When told that Biden, or any other candidate, is electable, we should remember that while some broad trends about electability, such as the danger of Democratic insider resume candidates, can be discerned, electability is often a very slippery concept, that usually also falls victim to intellectual laziness and tautology. Candidates are electable because they win, so once a president is elected a backstory about electability is filled in. For example, we now “know” that Hillary Clinton was unelectable, but if 80,000 or so votes in a few key states had gone differently in 2016, the pundits would have explained that Hillary Clinton was electable because of her experience, centrist policies and calm temperament and that Donald Trump’s bigotry and mental instability scared off too many voters and made him unelectable. The problem with this approach to electability is that it is not predictive. It is not a theory; rather, it is essentially just political kibitzing both before and after the election.
Over the last few election cycles we have learned pretty definitively that we know a lot less about electability than we think we do. Our last two presidents, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, were both viewed as axiomatically unelectable when they began their campaigns for the White House. Moreover, most candidates have both positive and negative and electoral traits so their overall electability becomes a post facto assessment rather than having any predictive value. For example, in 2016 Hillary Clinton was very electable until she wasn’t. Similarly, had John Kerry beat George W. Bush in 2004, the punditry would have explained that as a war hero with years of experience he was the perfect candidate, but he lost narrowly, so we have been told he was a northeaster liberal with limited charisma and therefore a week candidate. Given this, when somebody tells you they think a particular primary candidate is electable, what they usually mean is simply that they are supporting that candidate.
It may be that in 2016, it was not Sanders who consolidated the anti-Clinton sentiment, but Clinton who consolidated the anti-Sanders sentiment. As the primaries went on voters who found Sanders too far left, did not like his inability and seeming unwillingnessto connect to non-white voters, or chafed at the sexism of many in his campaign, had nowhere to go but to Clinton. In 2020, according to this view, the vote that went to Clinton will be dispersed among all the other candidates while Sanders will hold his base. If that happens, Sanders will be in a very good position to win the nomination.
This scandal is much bigger than the alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, or even than the subsequent efforts to cover that up. A larger problem, one that will have a more enduring impact on our democracy, is that the Republican Party, other than a few individual comments here and there, refuses to recognize that the gravity of this. Our system may be strong enough to limit the damage of a venal, dishonest and possibly treasonous administration, but it cannot do that when the majority party in congress continues to deliberately live in a world of increasingly absurd denial. A Republican Party that continues to see the ties between Trump and Russia as essentially unimportant is the biggest threat to our democracy. This policy of denial has made the Republican leadership in congress complicit in the misdoings of the Trump campaign and demonstrated the extraordinary moral cowardice of the rest of the GOP.
The White House is working to ensure the 2020 election will be unlike any other in American history and a step backwards for American democracy. A Jeff Sessions led Justice Department will enable, and indeed probably encourage, Republican controlled states to further limit voting rights through requiring identification, limiting the number of polling places, scaling back polling hours and other shenanigans. Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch will join the Supreme Court and give a solid five votes to the conservative position on any challenge to these laws. His impressive Ivy League credentials will no doubt be very comforting to those Americans who will be unable to vote in 2020 because of the laws he will undoubtedly vote to uphold from his new position.
The scope and unprecedented nature of this development has raised challenges for both parties. It is clear now that President Obama should have risked accusations of playing politics and more aggressively drawn attention to Russia’s hacking in October when the intelligence agencies became more certain that Russia was, indeed, doing the hacking. The Republicans, with a few exceptions, have made the mistake of simply denying the findings of the intelligence agencies and of supporting Donald Trump, the beneficiary of this hacking, as he tries to distract and bully his way out of this scandal. For both parties, and all Americans, the question of what to do now is not an easy one to answer.
