This article was written in response to a “Huffington Post” article by Max Weiss, which was in turn written as a response to a “Slate” article. The original “Slate” article was titled: “So We’re Still Blaming Jill Stein And James Comey, Huh?” and the Weiss response was titled: “Things I Blame For Hillary Clinton’s Loss, Ranked.” But the Weiss list was so far removed from my own feelings about the Clinton loss that I felt it was time to respond with my own blame list. It’s been a month since the election, so hopefully enough time has passed that Democrats can discuss what went so wrong. So here is my own list of the things I blame for the 2016 election loss, ranked. And I have to quote Weiss in saying (while he was blaming Bernie Sanders): “I know this is going to piss a lot of people off, but so be it.”
1-15. HILLARY CLINTON AND HER CAMPAIGN
Hillary Clinton was the wrong candidate for this election. She might have won in a different year, against a different opponent. Her strongest point, oddly enough, was the one thing the Democratic National Committee seemed scared to highlight ― she is a great debater, and whether facing Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump did an excellent job on the debate stage. But it just wasn’t enough. So here it is, broken down.
(1) Hillary is a bad campaigner. She doesn’t have anywhere near the political/people skills her husband does, and it showed throughout the entire election. Clinton is fully capable of showing her human side ― as she actually proved in a speech immediately after the election ― but she seemed incapable of presenting that authenticity to the public during the campaign. Also, imagine just for a minute if Hillary had been more forceful in responding to all of Donald Trump’s tweetstorms, in real time. If she had answered back with snappy (and scathing) tweets every single time Trump tweeted something outrageous, then she would have shared all those news cycles with Trump. Is competing for the presidency via Twitter battles unseemly? Sure it is, but Trump just proved how downright effective it can be ― it is, in fact, the new “bully pulpit of the 21st century.” Trump used this to his advantage, and Clinton just couldn’t keep up.
(2) As the saying goes, “you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.” Hillary Clinton tried to campaign in prose. Over and over again, she refused to do proper sloganeering, instead lapsing into lawyerly talk about incremental changes she felt certain she could actually deliver. But this translates into a posture of timidity, and being unwilling to risk shooting for the moon on any particular issue. That may be a realistic way to govern, but it’s not a great way to get elected. Comparing her campaign to Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign proves this beyond a shadow of a doubt.
(3) Because of this, Clinton’s entire message could really be boiled down to a rather non-inspirational slogan: “Dream small!” Don’t even dream of a $15-an-hour minimum wage, and maybe I’ll be able to get something like $12 an hour. Maybe. Free college tuition for some ― not for all. Marijuana legalization needs more “study” before I can even make up my mind on whether I support it or not. Don’t break up the big banks, I’ll slap them on the wrist and they’ll fall into line, trust me. Clinton reinforced this message of cautious baby steps every time she debated Bernie Sanders, even ridiculing Sanders for being too wildly unrealistic. Unfortunately for Clinton, this wasn’t what the public was looking for this time around.
(4) If Clinton’s incrementalism ever had a chance, it certainly would have been helped if she had more forcefully made the case for Barack Obama’s legacy. Maybe this wouldn’t have worked in any case ― maybe it was always going to be a “change” election ― but she could have made the attempt with a bit more forcefulness. Reminding voters of what America was like in 2008 when Obama got elected would have strengthened her case for tinkering around the edges.
(5) Clinton’s hesitancy was most notable in her economic message. Blue-collar voters just didn’t believe her when she promised to “fight every day” for their issues. Her campaign’s choice to not visit states like Wisconsin over attempting to flip states like Arizona just reinforced this problem. They would have done a lot better to have adopted the Bill Clinton slogan: “It’s the economy, stupid” as their central identity, but they didn’t.
(6) The Clinton campaign made a big strategic choice, and it didn’t work. They chose to primarily attempt to scare suburban Republican voters into switching their votes from Trump to Clinton. This is the same sort of triangulation that worked well for her husband back in the 1990s, but no matter how many tens of millions of dollars of Trump fearmongering ads they ran, it had a very limited amount of success. The Clinton campaign came off looking angry and trying to fear-monger, instead of positive and hopeful for the future.
(7) Clinton refused to release the transcripts of speeches she gave to the big Wall Street banks and hedge fund managers. This made it look like she was hiding something, which is never a good look for a politician. This also totally undermined all her promises to fight for working-class Joes, since she so obviously was telling them one thing while whistling a completely different tune to (as Bernie would say) the millionaires and billionaires. When Clinton came out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example, very few voters believed that she was sincere in her new-found populism.
(8) This was a larger problem than just her speeches. Hillary Clinton gave rise to an unprecedented amount of distrust among even Democratic voters. When you can’t even convince your own base that you are trustworthy and believable, you’re going to have a very hard time convincing anyone else, to put it bluntly. This was especially pronounced in the youngest voters.
