We’re still all processing this election’s boundlessly horrible outcome, but I’m going to keep writing out my post-mortems as they come to me. This will not be a post about Bernie Sanders, except in slight passing, so you can probably save your comment pro or con about him or his supporters, as it will be off-topic by the end of the post. As you all know I was never a fanatical supporter anyway, and as my friend Jonathan Cohn always says, counterfactuals aren’t useful discussions because they are counter to fact. In this case, there are too many unknowables to be sure how that would have played out, and there is enough known information from inside the campaign and party to at least have *some* doubts. Jonathan and I both supported him tactically, without believing he ever actually had a shot at the nomination. But there *are* two big things from the nomination process immediately worth reviewing for future purposes:
First, the message Sanders represented is probably the direction we need to take the party in order to start winning elections again at all levels. I’ll get around to another post elaborating the reasoning for that, but I’ll leave it there for today. (Short version: The answer to this catastrophe definitely isn’t “Go right” nor is it “Be more racist or transphobic.” We need solidarity now more than ever, but we did leave some people behind … and they stayed home this year.)
Second, the eventual outcome of the 2016 nomination was decided long before DNC shenanigans, debate schedules, or anything like that. The nomination was decided by 2014, if not well before then, by crowding everyone else out and by party officials/electeds/activists making up their minds far too early – not just to support Clinton but that she could not possibly lose. Many of you reading this fall into one of those three categories. Nearly all of you among those decided to support Hillary Clinton this cycle by 2014, by 2009, by 2008, or by 1993. Every other possible serious candidate except Biden, O’Malley (and Sanders, it turned out) didn’t even bother to look into running because of this and the universality of major donor preference. Clinton may have been the favorite in 2007 but she was the overwhelming favorite for 2016. Almost any party figures at all levels who had backed *other* candidates in 2008 were with her this time before it even began. Then you assumed all of us were With Her, just as the campaign eventually did with entire states.
Few of you listened as people like me expressed concerns all through 2015 about the electoral competence of the Clinton senior team and the mismatch of what the national mood would be in November 2016. Two years ago, in November 2014, when Democrats got smashed in the midterms, 62% of the country said the U.S. was on the Wrong Track – and jobs were coming back but with fewer hours and lower pay than before the recession. A year ago, in November 2015, 64% of the country said we were on the Wrong Track. Last month, 65% of the country said we were on the Wrong Track. (For perspective, this is the same as the national mood the week Pres. Obama took office at the height of the recession.)
Many of you will remember that at all those points, I warned you that Clinton’s message was dangerously off-key for such a scared and angry electorate. Clinton and the DNC eventually doubled down with an “America Is Already Great” message, which is political malpractice in the face of 60+% Wrong Track numbers.
In the immortal words of my friend Sara this past February, “Don’t bring the Things-Are-Fine candidate to the Everyone is Panicking fight…” As I said at the time, based on both U.S. indicators and events playing out in Europe in parallel, “I don’t think a lot of upper middle class people & DC insiders grasp the political collapse happening right now.” Many of you explicitly defended your support for Hillary Clinton on the grounds of pragmatism and electability – that her candidacy would *not* put at risk the fragile gains so many of our vulnerable communities have made (or could make via Courts for decades to come). This contention was based on … literally nothing.
I don’t care that you didn’t listen to me, even if it’s frustrating. I care that you didn’t listen to the entire country going into a terrified panic as their life circumstances crumbled around them. That’s a recipe for either desperate vote-switching or mass abstention by staying home. (I covered the latter in a post last night.)
As noted above, I’m uncertain as to whether or not Bernie Sanders could have won, although that is a largely irrelevant question at this point. Bernie Sanders was never supposed to be an or the alternative. He just happened to be there, in the right place at the right time, with the right unusual status as having been around for a long time with reputation of being principled, honest, and on message to the national mood. I voted for him in large part because I genuinely believed he was less of a risk than Hillary Clinton in the general election.
And again, he just happened to be there and happened to be the only candidate left standing by the time we got to the caucuses and primaries. Why? Because this was wrapped up years earlier in the over-confident and presumptuous beliefs by Clinton loyalists and other longtime Democratic insiders that she was a sure thing and that it was “her turn.” (Voters don’t like that reasoning, by the way, as they have shown over and over.)
I won’t bother here to dive deeply into the unpopularity issues or any other problems that made Hillary Clinton the last woman we should have nominated to ensure the election of the first female president this year. Even if you believe none of the public’s antipathy toward her is justified, it was real and a real risk – and it had been growing for decades. That’s a massive gamble to make against literally any of the Republicans who ran this cycle, let alone Trump. If you made an electability argument for her, you helped cause this. But the messaging mismatch still overpowered any other considerations, which is also perhaps how the largest field team in history just lost to an erratic campaign with no team.
We never got to find out if there was anybody else who could have stepped up with a clean slate and surprised us (it wasn’t Warren either, for various reasons, I believe) because Hillary Clinton subordinated everyone’s aspirations to her own and pushed every other possible contender out of the field except for a protest candidate and a backup candidate.
Already there are a lot of people who are showing they are very determined to not learn any lessons from this catastrophe. They have no interest in listening to anyone – and perceive triumphalism where there is none in those of us who very much did not prefer a Trump Administration but feel we tried to raise red flags and tried to help nudge course corrections in the Clinton campaign if we weren’t going to be able to get other nominee. They are blaming everyone but themselves, even to the point of suggesting absurd things like that it’s all the fault of internet leftists who didn’t love her hard enough, as opposed to the fault of decisions like Clinton never making a single campaign trip to Wisconsin in the general election. At a certain point, folks need to take ownership for failing all of us and stop accusing everyone of failing Her.
But I’m not talking to people who won’t listen. I’m talking to people who are finally stunned enough that they’re willing to hear me – and others – out.
Now for some even tougher talk:
This defeat came from in-house within my Democratic Party. Every single person responsible at every level has to go – or admit to crashing it big time and work with sincerely us to course correct. You have failed us for the last time. You lost us the 2000 election, the 2002 election, the 2004 election, the 2010 election, the 2014 election, and the 2016 election. You also lost the 1994 election. And so on. People have died and will die because of these failures. You can be part of the solution or you can be the problem, but we’re going to go through you, not around you, if you don’t move out of the way or help us move forward. The Clinton wing took over the Democratic Party after the 1988 landslide defeat. I – and people like me from all corners of our party, of all creeds and colors and genders and orientations – are going to take it now. You don’t get to whiff with this much on the line for people’s lives. You’re done.
I am, additionally, sympathetic to those whose primary hope for this election was the arrival of the first female U.S. president, because I know this is devastating to many of you. I hope we nominate a woman again next time – someone who will have much broader and deeper support…