Move beyond the Clintons. For a few aging Democratic insiders, the Clinton name is still magic, but for everybody else, for better or for worse, the brand is strongly identified with scandal and ethical shenanigans. Additionally, thanks to this recent campaign, there are probably many female voters younger than 40 for whom Bill Clinton is primarily viewed as a sexual predator. Despite this, there are some in the Clinton’s world who think Chelsea Clinton should run for Congress, presumably as the first step in a more ambitious political career. The main reason, however, that the Democratic Party must move beyond the Clintons, is that the brand of center right politics on which Bill got elected and reelected in 1996 has no place in today’s Democratic Party, or for that matter in Trump’s Republican Party. The sooner the Democrats can finally get beyond the Clintons, the sooner the Party will stop having to defend what a decade of Democratic governance that looks much more problematic from 2016 or 2017 than it did from 1999 or 2000. For this reason, the only Clinton who should even appear at the next Democratic convention is George.
The truth is that the Democrats continued to reach out to white working class voters, and to offer policies aimed at helping them, long after these voters abandoned the Democratic Party. What the Democratic Party did not do, is walk away from their, admittedly sometimes inadequate, commitment to civil rights for people of color, women and LGBT voters. Those commitments, and the willingness of an increasingly emboldened Republican Party to exploit hatred and fear at every turn, are what has cost the Democrats white working class votes.
The last reason I got this wrong is the most upsetting. My 16 year old self, the one with hair halfway down his back, running around San Francisco spouting radical political slogans would have gotten this right, but I didn’t. The things I believed then, that a big majority of white America was racist, that a clownish authoritarian could get elected president and would surround himself with white supremacists, made many see me as some kind of left wing nut back then. Turns out that version of me was right.
That, unbelievably, is not the major problem the US will face even if Clinton wins. The most immediate challenge Clinton will confront is how to walk America back from the brink. She will come into office with a substantial minority who, encouraged by Trump’s irresponsible rhetoric, will believe that her presidency is not legitimate. Additionally, Trump’s efforts to undermine faith in American democracy and to embolden the most racist and bigoted people in the US could guarantee instability and an authoritarian movement that could get even bigger.
As this campaign, the nastiest in a very long time, comes to a close, activists, leaders and elected officials from both parties must wrestle with the lessons of this election and determine where to go from here. The lessons of this election, however, are contested and depend very much on how each party answers a similar, almost parallel question. For the Republicans, the key question about this election is whether Hillary Clinton is a pathological liar who prima facie should not hold high office and who represents a threat to the US, or whether she will be a President with whom they will disagree on many issues, but with whom they can work. Democratic leaders and activists are asking whether the abomination and threat to the democratic process that is Donald Trump is an aberration that grew out of the quirks of this year’s primary season or whether he is the natural development of a party that played footsie with bigots for more than a generation and through efforts to limit voting rights, massively increase surveillance and lead the US into a foolish and illegal war, has been betraying American democracy since the Bush administration.
We have now become a political community where we literally cannot remain focused on the possible criminal behavior of a candidate for the highest office in the land for more than a few days. It turned out to be timely for Trump that the debate was scheduled for Sunday, but if it hadn’t been the debate it would have been something else. Thus far he has changed the conversation about his anti-Mexican comments by breaking new ground in Islamaphobia, has drawn attention away from the Trump University ripoff, remember that?, by revelations about his campaign’s ties to Russia. Sunday night was just the latest in this pattern; and we can be sure there will be another scandal that will arise to distract our attention from his ominously nervous body language during the debate. That has been the singular contribution of the Trump campaign to political strategy. He has turned the previous conventional wisdom of “when you’re in a hole stop digging,” into “when you’re in a hole, get out and immediately start digging a deeper one.”
Pence and Kaine debating each other will, on substance, look no different than Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012, but also of Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan in 1984, but it seems pretty clear that by the time the 2020 election rolls around, this partisan dynamic will have changed. Trump’s campaign has demonstrated that the GOP can no longer assume working class whites will vote for their economic royalist policies, while the Democratic primary made it clear that younger Democrats are no longer content with the incrementalism with which the Clintons have defined the Democratic Party for more than a generation. It is not clear what the next iteration of the American political party system will look like. The GOP might look very different after a Trump defeat or victory. It is also possible, although much less likely, that an opening will be created for a new party, but it is very hard to imagine the system returning to what it has looked like for the last 30 years.
