Top Clinton campaign communications aide Jennifer Palmieri remembers the gut punch she felt on November 8, 2016, when she realized her candidate would lose.
“It felt like a movie scene you would never see,” Palmieri writes in the first chapter of her new book, Dear Madam President: An Open Letter to the Women Who Will Run the World, which came out on March 27. “The scene where you don’t defuse the bomb just in time. The scene where the world explodes.”
Now, in the spring of 2018, she is feeling more optimistic.
Democrats have been winning long-shot special elections in places like Alabama and deep-red southwestern Pennsylvania, and they have enthusiasm on their side heading into the midterms. Palmieri believes a Democratic blue wave sweeping the US House is possible in 2018, but she’s frank about her belief that the party needs to seize the opportunity President Donald Trump has presented to claw its way back to power.
“Basically, it’s voters hate Democrats a little less than they hate Republicans, so to some degree we’re the benefactor of that,” she said. “It’s not as if voters are saying, ‘I really want to vote; I really feel great about the Democratic Party.’ They know that’s their option for showing that they don’t stand for Trump.”
The key, she told me, is for Democrats to back good candidates who are running on local issues that voters care about. And so far, she sees that happening.
“If Democrats fail to put a lot of effort into producing good candidates that are campaigning in a new way and that are running on issues that are important locally to the people they’re trying to represent, they’re not going to make anything out of this moment,” she said. “You have to offer voters something different.”
Palmieri, who served as White House director of communications under President Barack Obama before she was the top communications staffer for the Clinton campaign, also believes Trump — and the resulting backlash to his presidency — will fundamentally change American politics forever.
I caught up with Palmieri to talk about her thoughts on 2018, the role of the Democratic Party during midterm elections, and what the future looks like for female candidates who are running for elected office for everything from their local school board to president.
The bottom line: She’s hopeful, if also pragmatic.
“The unimaginable happened [when Trump was elected], but a lot of the country took that as a moment to imagine what else is possible,” Palmieri said. “And I think that a year and a half later, I come out of it very hopeful that people are engaging in their democracy in ways that I have never seen.”
Our full conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
I wanted to start off by asking you what you make of all the blue wave hype in 2018. Do you think there’s substance behind it?
It’s unlike any wave I’ve seen in my lifetime, and I believe it’s not going away. You shouldn’t take it for granted, but my experience in the past 18 months is that there is energy and focus and commitment at the grassroots level that stems from a concern about Trump. I don’t see any evidence that it’s going away.
It’s good news for Democrats, but basically, it’s voters hate Democrats a little less than they hate Republicans, so to some degree we’re the benefactor of that. The pendulum is swinging back our way, except there [are] Democratic candidates who make that meaningful.
It does seem that when you look at candidates like Beto O’Rourke [a Democratic Congress member running for Senate in Texas] — he’s not new to politics, but people that are new candidates, they’re running campaigns that are low to the ground, meaning they’re focused on local issues even though Trump is such a driver of energy.
And I think that’s smart and right. I think that overall, Trump’s the disruption that came to politics to show us that the system is broken. It’s like Uber [showing] the taxi system didn’t work. He took the rules we were playing by and perverted them and made them produce an extraordinarily bad outcome.
The good news is I think politics is going to be remade over the course of the next decade and be something different than something we have seen before, and hopefully be the beginning of the restoration of a democracy that actually responds to the people it’s supposed to represent, because Congress doesn’t do that now.
When you say this is a sign that voters hate Democrats a little less than they hate Republicans, what do you mean by that?
I mean that I think people are open to voting for Democrats because they’re so concerned about Trump and disillusioned with the Republican Party that continues to prop him up. So I think that is what the energy is about and the pendulum is swinging that way.
If Democrats fail to put a lot of effort into producing good candidates that are campaigning in a new way and that are running on issues that are important locally to the people they’re trying to represent, they’re not going to make anything out of this moment.
So I think there’s an enormous wave unlike anything I have seen before. I think it’s sustained; I think it will last until November. But I think if Democrats are going to make anything out of the moment, and if the country is going to make anything out of the moment where people are participating in our democracy more than they have before, then you have to offer voters something different. Because it’s not as if voters are saying, “I really want to vote; I really feel great about the Democratic Party.” They know that’s their option for showing that they don’t stand for Trump.
Do you think the Democratic Party and some its institutions are seizing this opportunity?
Yes, I do. I worked at the DNC; I was a press secretary there a number of years ago. And I think there’s a misconception about what the role of the DNC is in midterm elections like this. I think, appropriately, you want the message and the voice that voters hear be candidates, not the party.
That produced Doug Jones in Alabama; that produced Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania in terms of the special elections that we had. Those were two good, strong candidates that understood their districts, who understood their state, who ran campaigns that focused on issues that people cared about, and they won.
The Democratic Party infrastructure should support them. I know there’s a notion that when the party is in the wilderness — meaning they don’t have the White House — that there should be a national message that comes out of Washington, DC, from party headquarters. That’s 100 percent the wrong thing to do. That is not how this happens.
