In this article the author argues that Obama’s failure to build a strong Democratic Party during his Presidency, and a lack of a coherent theme during Hillary’s campaign were among the reasons that contributed to the Democrats losing. He outlines how he thinks they can recover after Trump’s triumph.
The blame-game among Democrats and pundits began soon after Hillary Clinton’s defeat. Per the new conventional wisdom, Clinton lacked inspirational qualities. She ran a too tightly controlled and defensive campaign. She failed to develop a coherent theme for her candidacy. She committed a major gaffe by calling half of Donald Trump’s supporters “deplorables”. She failed to pay sufficient attention to the states of Wisconsin and Michigan, presuming they would be safe for any Democratic nominee.
This commentary is meaningless after-the-fact rationalisation. Just 24 hours earlier, these same pundits and Democratic operatives had informed the world that Hillary Clinton was poised to complete a historic victory as the first woman to be elected president of the United States. Clinton and her campaign did not suddenly change overnight. It was the same candidate and the same campaign that the commentators previously anointed as sure-fire winners.
The pundits twisted themselves into pretzels to justify why what they assured us would happen – a Clinton victory – had not happened. The Clinton blame game provided an easy substitute for hard thinking about how presidential elections work and how to rebuild the Democratic Party.
Using my prediction system, the Keys to the White House, I first predicted a Trump victory in a Washington Post interview on September 23 and then doubled-down on that prediction on October 28, just before the release of the letter from FBI Director James Comey on possibly new relevant Clinton emails (see, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/09/23/trump-is-headed-for-a-win-says-professor-whos-predicted-30-years-of-presidential-outcomes-correctly/ and https://www.washingtonpost.com/video/politics/professor-doubles-down-on-trump-win/2016/10/28/32b618fe-9ca3-11e6-b552-b1f85e484086_video.html).
The Keys uncovered the fundamental problems facing Democrats in their effort to win a third consecutive term in the White House. These included grievous losses in the midterm elections of 2014, a divisive primary contest, the lack of a major domestic policy accomplishment or foreign policy triumph in President Barack Obama’s second term.
This superficial assault on the Clinton candidacy creates the illusion that the Democratic Party can rescue itself from near oblivion by finding its own Donald Trump facsimile: the man on a white horse who will lead their party to victory. After their 2016 triumph, the opposition Republicans control the White House, the US Senate and House, and most state governments. Republicans are likely to control the Supreme Court for the next generation at least. Today, the Democrats are a shattered party and the Obama legacy is on fading life-support.
Far more blame for the sorry plight of the Democrats must go to Barack Obama than to Hillary Clinton. As president, Obama learned only half the lesson taught by the greatest of Democratic leaders, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Obama learned from FDR the importance of policy innovation, but failed to learned from him the value of party building. FDR knew that his New Deal reforms were not last without a strong Democratic Party.
He inherited a shattered party that had lost three consecutive presidential elections by average margins of more than 20 percentage points and failed to gain control of either chamber of Congress. However, FDR, through his liberal New Deal reforms that gave hope and benefits to ordinary Americans and his building a grassroots base in the burgeoning union movement, completed a realignment that led to Democrats winning all but two presidential elections from 1932 to 1964, and controlling Congress for all but four of these years.
Although in substance an excellent president, Obama has neglected his duties as party builder. Today, the Democrats lack either a compelling message or thriving political organisations. In every election during his tenure except when he headed the ballot in 2012, the Democrats took a beating at all levels of government. Obama’s lack of a strategic political sense was also evident in the campaign. He resorted to conventional political campaigning rather than following the two essential tasks for an incumbent president. First, he should have been selling his domestic and foreign policy initiatives to the American people to overcome his party’s disabilities on these two critical keys to the White House. Second, he should have publicly decried in the most dramatic possible way the unprecedented Russian manipulation of the presidential election. Instead, he says he told Russian president Vladimir Putin to “cut it out”, which surely had Putin just quaking with fear. And he made the consummate political error of assuming that Hillary Clinton would win despite the Russian campaign against her.
A rebuilding Democratic Party cannot play the pundit’s blame game. The party must offer a progressive alternative to the Republicans that speaks directly to the needs of ordinary Americans, irrespective of race. Bernie Sanders provided a blueprint during the primary campaign with a focus on the transformation to a new green economy and on rectifying America’s yawning disparities in wealth and income. However, the Democratic Party cannot follow Sanders down the rat hole of protectionism.
To the great detriment of his party, Senator Sanders has somehow transformed protectionism from an icon of America’s right-wing into a “progressive” panacea. In fact, the Democrats can never beat their opponents on the issue of trade, which favoured Donald Trump in this year’s campaign. Sanders claimed that free trade agreements have cost the jobs of many Americans, because US businesses can’t compete with low-wage operations abroad. Yet there is little or no concrete proof that free trade agreements cost Americans substantial numbers of jobs. But a return to protectionism would mean much higher prices for consumer goods, with working class Americans feeling the most pain.
Although economists rarely agree on anything, the clear majority affirm that on balance free trade is good for the American economy. A 2006 survey of American Ph.D. economists published in The Economist’s Voice, found that, “the overwhelming majority (87.5%) agree that the US should eliminate remaining tariffs and other barriers to trade”.
In truth, the future of American jobs lies not in protectionism, but in the transformation from a fossil fuel economy to the new economy of the future, based on clean, renewable sources of energy. The old smokestack and mining jobs are not coming back to America. Companies scarcely need coal miners anymore; they just blow off the tops of mountains to get at the coal.
The rebuilding of America’s infrastructure offers additional prospects for job creation. Infrastructure repair was a major focus of President Obama’s stimulus package, which many Republicans opposed. Somehow, Democrats have let Donald Trump seize this issue for himself, even though he remarkably proposes to spend vast sums on infrastructure while also cutting taxes, expanding the military, and reducing the deficit. However, Republican opposition to Trump’s program may give Democrats an opportunity to retake the initiative on job-creating infrastructure projects.
As part of its rebuilding, the Democratic Party needs to rededicate itself to grassroots organising. Democrats failed to deliver the kind of turnout they needed at least in part because its ground game emanated from the top down. The widespread anger and protests among its base voters in the wake of Trump’s victory provides an opening for lasting bottom-up organising. But protests will be like smoke going up a chimney unless participants translate their anger into political action.
As FDR’s example demonstrates, The Democratic Party has in the past risen from the ashes. Only another New Deal and the development of a grassroots party base will rescue the Democratic Party from near oblivion. It need not take another Great Depression to initiate a new era of progressive change.
About the Author
Allan J. Lichtman is Distinguished Professor of History at American University in Washington, DC. He has published more than 200 scholarly and popular articles and nine books that have won numerous national awards. Dr. Lichtman has provided commentary for all major US television and radio networks, the Voice of America, and many foreign broadcast companies. He has been an expert witness in more than 80 federal civil rights cases.