If the party cares about winning, it needs to learn how to appeal to the white working class. The strategy was simple. A demographic wave—long-building, still-building—would carry the party to victory, and liberalism to generational advantage. The wave was inevitable, unstoppable.
It would not crest for many years, and in the meantime, there would be losses—losses in the midterms and in special elections; in statehouses and in districts and counties and municipalities outside major cities. Losses in places and elections where the white vote was especially strong. But the presidency could offset these losses. Every four years the wave would swell, receding again thereafter but coming back in the next presidential cycle, higher, higher. The presidency was everything. Listen to the audio version of this article: Feature stories, read aloud: download the Audm app for your iPhone.
Anyone who examined the strategy that the Democratic Party has embraced ever more tightly in recent years could see its essential precariousness. On November 8, that prophecy was realized, true in every regard, except that it described the Democrats.
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Liberals, with their confidence that the trajectory of the country points in their direction, never had quite as much practice as conservatives in expressing their anger. Leaderless and loud, the Resistance has become the motive power of the Democratic Party.
Presidential hopefuls already strive to anticipate its wishes. Elected officials have restructured their political calculus to avoid getting on its wrong side.
The feistiness and agitation of the moment are propelling the party to a new place. But where? The question unnerves Democrats, because the party has no scaffolding. All the dominant leaders of the last two generations—the Clintons, Barack Obama—have receded.
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Resistance has given the Democrats the illusion of unity, but the reality is deeply conflicted. To produce a governing majority, the party will need to survive an unsettling reckoning with itself. A year before his wife lost, Bill Clinton had a premonition of how things could go very wrong. He revealed his foreboding—perhaps fittingly—at fund-raising events. The travails of the group—44 percent of eligible voters—preoccupied him. He could recite one grim statistic after another.
Even at this early date in the campaign, he knew that their cultural alienation might place them beyond the reach of a Democrat. Hillary Clinton always had trouble getting right with the zeitgeist, and her aides worried about that flaw. She began her first presidential bid as her party exploded in anger over the Iraq War, an adventure she had sanctified in the Senate. The specter of that vote and the campaign that followed, the fear that the political moment might again turn against her, continued to haunt her closest aides, especially Neera Tanden, the head of the Center for American Progress and one of her longest-standing advisers.
Her analysis proved wrong in the particulars, but broadly captured a central tension of the campaign. At first, the challenge of Bernie Sanders looked like a gift. All of the Democrats with big benefactors and well-tended reputations sensed the futility of running against Clinton, because she had started with imposing poll numbers, a well-funded apparatus, and the goodwill of a party that felt her loyal service to Obama merited reward.
That left her facing a cantankerous, aging democratic socialist with a small following. Even Sanders—a luftmensch who ran his operation with about the same attentiveness he brings to getting dressed—seemed to doubt the potential of his own candidacy. A year before the first primary, he told Elizabeth Warren that he would cease his campaign preparations if she wanted to run. But Warren demurred.
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Sanders, however, would prove a flummoxing rival. To win the Democratic presidential nomination, it helps to secure the African American vote. But another path to victory involves rallying white voters with a populist bent. This can create an uncomfortable dynamic in presidential primaries, where race vies with class to become the defining concern of the party.
Politicians rarely vocalize the tension. But the socialism of Bernie Sanders—which hindered his efforts to explain the centrality of race to American life—made this split less subterranean than usual. Of course, Hillary Clinton would have preferred to avoid an argument about the primacy of race versus class. But African American voters provided her the surest path to primary victory. They gravitated to her, in no small measure out of loyalty to Obama.
He never dedicated himself to making meaningful inroads with African American or Latino voters, and so Clinton doubled down.
After she lost New Hampshire in February, she began traveling with the grieving mothers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and other African American casualties of violence. Criminal-justice issues became an elevated feature of her standard pitch. This was an inversion of the primary campaign. The Democrats had slowly transformed themselves since the s, when working-class voters of every ethnicity had been reliable constituents. As the party had shed white southerners, it had trodden less tentatively on issues of race.
That direction suited white urban professionals, who considered themselves tolerant members of a globalized world. Sanders hardly represented a mortal threat to her nomination, but his campaign did real damage to her chances in November. Alert to her flaws, he portrayed her as a greedy insider, tightly tethered to Goldman Sachs—an image that would reappear in the closing ads Trump ran against her. Clinton, meanwhile, could hardly take the African American vote for granted—a worrying number of black Millennials distrusted her, and some blamed her husband for ushering in the age of mass incarceration.
She needed to prove the authenticity of her critique of that system, which meant she returned to that issue far more than any strategist focused on a general election would have deemed prudent. The extent of their loathing was surprising—she polled far worse with them than Obama ever had, especially in states like Ohio and Iowa.
Trump compounded her challenge. From the moment he announced his candidacy, he aimed his message at the white working class. He pursued that group with steadfastness.
cibuslavima.ml Her campaign theorized that dentists, accountants, and middle managers needed to fully understand how Donald Trump surrounded himself with bigots and anti-Semites. Trump had spent the entirety of his campaign trying to foment a culture war, and Clinton zealously joined it.
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She never fully met her most important political challenge: the need to both celebrate multiculturalism and also cushion the backlash against the celebration. All the while, as Clinton groped for a summation, Trump never veered from the words stitched onto his red hat. Democratic presidential candidates have traditionally closed on a populist note, arguing that while Republicans are for the rich, Democrats fight for the working stiff.
The pitch might sound hackneyed, but it has a solid record of bolstering support. Nonetheless, neither Clinton nor her campaign manager, Robby Mook, had any apparent interest in that appeal. One Clinton adviser describes watching drafts of speeches begin with a strong populist message. But with each revision, as the drafts advanced to the highest reaches of the campaign, those lines would steadily weaken and then disappear.
So instead of having to rebut the traditional Democratic attack, Donald Trump came to own it. He ran ads that portrayed Clinton as a puppet of Wall Street. While Clinton sought to copy Barack Obama, his example in fact suggested a more nuanced approach. Even though many on the left have come to consider him an avatar of the neoliberal establishment, Obama ran two of the most populist campaigns in recent American history.
And where Clinton found herself bogged down in the quagmire of a culture war, Obama had stepped around such debates. Indeed, his most effective ads against Romney sympathetically portrayed precisely those voters and blamed the Republican nominee for their suffering. He spoke of his desire to broker a compromise on immigration—an issue he framed as a matter of good governance.
His campaign explicitly targeted rural counties. That blue wall, of course, turned out to be less sound than Democrats allowed themselves to understand.
In an election so close, any number of explanations for defeat are plausible. White voters without college educations remain a vast voting bloc—especially important to Democrats in Senate races and in contests to control state governments. But if the county was a trope, it became so thanks to the work of Stanley Greenberg. Once upon a time, Macomb was a testament to the force of the New Deal, a vision of middle-class life made possible by the fruits of American industry.
The county rewarded Democrats for this prosperity in overwhelming numbers. John F. Kennedy carried it with 63 percent of the vote. But over the years, Macomb grew distant from the party, and then furious with it.
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