Remember the Election Days of the past? After months of campaigning, accusations and speeches, people would show up at polling sites and make their decisions on leaders and issues. On that particular Tuesday in November, we said, “we have spoken; we have decided; let us move forward.” For better or worse, we went about governing anew.
Not so with Election 2016. Almost two years later, that election is still going on unendingly. The declared winner – Donald Trump – cannot seem to accept his victory. He continues to attack Hillary Clinton (“lock her up”) and accuse her of all kinds of (disproven) misdeeds. Illegal interference in the campaign by Russia on his behalf, charges of collusion in that interference, plus the loss of the popular vote count, has paralyzed him into a constant campaign to legitimize his victory. He is the President that cannot stop being the candidate.
Similarly with Clinton. She wrote her obligatory book “What Happened,” even though she appears to not know. She has her laundry list of evil doers who sabotaged her: James Comey’s FBI pronouncements; the Russian hack of Democratic servers; lack of full support from the Bernie Sanders Democrats and the Obama coalition turnout. Clinton continues to complain about “it was other people’s fault.” Trump continues to complain “I don’t get credit for winning.” Actually, the 2016 election turned on several fundamental issues:
1. Both candidates were highly unpopular. Going in, Trump had the highest unfavorability rating in modern history. But Clinton was not far behind him. It resulted in a significant “lesser of two evils” decision by many voters.
2. 2016 was a “change” election. Approval ratings for Congress and both political parties are depressingly low. More Americans now designate themselves “Independent” than either political party. Most Americans are frustrated and angry, and feel that government – federal, state, and local – is not working for them. Many of them were hungry for something different – radically different. Trump’s campaign was built on top of Congressional ineffectiveness.
3. The internal fabric of the country has been changing quickly and dramatically. Economic wealth is not flowing fairly to all Americans; more wealth is moving to the top of the income scale, while middle-class income stagnates. Unemployment rates are low, but many workers have been forced into lower-paying jobs, and a cross-section of “old technology” jobs are disappearing with no alternative employment in sight. “Traditional Values” Americans feel threatened by a rapidly changing national demographic profile and social structure, changes supposedly preventing them from enjoying their personal lifestyle, freedoms and beliefs. (Ironically, many of these same Americans do not recognize that millions of “other” citizens have felt unaccepted by these Americans, and unable to live their life fully, for generations).
4. Against this electoral backdrop, Trump was the new political face, the outsider, who promised to change America’s direction and resolve the ignored grievances. Clinton was the old face, the continuation of the “more of the same” status quo. Trump may have been an inexperienced, reckless, morally-questionable candidate. But given how entrenched the established political structure was, an even bigger shake-up force was needed. Clinton was not seen as that force. Trump was, so many voters decided to take the risk. Besides, how much damage could he do?
5. Clinton took her constituency (and the election) for granted and played only to her Party’s left wing. She built her campaign on simply running against Trump and his character issues and outrageousness. She never spoke to the genuine concerns of those who were hurting and frustrated – many of whom were not “incorrigible,” racist or anti-American. Trump identified those hurts, spoke to these angers and frustrations, articulated the dissatisfaction with ineffective government, and exploited these fully (if not shamefully). Clinton painted all Trump supporters as the worst of the worst. She completely missed those who may have been appalled at Trump’s words and actions, but saw Clinton turn a deaf ear to their concerns – concerns about an unrecognizable future, and a fear of losing out in that future.
There are a number of 2016 election lessons to learn from Trump and Clinton. Republicans are in a quandary. The “change voters” that ultimately decided to go with Trump have not changed their minds or their expectations. For the rural middle class, the members of the “old economy,” and the “traditional values” and evangelical communities, Trump is still the only significant one speaking to their concerns and angers. They continue to believe him because they have no other choice. So even if they have to hold their noses at his words and actions, there is no other place for them to go. In the short term, they are getting some things they want (e.g. conservative justices). What they have yet to see is whether Trump can truly deliver substance for them over time, or whether his unconventional presidency will ultimately backfire on him (and us).
Similarly, Republican politicians and their traditional constituents are getting some things they want (e.g. tax cuts, deregulation, pro-business policies). That, plus a fear of Trump supporters who now dominate Republican Party voters, keeps them mute in spite of Trump’s conduct and his negative attitudes towards stalwart Republican orthodoxy: e.g. strong on NATO/defense, free trade, “orderly” government process. Whether Trump’s cozying up to dictators or instituting trade wars adversely affecting his base will change his support remains to be seen.
For Democrats, finding a strategy to engage the voters seems elusive. No central spokesperson for the Party has emerged, creating a cacophony of diverse voices. (A generational change is clearly needed; Sanders, Biden and Pulosi are not the future answers.) They have not found a unified message to rally around to reach out to the disaffected voters they lost in 2016. Instead, they are still just running against Trump as if that is sufficient enough. It is not. In the voting booth, people do not vote “against.” They vote “for.” Unless Democrats create a reason to vote FOR them, the “big blue wave” predicted in November may well turn into a dry creek bed.
Trump’s problem is that his rhetoric will burn out over time. Americans are not tolerant of repetitive drama; “The Donald Show” will become the old fad as people gradually tire and tune him out. Even if the Mueller investigation absolves him of any personal wrongdoing, Trump’s support will collapse if his promises go unkept. Traditionally, most new presidents accomplish the majority of their agenda in their first two years. That timeline is almost up.
Democrats have high energy and expectations for this fall. But one should never underestimate Democrats’ ability to snap defeat from the jaws of victory. An unfocused campaign, built solely upon rejecting the evil Trump, might bring out their base, but it will not win over the needed Independents or reclaim the former Democratic voters who moved to Trump. If focusing on the pragmatic, such inflammatory things as promising to impeach Trump, or instigating full-blown protests against his Supreme Court nominee (a battle already lost in November 2016), are counterproductive tactics. They will only help Trump bring more of his base to the polls to “protect their guy.” And in off-year elections, it is all about getting the larger share of the traditionally low turnout. Instead, just leave it to Trump to generate his own personal criticism against himself by his continually stepping on his own toes. Democrats need to avoid negative attacks on Trump or stroking the hot-button issues of his base. As tempting as it may be, as frustrated as they are, in 2018 Democrats need to focus on an issue-based campaign, focusing on “local” issues not national ones, explaining “here’s what we would do instead”– the positive message – and “these are the end results of where Trump policies are taking us.” These are the questions voters have. It is unclear that Democrats have those answers.
It is all about winning the Independent voter. The “left out” voter. In 2018 and 2020, Trump will rerun his 2016 campaign and outrages, and for now most new Republican candidates will attach their campaigns to him. Will the Democrats rerun the Clinton campaign? Or will they find a message that peels away those forgotten voters and brings them back? Will 2016 be our model for future political campaigns to come, or will voters (hopefully) insist on a different model?
“I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.”
Will Rogers, American humorist
© 2018 Randy Bell www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com