plans or her foreign policy — it was personal.
Tumulty brought up a poll showing that most Americans say Clinton is not trustworthy and asked, “Is there anything in your own actions and the decisions that you yourself have made that would foster this kind of mistrust?”
Clinton hemmed and hawed a little and then got right down to it.
“I am not a natural politician like my husband or President Obama,” she said. “So I have a view that I just have to do the best I can, get the results I can, make a difference in people's lives, and hope that people see that I'm fighting for them.”
In some respects, Clinton sold herself short here. It takes a certain kind of political genius to get yourself elected to a US Senate seat in a state where you’ve never lived. And it took real political skills to essentially clear the 2016 field of any rivals who’d be acceptable to the leadership of the Democratic Party. But down in the trenches with Sanders — and later in the trenches with Donald Trump, and eight years earlier in her run against Barack Obama — Clinton did show that she is genuinely not a very impressive performer on the stump. Her speeches aren’t inspiring like Obama’s or eerily intimate like Bill’s.
If Democrats wanted to pick a nominee who would give better speeches, they could have. More broadly, if Democrats wanted to pick a nominee whose biography and skills were maximized to winning the 2016 election, they could have.
The cliché is that you campaign in poetry — and Clinton is, frankly, a lousy poet.
The rest of the story was about how you govern in prose; building elite coalitions and thinking about political viability is very important. Having a lot of experience would be very helpful. And the thesis of the piece was that precisely because Clinton was in many ways such an uninspiring candidate — a consummate insider who never promised people that she would dramatically overhaul the political system or make all our fondest policy dreams come true — she was likely to end up surprising people on the upside.
Most presidents end up disappointing their supporters by being less transformative than they promised. We’re already talking about how Donald Trump is utterly failing to “drain the swamp” in Washington. But all Clinton ever really promised was to plug away on boring policy stuff — and she would have done that, taking advantage of a steadily improving economic situation and chipping away at a few big problems.
But of course that was all based on the idea that she would win. Instead she lost. It turns out that to have a chance to govern well you need to win elections first, and nominating candidates who are good at electioneering is an important part of the process.
Post-election takes have confused policies and candidates
Since Election Day, I’ve heard this point of view — that Clinton is relatively weak at electioneering that this explains a lot about why she lost the election — primarily from people who supported Bernie Sanders in the primary.
And that makes a certain amount of sense. Clinton’s supporters argued early in the primary that she was the more electable candidate, and this was an important part of several major liberal interest groups’ stated rationale for endorsing her early. About midway through the primary, Sanders’s supporters began mounting their own electability argument based on him faring better in head-to-head polling matchups. So arguing that Clinton was, in fact, a weak candidate rather than a strong one continues an argument that was important to Sanders supporters back in February and March.
Conversely, passionate Clinton supporters are feeling wounded and defensive and disinclined to hear anything bad about a candidate they truly admired.
All that said, on a forward-looking basis there is something confused about this.
If the big problem with Hillary Clinton’s campaign was that she was a veteran politician in a country that likes fresh faces, a Washington insider in a country that likes outsiders, and a subpar orator in a country that prizes charisma, then there’s no particular reason to think that Democrats need to revise their policy agenda in any particular way. They just need a standard-bearer who is ideologically similar to Clinton but better at electioneering and prudent enough to avoid doing buckraking speeches in the lead-up to a presidential campaign.
Not coincidentally, Barack Obama — who ran on a nearly identical agenda to that of Clinton — remains incredibly popular.
The Democratic Party narrowed the field way too much
Sanders supporters will, obviously, go to their graves believing that their candidate would have beaten Donald Trump. Given the narrowness of the result and the idiosyncratic nature of Clinton’s email troubles, they may be right. (But given the difficulties of selling a carbon tax and middle-class income tax hikes in the Midwest, they may also be wrong.)
But Democratic Party leaders — elected officials, but also major donors and interest groups heads and other people involved in party-affiliated work — ought to think harder about how and why the choices came to be so narrowly circumscribed.
Back in 2008, congressional leaders aware of Clinton’s flaws encouraged Barack Obama to challenge her in the primary. In the 2016 cycle, it was clear that Joe Biden was interested in running but nobody encouraged him. Nobody tried to push a longshot Latino contender into the field. Feminist organizations whipped support for Clinton rather than offering encouragement to other women who might have been interested in stepping forward. And when former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley did insist on running as a mainstream Democratic alternative to Clinton, he was immediately frozen out.