Although the policy differences we saw last night were significant, but not much different from what we see in most presidential debates, the differences of style, approach and, yes, temperament remain the real story of this campaign. This campaign is an argument over substance, but it is also one about the state of American political institutions and even America itself. We see this in comment’s like Trump describing African Americans and Latinos as “living in hell, because it’s so dangerous. You walk down the street, you get shot,” and in the dystopic picture he paints of the American economy. For Trump this is a country in the midst of a war on the police where the middle class economy has collapsed just in the last eight years. These are the fantasies that have driven his campaign from its inception.
The reaction to Clinton’s comments is a reflection that in 21st Century America it is considered worse by many to call somebody a racist than to actually be one. This is largely in part to many overly-sensitive European-Americans who chafe at any suggestion that racism is still a problem in the US. However if we do not view Mr. Trump, a man who has referred to Mexicans as rapists, promised widespread religious discriminations against Muslims, advocated violence against African American demonstrators and supported anti-Semitic themes that are older than our country, as a racist, and if we give a pass to his supporters because they are upset about Hillary Clinton’s emails or the economy, than the word has no meaning at all. In other words, if Donald Trump is not a racist, what would somebody have to do to be considered a racist? And, what is the line that cannot be crossed before people who do not abandon that candidate are not themselves racist? For many Americans, it is already clear that Trump has crossed all those lines.
The incoherence of Trump’s ideas, and his struggles to present them in a reasonably clear and informed way, also preclude what should be a meaningful discussion between the candidates. It would be valuable for the American people to hear the central arguments of the foreign policy establishment, of which there is no better representative than the Democratic nominee, challenged. However, between Trump’s inability or refusal to do anything more than speak in seemingly random superlatives, insults and promises about foreign policy, and Matt Lauer’s obsession with a political scandal about which every American has already made up their mind, we missed this opportunity yet again.
Perversely, for many months now, the conversation about race has included an examination of the question of whether or not Donald Trump is racist. It is appalling that after months of his words and Tweets, listening to his core campaign messages and observing his efforts to cozy up to, or at the least failure to distance himself from, white supremacists, we are still debating this. It is possible, even now to turn on the television and hear a group of pundits earnestly discussing whether or not Trump is racist. This is a bit like having an earnest discussion about whether or not the sun is hot.
The desire to portray Donald Trump’s campaign as more of an outlier than it actually is partially grows out of a legitimate bewilderment on the part of the media and others both at Trump’s behavior and at how well he has been doing in this election. However, it is also misleading and understates not the degree of racial polarization in this election, but the degree of racial polarization that has characterized American political life, and partisan politics, for decades now. Trump is a racist who has placed intolerance and bigotry at the center of his campaign in a way that is unique in modern times, but he would not have been able to succeed in this endeavor if the Republican Party had been a more pluralist and diverse institution for the last few decades. Moreover, the similarities between this and previous elections, while perhaps not consistent with more interesting election year narratives, demonstrate the enduring strength of our two party system and how difficult it is, even for a candidate like Trump, to disrupt it.
The problem with Clinton’s approach is that it overlooks the reality that many voters, particularly those on the left wing of the Democratic Party, but also some Republicans and others as well, are not happy with the conduct of American foreign policy in recent years, or indeed decades. Bernie Sanders was unable to fully exploit this the primary because he was woefully unprepared to discuss most issues of foreign policy. Nonetheless, the Clinton campaign should be aware that many Democrats support her in spite of, not because of, her record as Secretary of State.
It was very difficult to watch that convention and conclude that in the likely event of a Clinton victory in November, the people in that arena and the millions of Americans they represent, will accept defeat easily. Americans have always been proud of our ability to accept political defeat and move to fight another day. There is, however, real reason to think that will not happen this time if Clinton wins. The people in that room do not see the coming election as a hard fought campaign between two loyal Americans, but as a battle between a crooked, dishonest, criminal who should not be allowed to live freely, let alone serve as President of the United States, and a heroic figure who is the only person able to save the country. This is a dynamic that threatens the very core of our democracy.