(9) Which leads to a related point. Hillary Clinton just didn’t excite young voters. There were a lot of people voting this year who had turned 18 since 2004 ― some of whom are now almost 30 years old ― who had never voted for anyone but Barack Obama for president. That’s the level of expectation they had for presidential candidates and presidential campaigns. That’s a very hard bar to clear for any candidate, but this year they all flocked to Bernie Sanders only to see Clinton tear him down as much as possible for being too idealistic and promising too much ― which were, in fact, exactly the same things Obama won on. When Sanders lost to Clinton, she had the chance to energize them with her general election campaign, but she failed to do so.
(10) Which brings me to one of the biggest disappointments of Hillary Clinton’s entire campaign: her choice of Tim Kaine as her running mate. There was a lot of speculation at the time that Clinton chose Kaine because he was guaranteed never to upstage her in popularity ― she went for boring, instead of trying for some excitement. Imagine how different a Clinton/Warren ticket would have been for young voters. Clinton/Sanders was probably never going to happen, but even something like Clinton picking Sherrod Brown would have gone a long way towards building some excitement in the base (and among undecided blue-collar voters). There were many intriguing possibilities for the veep slot, any one of which might have helped Clinton increase the excitement level, but she chose the one guy seemingly guaranteed not to do so.
(11) Conversely, with voters old enough to recognize the name, Clinton’s praise of Henry Kissinger was just downright bizarre. Those too young to know who he was probably weren’t affected, but to those Democrats who still consider Kissinger a war criminal (at worst) or the architect of America’s realpolitik foreign policy (at best), her continued praise of Kissinger was just inexplicable. Imagine a Democratic candidate in about 15 or 20 years, offering up words of praise for Dick Cheney out on the campaign trail, if you don’t understand the magnitude of this error.
(12) Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” is right up there with Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” statement. Obama had a similar stumble (”cling to their guns and religion”) but managed to overcome it in 2008. When, oh when will Democrats learn that it is just not a good idea to insult a huge portion of the electorate? Sheesh. As Joe Bob Briggs would say: “I’m surprised I have to explain this stuff.”
(13) If Team Clinton was going to appeal to voters’ fears, they missed a rather large avenue to do so very effectively. If Clinton had won, liberals would have achieved a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court for the first time in roughly 40 years. That’s a big deal for a lot of people. We wouldn’t have to deal with the outcome of cases like Citizens United if the court was reliably liberal. This is a change that could have made the next few decades a lot better, but Clinton barely mentioned it (especially in her advertising, where it might have done some good with voters not totally enthused to vote for her).
(14) Hillary Clinton would never have had an email problem if she hadn’t created her own private server. The problem wouldn’t have been as acute if she had handled it differently when the media started making it a big deal. If she had just admitted: “I set up the server because I didn’t want every email I ever sent to be used against me politically,” then people would have at least believed the explanation. Because she refused to ever admit what was so obvious, the problem dogged her for her entire campaign, as she struggled to parse her answer into something you’d expect in a deposition.
(15) Hillary Clinton’s sense of entitlement was on display in the primary campaign in the same way it was in her 2008 primary campaign. How dare any other candidate challenge her for the Democratic nomination! This sense of entitlement ― it was her nomination, and Bernie Sanders should never have even run ― was off-putting to many (even many who didn’t even support Sanders). Republicans are the ones who usually respond to this “let’s nominate the next one in line” thinking, not Democrats.
OK, there were a few others outside of the Clinton campaign who I felt should share the blame, and then at the end I’ll get to those who I feel are blameless:
16. JAMES COMEY
The F.B.I. director’s actions were unprecedented throughout the campaign. Even J. Edgar Hoover never interfered in elections in such blatant fashion (he favored doing so behind the scenes, to be fair). Comey’s original press conference where he castigated Clinton for her email server while saying he wasn’t going to recommend indictment was, again, unprecedented. First, this is really the Justice Department’s decision, not Comey’s; and, second, press conferences are simply not usually held unless the prosecution is going forward. That’s normal F.B.I. policy, which was ignored. Third, Comey’s October Surprise was possibly the biggest factor in Clinton’s loss outside of her own campaign. Comey blatantly interfered in a presidential election, and he shouldn’t have. Period.
17. MAINSTREAM MEDIA
The media were unfair to Hillary Clinton. But she should have been ready for it. It’s pretty much a given that the media are simply not going to focus on what is important in a presidential election (see: the last 50 years or so of coverage), and are instead going to chase the shiny, shiny objects dangled in front of them. Clinton should have been ready for this onslaught, because it was inevitable.
