Will the Democrats Learn Anything at All from Defeat?
The party's crack-up has arrived, and the fight will revolve around federal interventions and authority.
I will confess that when early Election Day coverage suggested that voter turnout was strong, I thought it was an indicator that Hillary Clinton was going to win. But the coverage was mostly anecdotal and based on observation. In reality, voter turnout was lackluster. Clinton could not get the vote out. She did not maintain President Barack Obama's base of support.
Bernie Sanders warned during the primaries when competing against Clinton that he could get voters out and that the Democrats tend to win when more people go to the polls. But the Democratic establishment won the primaries, Clinton campaigned on being President Barack Obama's third term, and they went down in flames.
The Democratic Party identity crisis that started becoming increasingly visible back during the 2014 midterms has arrived. The Democratic Party will not be able to govern on the basis of popular support for Obama any longer. So what happens next? What will the Democratic Party stand for after it stops being the "Obama Is Great" club?
According to Politico, Clinton's circle is still in denial. To them, losing is a thing that happened for reasons that had nothing to do with them, and they're sure they made the right decisions:
On a call with surrogates Thursday afternoon, top advisers John Podesta and Jennifer Palmieri pinned blame for Hillary Clinton's loss on a host of uncontrollable headwinds that ultimately felled a well–run campaign that executed a sensible strategy, and a soldier of a candidate who appealed to the broadest coalition of voters in the country.
They shot down questions about whether they should have run a more populist campaign with a greater appeal to angry white voters, pointing to exit polls that showed Clinton beat Trump on the issue of the economy. They explained that internal polling from May showed that attacking Trump on the issue of temperament was a more effective message.
Politico notes that the campaign made the conscious decision to embrace all the things that make Clinton Clinton in order to win. After all, a personality-based campaign worked for Obama, right?
"Make a virtue of her longevity," Palmieri advised in an email that month to Podesta, released by WikiLeaks. "Embrace all the Clinton-ness — the forty years in politics, the decades on the national stage…Maybe folks had Clinton fatigue at one point, now they are just seen as part of the fabric of America. (Hillary won't go away, she is indefatigable, she just keeps at it, and you can trust her to get the job done.)"
But that didn't work, and the campaign is still in the Homer Simpson-esque "This is everybody's fault but mine" phase. FBI Director James Comey's last-minute memo about the emails discovered on another laptop is fingered as a culprit—but this is just an example of blaming the messenger for a problem caused by Clinton herself.
One Clinton "confidante" complained that they spent the whole election explaining her "inherited issues," which is apparently code for "everything in Clinton's past that causes voters to dislike her." One of the reasons Obama was able to campaign on the basis over his personality and vague moderate-to-progressive ideals was because of that lack of history. (And then when given the chance, he embraced a technocratic "establishment" administration that fostered a boom in federal regulation and intervention that most certainly contributed to distrust in letting Clinton continue his legacy.)
But even when Democrats in the Politico piece do understand why Clinton lost, there's a deeper problem in their analysis: It's all about trying to figure out which ideological levers to pull for which voter demographics to get them to vote for their candidates. It is an indication of a party that is without an operating philosophy other than trying to maintain its own power.
That's Clinton in a nutshell, and it showed in the race. She ran against Obama years ago by contrasting her policy proposals with his. Then after Obama's two terms she ran by embracing Obama's popularity and promising to continue you every single policy he implemented. Then when Sanders' socialist democrat populism made inroads in the primary, she did her best to pander to the most economically ignorant proposals of massive increases in the minimum wage (which will hurt the rural poor, and they know it) and "free" college.
What makes Clinton the "establishment" is not that she shared the same positions as "beltway insiders," but that she shared the same lack of them. They weren't positions so much as positioning. She didn't stand for anything at all.
But a deeper dive suggests that actually, in the end, she does stand for something, and that's government intervention in every single problem that exists, anywhere. It may not seem like policy played a role in this election, but I suspect in the end that's like saying that water plays no role in fish behavior. It was always in the background.
Clinton's campaign pushed out several policy memos and briefs, and what they all had in common is that they called for federal involvement in every single solution, with very few exceptions. She is known for being an interventionist in foreign policy, supporting military action in Syria and Libya and elsewhere. If she thought any particular outcome was a good idea, she wanted to a federal law to make it happen or a government subsidy or grant to push it along.
In a sense, what made Sanders remarkable as a candidate was not that he was a democratic socialist getting open popular support from Americans; what was remarkable is that there were parts of his ideology—his foreign policy and support for privacy—that were less interventionist than Clinton. To be clear, much of Sanders' domestic economic policy was illiterate nonsense and dangerous—and that was the part Clinton was more than happy to embrace in order to win. Why wouldn't she? It meant even more federal intervention.
As the Democratic Party struggles to figure out what it's going to stand for now, we're going to see a lot of "progressive vs. centrists" framing. What matters for Americans who are looking from outside the party is that this is going to be a fight over how much government control over our lives the Democratic Party will continue to embrace. Just because Clinton was considered a "centrist," that didn't make her better on liberty than Sanders. In the ideological fight over "authority vs. liberty," so many people attempting to shape the future of both parties have a vested, career-based stake in making sure "authority" wins.