This happens from candidates themselves in the midterms. It happens from candidates themselves that are running in the congressional and gubernatorial and mayoral elections. In 2020, that leadership comes from the candidates that run for president. So I feel like the party’s doing the right things to provide the institutional support, and it is reassuring that this is true, that it is the individual candidates that really matter.
Your book is kind of a letter to a future female president. Since 2016, we’ve now had the #MeToo era, this huge reckoning on women’s issues, sexual harassment. That can be seen in the record number of women candidates running for office at the local, state, and federal level. I’m curious what you make of the change for female candidates just from 2016 until now.
Yeah, I think it’s a reaction to Trump. I think Trump’s victory proved to women — if you did not support him — you could draw two conclusions. One: Women were only meant to go so far, and men like that were meant to win in America, or we were playing by an outdated set of rules that women politicians and women in business followed for decades. And it resulted in women making a lot of progress, and those rules have outlived their utility.
These are the rules that told us women candidates have to dress a certain way and they have to prove how strong they are; they can’t reveal a vulnerable side and they need to have certain credentials to have run. They have to have a lot of experience, and they can’t be under 30. What’s exciting for me to see now is that women are saying, “I’m not waiting until I have a résumé that I think traditionally has said, ‘You’re ready to do this’; I’m running now.”
If you look at the way their television ads are, they are not presenting about anything but who they are. And that’s a different moment we’re in. I think that’s reassuring to see because you could have easily looked at what happened when a woman ran for president and say, “Wow, I’m not doing that.” But that’s not the reaction people had.
Seeing this, are you hopeful for the future of women in politics?
Yes, I’m hopeful for the future, period. But I think we’re in the middle of something pretty revolutionary. When Hillary ran for president, I didn’t think it was going to be so hard or a big deal to elect the first woman president. I thought it was going to happen, that Hillary was the first person that did it, that’s great. But that was not my focus. My focus was just that she was just the best person for the job.
And now I understand that there were a lot more complexities inherent ... and if you step back and look at this in the scope of human history, it’s pretty revolutionary for a woman to be in charge. We’ve had politics for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years, and women haven’t been in charge. They didn’t have the right to vote for 200 years in America.
So it is still a big deal, I think, that this is a moment where we’ve all proven that we can do any job as well as a man. Hillary, in some ways, proved that a woman could even be elected president of the United States [Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million votes but lost the Electoral College].
But I think women now are saying, “Yes, I can do this job as well as a man, but I don’t want to. I want to do it the way I want to do it.” That’s reflected in the numbers of candidates. I think it’s going to result in more empowerment for women and a democracy and government that’s more representative of the people it governs.
In some of the reporting I’ve been doing in 2018, I’ve been talking to groups that have been doing research on how it’s the most difficult for female candidates of color to get funding, get support from establishment institutions. I wanted to get your thoughts on that, if you see more barriers — specifically within the Democratic Party — for women of color and female candidates in general having to work harder, and it not being as easy for them to get backing and support.
Everything is more difficult for women of color. Everything is more difficult for women, and everything is more difficult for women of color. But I know that there are more women of color running this time. I’m helping some of them.
I think just about everything is harder for women of color, but I don’t know enough about what the institution of the Democratic Party is doing to recruit candidates — that would be a question for them.
As you look out to names floating around for 2020, obviously there are three women that stand out — Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). Going through everything you went through with Hillary Clinton in 2016, what do you think the landscape will look like in 2020 and what their chances are if they do run in 2020?
After Hillary lost, the initial reaction from a lot of people in the party was, “Well, we can’t run a woman in 2020; that would be crazy.” And now, a year later, people are thinking, “Wow, there’s so much energy among women and among the #MeToo movement and the Women’s March — we have to have a woman!”
I think it’s very possible that women will run, I think it’s very possible that a woman could win the nomination. It will still be harder than it should be to actually win the election; there are still questions about women and power and women and ambition. That’s partly why I wrote the book, so that we would recognize that the next time you hear somebody say, “There’s something about Kirsten Gillibrand that I just don’t like,” I can tell you what that is.
One of the things that struck me in your book was when you talk about election night 2016, how you were feeling. You talk about this entirely new world under Trump that you hadn’t really allowed yourself to imagine would be possible. Now, a year and a half out in Trump’s America, what are your thoughts about this new landscape?
Well, the unimaginable happened, but a lot of the country took that as a moment to imagine what else is possible. And I think that a year and a half later, I come out of it very hopeful that people are engaging in their democracy in ways that I have never seen.
I don’t think we have a president that upholds the principles of our republic, but we have a lot of Americans that are proving they do. The Parkland students are an example of that, the Women’s March is an example of that, the number of people that are voting in primaries, the turnout for the special elections, the number of candidates that are running.
I’m still very troubled by what I see Trump do every day, but it does feel like somewhat of a renewal. I came out of the last 18 months much more optimistic.