Marge: The moral of the story is that a good deed is its own reward!
Bart: But we got a reward, the head is cool!
Marge: Well, then maybe the moral is, no good deed goes unrewarded.
Homer: Wait a minute! If I hadn’t written that nasty letter we wouldn’t have gotten anything.
Marge: Mmmm … then I guess the moral is, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.
Lisa: Maybe there is no moral, Mom.
Homer: Exactly! It’s just a bunch of stuff that happened.
—The Simpsons, 1991
Back in the 1980s, when Democrats used to lose presidential elections on the regular, The New Republic would publish a post-election “Recriminations Issue,” which at some point was billed its “Quadrennial Recriminations Issue,” a tradition that finally ended in 1992. The ritual called for every faction within the Democratic Party to air its grievances with every other faction, and to blame them for the defeat. Donald Trump’s surprising victory has given liberals their first chance in a dozen years to revive this bygone tradition.
We are all inclined to believe that great events must have great causes, which is why so many people refused to believe that a lone assassin killed John F. Kennedy. In politics, the temptation to attribute a political defeat to the errors of one’s ideological rivals is overwhelming, and liberal intellectuals are wantonly indulging the temptation. Many of the disputes are so abstract they only barely touch upon actual political choices that may have impacted this, or any, future election. Everybody is simply rebranding their own doctrinal beliefs as a political road map.
I have my own grievances, especially concerning the trend toward illiberal suppression of discourse in some spaces dominated by the left. But, while I’m concerned about the long-term impact on the progressive movement’s ability to retain its liberal character, I doubt this played much of a role in the campaign. I don’t think any of the party’s ideological schisms played much of a role, actually. It is hard to think of an election defeat more singularly absent of important lessons, since the most important lesson of the election is glaringly obvious and shared by all sides: Don’t nominate Hillary Clinton for president again.
If you listened to the political scientists, Hillary Clinton’s defeat was relatively predictable — winning a third term for a party is pretty difficult. Most of us believed that dynamic wouldn’t matter in 2016 because the Republican Party nominated a singularly unfit candidate for office. But it turned out this factor was cancelled out by Hillary Clinton’s almost equal level of unpopularity. To many people who follow politics closely, it was hard to believe that the voters might see the ordinary flaws of a consummate establishmentarian pol as equivalent to those of a raving ignorant sociopathic sexual predator. And yet.
The liberal writer Amy Sullivan actually nailed the problem as early as 2005, in a Washington Monthly story arguing that Clinton suffered fatal distrust by swing voters. While “Clinton can win nearly any debate that is about issues, she cannot avoid becoming the issue in a national campaign,” she wrote. “And when that happens, she will very likely lose.”
Eleven years later, this prophecy came true, though by a somewhat roundabout means. The Democratic Establishment cleared the field for Clinton, whose favorable ratings had risen during her time away from the partisan conflict, and who they assumed was a fully known commodity. In reality, Clinton had not actually been vetted. In the time since her last presidential run, she and her husband had allowed their foundation work and private speech business to become enmeshed in ways rife with ethical conflict. The revelation that Clinton had inappropriately used a private email server came out in March 2015. This resulted in new batches of her emails being published every month for the remainder of the campaign.
The email story dominated coverage of Clinton’s campaign, creating a hook upon which the public and the media could hang the long-standing (and mostly, if not entirely, irrational) distrust of her that Sullivan had described a decade before. It was compounded by a series of aggravating factors. A two-term Democratic presidency had created a backdrop of liberal complacency and elevated expectations. The Democratic primary took place in a mood that took winning largely for granted, and focused instead on extracting maximal ideological concessions. In that atmosphere, Bernie Sanders’s success was a warning sign that the party’s base had come to see the alleged timorousness of its own leaders, rather than a Republican Party that controlled Congress, as the primary obstacle to social reform. Month after month of his slashing attacks on her as an untrustworthy shill for Goldman Sachs left an indelible residue of distrust.
It never went away. Russian intelligence carried out a successful campaign to steal emails from Democratic officials and use them to seed anti-Clinton stories in the mainstream media. And then FBI Director James Comey made the extraordinary, precedent-breaking decision to float the prospect of new charges against her, re-centering suspicions about her character and causing undecided voters to break sharply against her in swing states.
