Last January, in his surprising endorsement of Senator Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich made an astute observation which bears repeating following Donald Trump’s victory on November 8th.
“I’ve known Hillary Clinton since she was 19 years old, and have nothing but respect for her,” he wrote in his blog. “In my view, she’s the most qualified candidate for president of the political system we now have. But Bernie Sanders is the most qualified candidate to create the political system we should have, because he’s leading a political movement for change.”
Despite the many theories circulating as to why Clinton lost the election, that quote says it all.
Clinton’s biggest problem was that she leveled with the American people about what changes were possible within the current system, and offered no vision for how to change that system. Worse, her reactions to calls for that kind of overhaul ranged from skepticism to outright disdain.
“I’m a progressive who likes to get things done,” she condescendingly said at the first primary debate in October. The implication was that progressives who disagreed with her approach to change were useless. Then, during her Nevada victory speech she warned millennials, “It can’t just be about what we’re going to give you.”
This chiding was a form of triangulation—a strategy invented by her husband during the 90’s whereby Democrats could appeal to conservatives and older voters by contrasting themselves with the ‘radical’ left wing of the party. In essence, the message was, “We’re reasonable, unlike those other ‘unreasonable’ lefties!”
It was the Democrats’ adaptation of Nixon’s “Law and Order” strategy, with the same racial underpinnings. Bill used Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition as his foil, painting them as blind to the problems within communities of color.
Hillary’s others were millennials and progressives—those voters who were too naive, ignorant, and young to understand how politics really worked…or were sexist. Incremental progress was the best they could hope for, and anyone who said otherwise was either blind or lying.
Speaking of her opponent’s proposals for tuition-free public colleges and universities and single-payer health care during a debate, Clinton said the following:
Senator Sanders has talked about free college for everybody. He’s talked about single-payer health care for everybody. And yet, when you ask questions, as many of us have and more importantly, independent experts, it’s very hard to get answers. And a lot of the answers say that this is going to be much more expensive than anything Senator Sanders is admitting to. This is going to increase the federal government dramatically. And you know, my dad used to say, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
The belittling manner with which the former Secretary of State appeared to refer to desperate people calling for change did not go unnoticed. That disdain was hammered home with her choice of insider, conservative Democrat Tim Kaine as her running mate.
Clinton, like so many others, was operating under the mistaken assumption that Washington would never go through radical changes based on her own life experience as someone who had lived through the Reagan Revolution and its aftermath. Jacobin Magazine correctly dubbed Clinton and her supporters, “The Post-Hope Democrats.” What they seemed to miss was a profound shift occurring right underneath their feet: a realignment.
After four decades of middle class decline, jobs being shipped overseas, wealth skewing to the top one percent, and government catering to the rich, the people had had enough. For eight years Democrats had promised change, but delivered only incremental progress. To Clinton, who campaigned on being a third term for President Obama, this was just politics; people needed to be patient. But to those American voters who could not afford to be patient, lowering their expectations was not the answer.
Sen. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were able to recognize and tap into this anger, presenting broad visions for overhauling the system (the former’s much more defined than the latter’s). Clinton, on the other hand, was not, and did not. It cost her.
And yet, in spite of a staggering defeat this November, many Democrats have not learned the lesson.
As the battle for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party rages in the race for DNC chair, establishment Democrats insist that only minor tweaks to the party’s messaging are necessary, but not policy changes.
Such is the position of establishment favorite Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who, emulating Clinton, dubbed himself a “progressive” who “delivers results.”
In an interview with The Huffington Post Perez remarked that Democrats’ “universal message of access to economic opportunity resonates with the iron worker in northeastern Ohio and the immigrant in South Florida. And we sometimes have a relationship deficit with our voters, because we’re not communicating that message.”
On the other side of that race is the favored candidate, progressive Rep. Keith Ellison. Ellison, who boasts the endorsements of Sen. Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and others, has presented a broad vision for changing the party—not just through messaging, but through adopting a more progressive economic platform.
In response, Perez has run a character assassination campaign, continuing Clintonian triangulation by drudging up old stories about Ellison’s defunct ties to radical black Islamic leaders. These scorched earth tactics reveal a profound disconnect from what happened in 2016.
And the DNC chair race isn’t the only arena in which the establishment of the party is standing in its own way.
Recently, as The Washington Post and Paste reported, the DNC set up a “war room,” headed by several members of Clinton’s losing team, to combat Trump. The goal is to preserve Obama’s achievements. The focus of the group will be exposing the President-elect’s conflicts of interest as well as harping on the ever-elusive (unproven) Russian connection to the 2016 email leaks.
In other words: The establishment is doubling down on Clintonism. And that is a huge mistake. If Democrats are to resuscitate their electoral viability, they will need to do more than improve messaging or gin up fears of Russian interference. Success will only come with a profound shift in vision, and an abandonment of triangulation.
As of now, the Republican Party controls the House, the Senate, the majority of the governorships, and the majority of state legislatures. The country rejected Clintonism. It is time for the Democrats to do the same.