Two and a half years before the November 2016 presidential election, I predicted that the Republican candidate would win. I was right.
My follow-up bet was that he would win because the Democratic candidate would be “tainted by Obama’s handling of key international affairs.” In the comments following my prediction, I quoted a New York Times article suggesting that conservative values generally favored a leader perceived as protecting America against foreigners. Obama repeatedly signaled weakness — in his bowing down to the Chinese ruler, for example, and in in his failure to put muscle behind his declaration of a red line in Syria and, domestically, in his pathetic pleading with Congress.
Some say that Hillary lost because FBI Director James Comey disrupted her growing momentum, just days before the election, with his announcement that, in effect, the FBI would be reopening an investigation into her email fiasco. But that explains nothing. Why would such an announcement make a crucial difference? It wouldn’t, unless — as it turned out — Hillary’s support was fragile, vulnerable to adverse winds. Exit polls indicated that the many people who disliked both candidates were far more likely to vote for Donald Trump. Comey’s announcement had an impact mostly because it reminded people of what they remembered about the Clintons. Hillary had made a profoundly negative impression, and she was either unwilling or unable to take that fact seriously and make the sacrifices necessary to change it.
You might say Hillary’s problem was that she thought like a Democrat. Under her leadership and Obama’s, the Democratic Party has become the party of reasonable discussion leading to gradual change supported by substantial consensus among favored individuals. There are two problems with that formulation: it is elitist, and it incorporates Obama’s inability or unwillingness to understand and use power effectively. In a dysfunctional democracy, it is a prescription for failure. It brings to mind the lame Caspar Milquetoast of the 1920s:
As I explained in another post nearly two months before the election,
[A New York Times article quoted one critic as saying, to the Clinton campaign,] “Take a risk . . . . For God’s sake, hold a news conference. Disband the Clinton Foundation. They are just too timid. They’re afraid of their own shadow.” . . .
It appears she is making the mistake presidents often make, of living inside an echo chamber where she mostly hears from people who agree with her. . . .
Hillary has credentials, abilities, and potential. But she doesn’t have that air of the champion. This constant guardedness is the behavior of someone who fears she might lose. And that’s very different from someone who’s sure he’s going to win. It’s the difference between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. . . .
[At this point, Hillary] is not going to do anything that will impress anyone. . . . She’s just going to hold on and hope her lead doesn’t slip away. Which is another way of saying she’s waiting for the surprise that will defeat her.
This mentality can perhaps be best summarized in two words: Bernie Sanders. The reason Hillary lost was that, in July 2016, she made a catastrophic error in not drawing the momentum of that truly energetic leader’s campaign into her own — which she could have done by choosing Bernie as her vice presidential candidate. There was strong support for doing so. The Washington Times (Harper, 2016) reported that two-thirds of Democrats favored it; the Huffington Post (Neal, 2016) presented the results of another poll finding that 39% of voters would be more likely to vote for the Democratic ticket if Bernie were on it. For someone who really wants to win, those are big numbers.
Sadly, instead of Bernie, she chose Tim Kaine. The reaction was not very positive. One progressive Democrat source, CommonDreams (Queally, 2016), described Clinton’s choice as “a pronounced middle finger to the millions who voted for Sanders during the primary season. . . . Selecting Tim Kaine [tells you to] continue to accept the status quo and lower your expectations for real change or a future we can believe in.”
That decision hurt her in multiple ways. It surrendered Bernie’s “change” credentials to Donald Trump. It depressed voter enthusiasm for her, especially among millennials, and that was palpable on Voting Day. It eliminated, from her ticket, a person whose long, respected, and highly visible career could have stood as an impressive counterweight to concerns about her own ethicality. With Bernie on the ticket and functioning as attack dog, fighting Trump’s fire with fire, many things would have been different.
Now, why did she make that mistake? In an article written by two women, CBS News (2016) provides a classic explanation:
[Tim Kaine] is not exactly high-profile, but one thing that most say is that he is exceedingly hard to dislike, a point Clinton alluded to in a fundraising email sent out Friday night.
“To know Tim is to love him,” she wrote. “When I was talking to people about this decision, I couldn’t find anyone — Democrat or Republican — who had a bad thing to say about him.”
Of course! What could be more obvious? Choose a vice president because he’s such a nice guy! In the words of FiveThirtyEight, the choice of Kaine was “a prototypical Clinton decision that adds a safe politician.” And, in a nutshell, that’s why she lost. In a fight against someone like Donald Trump, she opted for a VP who was “hard to dislike” — essentially damning the man with faint praise.
The mindset guiding Hillary’s VP pick appears in a companion post I wrote today. That post critiques a New York Times opinion piece that says women have moved ahead while men have failed to adapt and thus are being left behind. This is where the echo chamber was fatal. Hillary, the New York Times — indeed, the entire Democratic apparatus — are all reading from the same page, all telling each other that men have to know their place, mind their manners, and become more like women. This orthodoxy evidently controls Democratic councils, to such an extent that even the logic of choosing Bernie was overruled by the female insistence that a vice president be mild-mannered, not too loud or passionate — that he be “affable,” to use the word Kevin Costner applied to a nice, doomed lawman in the Wild West of Wyatt Earp.
In effect, Hillary repeated Barack Obama’s mistake. In a time of upheaval, amid insistent calls for change, she opted for the Milquetoast style, delusionally believing that voters who do not know where Idaho is located will somehow prefer the sophisticated show of good intentions and the erudite turn of phrase.
The mistake was, in effect, to listen to well-informed elitists, many possessing advanced degrees, who understood and shared one another’s values, to the point of excluding and even denigrating those who could have told them what they were missing. Bernie got it — Bernie connected with the frustrated voters who chose Trump — and for that very reason, Bernie was out. And that meant that, ultimately, so was Hillary.