18. THE DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE
That really should read “…and the entire concept of superdelegates.” Debbie Wasserman Schultz was obviously in the tank for Hillary from the get-go, and the machinations that happened to cut Bernie’s campaign off at the knees got so bad that Debbie had to resign her position the day the Democratic National Convention kicked off. That’s a stunning amount of party disunity to put on display, right at the start of the convention. Plus, Clinton locking up the lion’s share of superdelegates early on just contributed to her air of inevitability, which highlighted their anti-democratic (but apparently not anti-Democratic) nature. It’s time to rethink the whole superdelegate idea, folks.
19. RUSSIA AND WIKILEAKS
A large part of the D.N.C.’s problem in the general election was the exposure of all of their emails, too. This pulled the curtain back and showed how political operatives talk amongst themselves, and it wasn’t pretty.
20. NO NEW ANSWERS FOR THE RUST BELT
Democrats are generally stronger on economic message than Republicans, since they support things like unions, minimum wage raises, guaranteed worker benefits (like sick pay), and equal pay (and too many other economic issues to list, in fact). But they are failing badly in coming up with an answer for what to do to help towns and communities devastated by the loss of manufacturing jobs. Listen close to just about any Democrat, and they’ll trot out their only solution: more job training. That’s it. That’s all they’ve got. But these communities have seen previous efforts at job training, and they’re not impressed. What is the point in getting trained for a different career if there are no jobs in that sector where you live, after all? “Move” seems to be the Democrats’ only answer to that, which just isn’t good enough. Trump’s answers to the problem may not work, but at least he had something new to say to them. Democrats just don’t seem to, at least not so far. “Get a better education” sends two messages simultaneously: losing your job when your factory moved overseas was not only your fault, but it was your fault because you are stupid. That’s not a great message to inspire these voters, to state the obvious.
21. MADELINE ALBRIGHT AND GLORIA STEINEM
Second and third place in the “worst campaign gaffe” category (after Hillary’s “basket of deplorables”) went to Madeline Albright and Gloria Steinem, two feminist icons. Both used lines that they have used before, to absolutely horrific effect among millions of young, female voters. Albright’s: “There’s a special place in Hell for women who don’t help each other,” and Steinem’s explanation of why young women were supporting Sanders: “When you’re young, you’re thinking ‘Where are the boys?’ The boys are with Bernie,” did an unbelievable amount of harm to Clinton’s campaign among young voters of both sexes. Albright at least has been using that line (in generic fashion) for a long time, so she thought she could use it during the primary campaign in support of Clinton. Steinem really has no excuse ― that is just as sexist and demeaning a line as anything heard on Mad Men. She’s fought her entire life for all women to be treated every bit as intelligent, serious, and influential as men ― and her only answer for Bernie’s popularity is that his young female supporters have all seemingly stepped out of a “Gidget” movie? Really? Wow. Millions of young voters were repulsed by these ham-fisted attempts to shame them into supporting Clinton.
Yep, plenty of misogyny out there. Even among lots of Democrats. No denying it. And it certainly was more pronounced, due to Donald Trump’s entire persona and history. But any woman running for president is going to face this. Breaking that glass ceiling will mean future women candidates might face less of it, there’s no doubt about that, but misogyny will always be an incredibly strong headwind for the first woman president to have to overcome.
And finally, a few things I don’t blame for Hillary Clinton’s loss:
1. BERNIE SANDERS
Bernie Sanders had every right to run for the Democratic nomination, and his voters had every right to vote for him. Having a tough primary battle doesn’t mean your campaign is necessarily weakened ― as Barack Obama proved, in 2008, when Hillary Clinton challenged him. It made him stronger, and he went on to win the general election. So it can be done, no matter how bruising the primary fight was. Once Bernie conceded, he campaigned for Hillary Clinton and tried to get his voters to vote for her. If he hadn’t done so, perhaps he would share some blame, but that simply wasn’t the case.
2. BERNIE’S MESSAGE
Bernie’s message didn’t “force Clinton to tack to the left,” she decided to do that when it became obvious that his message was resonating better with the Democratic base. Bernie’s populism was what people wanted to hear. So was his idealism, and so was his lifelong commitment to fighting for the little guy over Wall Street. If Bernie’s message was so bad, then why did Clinton try to co-opt so much of it, after all?
3. JILL STEIN
Just as everyone has a right to run in the primaries, all political parties have the right to run in the general election. Ralph Nader didn’t lose the election for Al Gore ― instead, Al Gore did not convince enough Nader voters that Gore was the better choice. Period. That’s how elections work. Stein convinced a lot of people to vote for her. That is her right, and it is the American way. Deal with it.
3a. SUSAN SARANDON
Celebrities have rights too, and one of those is the right to advocate for ― or against ― whichever candidate you wish. Period. It’s a personal decision, and anyone who says any individual should support a candidate simply because of the “D” after their name just doesn’t understand the free nature of American politics ― where nobody else gets to make up your mind for you.
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