Not only did this not produce a particularly strong nominee, it even failed at the basic objective of avoiding a bitter, divisive primary. Elbowing other possible contenders out of the race was in part a display of Clinton’s genuine political savvy. As Vox’s Ezra Klein wrote way back in 2006, she’d have made an excellent leader of the Democratic Senate caucus, where the job is more about wrangling elite supporters than communicating with the mass public. And in fact she was a very effective junior senator, a classic case of a “workhorse” member of Congress who sweats the details and does the dull work of legislative coalition building, rather than the kind of “showhorse” who gives some great speeches but doesn’t make a big difference legislatively.
But other party leaders ought to take responsibility for their own actions as well. Especially when the already-wealthy Clinton insisted on doing paid corporate speaking gigs that her own staff regarded as ill-advised after stepping down as secretary of state, key leaders swallowed doubts when they should have been raising them.
Clinton’s biggest supporters and allies say that talk of a flawed candidate is misleading. She was, they say, in truth the victim of a relentlessly hostile media. I think this is fundamentally true and wrote about it frequently. But it was also knowable from a long way off. Jon Allen’s story on “Clinton Rules” reporting appeared in July of 2015, and Clinton loyalists have been complaining, with some justice, about Clinton’s rough treatment by the press for a decade or more.
But unfair as this may be to Hillary Clinton, practical politics isn’t about fairness, and media relations are a legitimate aspect of the craft of politics. Putting forward a standard-bearer who has a legendarily bad relationship with the press is a dubious tactical move for a political party. And to the extent that Democrats feel it did Clinton in, that should be further cause for introspection.
Micro-targeting has gone too far
The further I get from Election Day, the more struck I am by the extent to which the lingo of a certain kind of technical campaign operative has come to permeate a much broader realm of political discourse. Everyone who writes and thinks and talks about politics is now achingly familiar with mobilizing the base, with the gap between college educated and non-college whites, Latino turnout and black turnout, “millennials,” and all the rest.
There’s a time and a place for that, and obviously it would be ridiculous to suggest that campaigns should stop making demographically based models of the electorate.
But it’s also possible to take obsession with this kind of thing too far. In the key five Rust Belt states that Trump stole away from Obama’s coalition, he picked up a modest number of extra votes and Clinton simply lost a ton of Obama’s voters.
Those losses, in the end, cut across racial lines even though Trump had waged a campaign soaked in racial rhetoric and was powered to the GOP nomination in the first place largely by white racial resentment. Better candidates with stronger campaign messages and more favorable circumstances just tend to do better across the board.
“Nominate a black guy from Chicago next time” did not particularly solve any weaknesses revealed by John Kerry’s 2004 campaign, but it happened that a black guy from Chicago was very talented at casting core progressive aspirations in an appealing light pitched at a wide range of voters. Democrats are finally mustering some meaningful ethnic diversity in their Senate caucus as Cory Booker and Bob Menendez will be joined next year by Tammy Duckworth, Catherine Cortez Masto, and Kamala Harris. I suspect that, somewhat paradoxically, continuing to put forward candidates of color may be crucial to speaking more compellingly to white voters since they can speak credibly about a cross-racial politics without sounding like they are trying to sideline nonwhite people’s concerns.
But the proof of that theory will ultimately have to be in the pudding. The party needs less fear of primaries, less centralized control of House races from the DCCC, and overall more openness to the idea that it’s going to take a range of approaches for a diverse party to win in a diverse nation across a problematic political geography.
The good news for Democrats is that having an opponent to run against is less stressful. Either he does an okay job and gets reelected regardless of what you say (as four out of our last five presidents were) or he fails and you run against his failure. It frees you up to say what you really think. I know perfectly well why Clinton’s campaign thought it was smart to make ads that heavily focused on Donald Trump mocking Megyn Kelly and Serge Kovaleski. But I don’t for a minute think that’s why Clinton or anyone else who poured their blood, sweat, and tears into her campaign think a Trump White House will be disastrous for America.
When in doubt, you can do worse than saying what you really think. And as long as you’re at it, you probably want to elevate your most compelling and credible public-facing messengers to deliver it.
On the morning of Election Day, I thought President Clinton would end up pleasantly surprising a public that grudging accepted her as an alternate to a flagrantly unfit Trump — and I still think that’s true. In terms of the substantive work of presidenting, she was a very solid choice.
But you really do need to win the election first.