Sanders loyalists saw all the above as a reason why the party made a horrible mistake in nominating her rather than their man. Of course, how Sanders might have fared as the nominee can’t be proven either way, but the evidence suggests that his liabilities were at least as large. He identifies his policies with a term, “socialism,” that is wildly unpopular, as well as with specific policies, like higher taxes on the middle class, that are also highly unpopular. Reporter Kurt Eichenwald, who saw the Republican Party’s opposition research on Sanders, called it “brutal,” and described a small taste of it:
Then there’s the fact that Sanders was on unemployment until his mid-30s, and that he stole electricity from a neighbor after failing to pay his bills, and that he co-sponsored a bill to ship Vermont’s nuclear waste to a poor Hispanic community in Texas, where it could be dumped. You can just see the words “environmental racist” on Republican billboards. And if you can’t, I already did. They were in the Republican opposition research book as a proposal on how to frame the nuclear waste issue.
Also on the list: Sanders violated campaign finance laws, criticized Clinton for supporting the 1994 crime bill that he voted for, and he voted against the Amber Alert system. His pitch for universal health care would have been used against him too, since it was tried in his home state of Vermont and collapsed due to excessive costs. Worst of all, the Republicans also had video of Sanders at a 1985 rally thrown by the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua where half a million people chanted, “Here, there, everywhere/the Yankee will die,’’ while President Daniel Ortega condemned “state terrorism” by America. Sanders said, on camera, supporting the Sandinistas was “patriotic.”
Clinton barely aired these themes in the primary — in part because some of Sanders’s general-election vulnerabilities were popular among primary voters, and in part because she led the race all along and deemed it counterproductive to attack an opponent whose supporters she knew she would eventually need. Once Clinton had elbowed out every other plausible nominee — like Elizabeth Warren, or Joe Biden — Democrats’ only real alternative was a message candidate who had no remotely plausible strategy to overcome his glaring general-election liabilities. Clinton would have beaten Trump anyway, if not for the combined efforts of Russian intelligence and the FBI to bring her down.
The post-election debate on the left has largely relitigated the primary debate, substituting out the characters of Clinton and Sanders while returning to the dispute between the virtues of identity politics versus economic populism. One can follow this argument down any number of fascinating historical or philosophical rabbit holes, but the truth is that the Democratic Party is going to muddle through the problem in more or less the same way it always has. The party is going to run on some combination of more stringent regulation of finance and polluters, higher taxes on the rich, and more generous social-welfare spending, along with themes of racial and gender egalitarianism. Intellectuals who are invested in promoting one of these values over the others can emphasize tensions among them, but it’s a tension Clinton, Barack Obama, John Kerry, and Al Gore all managed to resolve.
In the meantime, Republican government will quickly make liberal fixation with the shortcomings of Democratic governance quaint. Everybody from soulless neoliberal corporate shills to Marxist flag-burners can agree on a shared critique of the party in power. The Trump administration and its legislative partners are engaged in a program of self-enrichment, of both the venal self-dealing variety and the policy variety. Everything from Trump’s extraordinary profiting off his power to his team of millionaires to his agenda of deregulating Wall Street and cutting taxes on the rich can be attacked with the same simple, unified theme. The unflattering things that Americans believe about politicians in general, and Republicans in particular, happen in this case to be completely true. The alliance of Trump’s corruption and Paul Ryan’s social Darwinism presents Democrats with the simplest messaging challenge any opposition party has faced in memory.
The most unpopular nominee in the recorded history of polling managed to very, very narrowly beat the second-most-unpopular nominee in the recorded history of polling in a handful of swing states, while losing the national vote by 2 percent. Because of this, Democrats can escape their nominating disaster. Republicans can’t. None of us can, of course — a fact that is very bad for the country, but also good for the opposing party.
Consider how the world looked eight years ago. The Republicans lost power amid having let Osama bin Laden and his followers escape in Afghanistan, launched a failed war on the basis of misleading intelligence, managed a scandal-ridden administration stuffed with hacks, handed off an economy plunging into the worst crisis since the Great Depression, and had its outgoing president’s approval ratings bottoming out in the 20s. Barack Obama leaves office with a growing economy throwing off wage gains up and down the income ladder, and with a president whose approval rating has risen into the upper 50s. Some conservative intellectuals tried to grapple with their party’s governing failure in the Bush years, but their mental exertions wound up having no bearing at all on the circumstances that brought their party back to power. Sometimes there is no moral, just a bunch of stuff that happens.
The party that needs to search its soul about whether it has the capacity to govern competently is not the one out of power. And what should concern Democrats is not whether they’ll get back in power but what will be left of the country when they do.